The U.S., Born Out of Protest
Protests have played a significant role throughout U.S. history. Indeed, the United States was born out of protest. What we now call the Revolutionary War was, in fact, a protest by American colonists opposed to the policies of the Kingdom of Great Britain.
The seeds for this war were sown at the conclusion of the French and Indian War, fought for control of land in North America. The War ended in 1763 with Britain’s victory over France. In the years that followed, Britain attempted to exert greater control over the colonies and make them repay the costs of the nine-year war and defense of its newly expanded empire. To do so, Britain imposed unpopular laws and taxes, which led to increased colonial opposition and the cry of “no taxation without representation.” Tensions increased and in 1770 a riot—a protest, if you will—ensued with colonialists throwing sticks and rocks at British soldiers. The soldiers fired into the crowd, and five colonists were killed.
The Boston Tea Party
Colonial defiance of the British continued to escalate and led to an act of outright rebellion against the Tea Act of 1773. American patriots disguised as Mohawk Indians boarded three ships in Boston Harbor, opened the hatches, took out, cut and split 342 chests of tea and threw them overboard. While the Boston Tea Party, as it was known, did not provoke widespread uprising, when Britain imposed a series of punitive laws in 1774, it was too much. The Revolutionary War began in 1775.
Before the war began, Thomas Jefferson wrote A Summary View of the Rights of British America, in which he laid out grievances of Americans toward King George and the Kingdom of Great Britain, including justifications for the Boston Tea Party and Americans’ inherent right of protest.
“There are extraordinary situations which require extraordinary interposition. An exasperated people, who feel that they possess power, are not easily restrained within limits strictly regular. A number of them assembled in the town of Boston, threw the tea into the ocean and dispersed without doing any other act of violence.”
The Constitution and the First Amendment
The right to protest was deemed of such importance by the Founders of the United States, it was memorialized in the First Amendment to the U.S. Constitution, the first of ten Amendments known as the Bill of Rights.
Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof; or abridging the freedom of speech, or of the press; or the right of the people peaceably to assemble, and to petition the Government for a redress of grievances.
U.S. Historical Protest Movements
The Boston Tea Party may have been the first, but throughout our history there have been many protests and protest movements that eventually produced significant responses, including the following:
Women’s Suffrage Parade, 1913: The Nineteenth Amendment in 1920 giving women the right to vote.
Martin Luther King and The March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom, 1963: Passage of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 and the Voting Rights Act of 1965.
The Anti-War Movement, 1967-1972: Public support for the Vietnam War ended, pressuring the U.S. withdrawal.
March on Washington for Lesbian, Gay and Bi Equal Rights and Liberation, 1993: Supreme court rulings legalizing same sex marriage and barring any form of sex discrimination.
Laws change in response to evolving mindsets. But it doesn’t necessarily work in reverse. Changing the legal status of any issue based on current moral standards, or to bring it in accord with the Constitution does not change existing attitudes. The widespread protests triggered by the brutal and callous murder of George Floyd hopefully indicates a significant change in the country’s awareness of the black experience in the United States. And the level of protests in countries around the world suggests it’s an issue with resonance beyond our shores.
Perhaps it was the wide television exposure of a white policeman murdering an already subdued black man as if he were stepping on a bug. In the gut wrenching eight minutes and forty-six seconds it takes to watch, all the years of black leaders illuminating the racial bias shown by police became unavoidably true, and the collusion and complicity of society as a whole was revealed. At this watershed moment, there seems to be a different kind of awakening for many who minimized ubiquitous racism, or were complacent. Black Lives Matter is not only the rallying cry for the black community, but also for a large segment of the white community as well.
The protesters were all races and colors, marching together in unity. The video of George Floyd’s murder showed four policemen emboldened by power, a perception that they were above the laws of the country and humanity, free to act on their heinous impulses without ramifications. In spite of many other recent and unjustifiable racially motivated killings by law enforcement, many policeman—certainly not all—seemed clueless at best, or brazenly arrogant in their approach to peaceful protestors who are fellow Americans exercising their First Amendment rights.
