Readers old enough or well-versed in space flight history will recognize my playing off the famous statement from Apollo 13 Commander James Lovell, shortly after an explosion aboard the spacecraft enroute to the moon: “Houston, we’ve had a problem.” So calm you might have thought he was just reporting routine fuel burn information.
I had the honor of working briefly with Commander Lovell, then retired, in the immediate aftermath of the 9/11 attacks. He was exceptionally gracious and willing to do whatever was asked. Our communications team at what was then the American Society of Travel Agents had the idea to have an astronaut film a public service announcement emphasizing that it was safe to fly again. We filmed it at O’Hare Airport, showing Lovell picking up a boarding pass, confidently going through the new security system. The PSA was seen by more than 200 million people.
I often think of those days in which our country was united in support of intelligently and safely getting the country moving again in the wake of the attacks that shut down air travel.
After the events of the past five or six, or is it 100 or the 56,575 days since the Civil War ended, I also often think of the ending of Shakespeare’s Romeo & Juliet in which the Prince addresses the warring Capulet and Montague families:
See what a scourge is laid upon your hate,
That heaven finds means to kill your joys with love.
And I for winking at your discords too
Have lost a brace of kinsmen. All are punish’d.
The Prince’s fine words are ultimately not enough to quell the irrational conflict between the families as they vie for who will create the better remembrance of the dead children. Thus, the Prince ends the play with,
A glooming peace this morning with it brings,
The sun, for sorrow, will not show his head.
Go hence to have more talk of these sad things;
Some shall be pardon’d, and some punished:
For never was a story of more woe
Than this of Juliet and her Romeo.
As I wrote recently, we seem to have learned nothing. Hate breeds hate. Violence breeds violence. Hate and violence reside in the ignorance of those who only see the “other” as less than human. It has been ever thus. Our beloved Constitution counted slaves as only 3/5 of a free person for purposes of congressional apportionment, thereby increasing the representation in Congress of states that legalized ownership of one person by another. The “North” won the Civil War but lost the peace. After “Reconstruction,” we reverted to Jim Crow and then segregation and it wasn’t just in the South that racism drove our politics.
That is part of the ugly truth of the history of the United States. Having spent my formative years in Memphis, Tennessee, often jokingly referred to as “really part of Mississippi,” I grew up all too familiar with the way racism robbed people of their dignity, their ability to earn a decent living and an equal education and, often of their lives without meaningful recourse.
Now in 21st century not much seems to have changed. Aside from income inequality, educational deprivation, and all the rest, we have again and again seen outrageous acts of white people against black people that go unaddressed. And those acts are often by police who have been given what the law calls “color of authority” to bear arms and enforce the law on the streets. They are given the benefit of the doubt in most close cases.
We all understand that their job is difficult and dangerous. There are many bad actors in our society, as in all societies, and we depend on the police to protect everyone else. The theory is that with good police protection, the citizenry does not have to arm itself and prepare to “take the law into its own hands” when it believes the police power needs to be invoked. That’s the theory.
Most police, I continue to believe, are honest, hard-working people trying to do the right thing. Their job does involve danger. That is why, among other things, they are provided training, advanced weapons and communications tools. I participated in one-day “school” in Alexandria, VA a few years ago, providing exposure to some of the tools and training that the police there were given. It was impressive. It also was discordant with some things I had personally witnessed on the streets of Old Town Alexandria in which police officers behaved in an unhinged way toward citizens who had engaged in minor violations of traffic laws. The line is a fine one.
It is also true that there are many police who cannot conform to norms of conduct. I have read stories