The Buffalo Police Department
One such example was the conduct of a member of the Buffalo Police Department, who forcefully pushed a 75 year-old peaceful protestor to the pavement. As the man lay unconscious and bleeding on the ground, in a scene reminiscent of Nazi Germany, the officers, dressed in combat gear designed for interactions with terrorists, walked past. Yes, one policeman stopped apparently to assist but was urged to move on by another. One is seen calling the incident in to a dispatcher. Before realizing the incident had been filmed, the police said the man had tripped and fallen.
Playing to his base, the uninformed and racist Trump tweeted this “could be a setup” since the man “could be an Antifa provocateur,” a terrorist, and was trying to block police communications with his phone. As usual, Trump was simply adding to his long list of lies and misinformation, inventing propaganda he believes is throwing red meat to his supporters.
Finally, to put an exclamation point on police conduct, 57 members of the Buffalo Police Department’s emergency response team quit the unit “in disgust because of the treatment of two of their members, who were simply executing orders.” Wow! I seem to recall hearing that excuse before—in the Nuremberg trials after World War ll. “I was only following orders.” It wasn’t accepted then and shouldn’t be now. There has to be personal responsibility and accountability in people sworn to protect us, and we all know no one follows orders that are abhorrent to their own conscience. Police brutality is a reality, suffered disproportionately more by people of color.
The Bully-in Chief Demonstrates His Courage
Now we must again turn back to our clueless leader. A few weeks ago, when the crowd of protestors apparently grew too large for comfort, Commander Bone Spurs and family decided to make a sudden inspection of the White House Bunker. After news reports revealed that the real reason for Trump’s nighttime journey was to hunker in the bunker, the bully-in-chief had something to prove.
At the urging of his daughter Ivanka, a fount of knowledge and experience who has excelled only at being the daughter of the president, the Trump team hatched the idea of walking to St. John’s Episcopal Church. The point of the exercise remains a mystery, but all involved thought it would be a great piece of theater culminating in a wonderful photo-op. However, to get there, he’d need to cross Lafayette Square, which presented an obstacle. It was full of peaceful protestors. No problem. Just leave it to that paragon of virtue and Constitutional scholarship, Attorney General William Barr, who knows best how to violate the laws he’s sworn to uphold.
On June 1, 2020, at Barr’s direction, a mixed force including Military Police, U.S. marshals, federal agents, homeland security personnel and federal prison guards fired tear gas, rubber bullets and pepper balls into the peaceful crowd. Then the shield and baton-wielding force, followed by mounted police, moved forward to clear the crowd. Shortly thereafter, Commander Bone Spurs’ took his Mussolini-like walk to the Church, striding together with military personnel and family, to show a Bible to the crowd—upside down.
Response to Trump’s Violation of the First Amendment
Of course, the entire scene was witnessed live and recorded for the world to admire. Once again, a violent, unconstitutional and unprovoked action against peaceful protestors motivated an even larger crowd to gather the following day. To commemorate the event, the Washington, D.C. Mayor ordered the words “Black Lives Matter” painted on the street leading directly to the entrance to the White House, where it could be seen by the President. Perhaps it was no accident that the black letters were painted on a yellow background.
Clearly there is now wider recognition that police brutality is real and directed primarily at people of color. I do not mean to imply that all police are brutal or racist. Nor am I suggesting we should eliminate police departments by withdrawing funding. But I do believe there is an immediate and pressing need to address the role of the police and the rules by which they operate. Some argue against this reassessment, suggesting that the problem relates to only a few bad apples. This is no longer acceptable. It couldn’t be clearer that there is a systemic problem that requires systemic change.
Attempts to Initiate Reforms
Ordinarily we would expect a President of either party to calm the nation and lead the effort to reconcile the demands of the citizenry and the actions of the police. But as usual, Commander Bone Spurs is missing in action. When he stepped to the podium this past week to announce his Executive Order on Police Reform, he repeated one of his common themes that during their eight years in office, President Obama and Vice President Biden never did anything to fix it—in this case police reform. Of course, that is a blatant lie and conveniently omits the fact that the Trump Administration reversed many of the measures Obama had initiated.
While the Obama Task Force on 21st Century Policing introduced certain badly needed reforms, it wasn’t able to address the extent to which racial discrimination overrides the police training and professionalism it tries to instill. Indeed, to demonstrate this point, Garrett Rolfe, the Atlanta police officer who’s been charged with felony murder in the shooting death of a black man earlier this week, has had over 2000 hours of police training since joining the force in 2013. That included a cultural-awareness course in April and another on the use of restraint of deadly force in January of this year. Rolfe’s partner also obviously failed to absorb whatever training he received, when he stood on the dying man’s shoulders while failing to call for medical assistance.
Fundamental Reforms Needed
I readily acknowledge my complete lack of experience in this field of endeavor except as a recipient of the services rendered by 911 for police, fire and ambulance emergency services. Nonetheless, with that disclaimer, I shall move ahead with some thoughts.
It seems to me we expect too much from our police departments. With some exception, when the call is a fire emergency, the dispatcher sends firemen; when it is an accident or medical emergency, the dispatcher sends the ambulance; for every other emergency the dispatcher sends the police. I’m told that the police are also dispatched when there is a fire or medical emergency since they are more likely to be out in the community and closer to the emergency’s location.
So we expect our police to have the sensitivity and knowledge of a social worker when dealing with school children, a homeless person or family dispute and the bravery and skills of a Delta Force or Seal Team Six warrior when confronting a criminal or terrorist. It is time to change our expectations and reorganize public safety to take account of the skills required for each component. In other words we need a new approach, a new organization of Public Safety 911.
The Camden New Jersey Experience
Is this just pie in the sky thinking, or is it a feasible approach? The answer is an unequivocal yes to feasibility. You only need look at the real life experience of Camden, New Jersey, one of the poorest cities in America. Crime was rampant and rising as were millions of dollars in policing debt in the midst of widespread corruption and scandals. The situation cried out for reform. In 2013 New Jersey’s then Governor, Chris Christie, and local officials decided change was required.
They first disbanded the City of Camden Police Department and created a new public-safety department within the County government to police the City. Organization and responsibilities for different elements of public safety were established based on this specific community’s needs and are not necessarily appropriate for other communities. But by 2018 the Camden approach to community policing produced a 40% reduction from 2012 in violent crime and a 45% reduction in nonviolent crime.
There’s agreement that the Police Chief acknowledges feedback from residents and embraces a de-escalation style of policing reflective of real community policing. However, this does not mean that changes made are acceptable to all residents of the City of Camden since they no longer have control over there own policing. And though the City is 95% black, the police force is predominantly white, reflecting the County’s population.
Some also charge that racism prevented the establishment of a substantial tax base to support the City’s services, forcing it to rely heavily on State aid and bend to the State’s will. The lack of a suitable tax base is obvious, but I do not have sufficient information to address whether the loss of manufacturing jobs and exodus of whites from the City was due to racism, globalization and movement of manufacturing to lower cost countries or automation.
Eliminating the Risk of Murdering People of Color
As I’ve said earlier, changes in laws do not change attitudes, and some may not change their feelings on race in the foreseeable future. But until that nirvana arrives, we should, at least, find a way to eliminate the risk to people of color to death by a police officer for infractions of selling cigarettes, cashing a forged check, falling asleep in a drive-thru lane or any other such infractions. Additionally, to emphasize the point that the use of force is not acceptable and that qualified immunity is no longer in play, violators must be held criminally accountable.
Racial discrimination among those responsible for protecting us is no longer deniable. It is time for all Americans to join the effort to address its elimination.
In the words of Abraham Lincoln. “You cannot escape the responsibility of tomorrow by evading it today.”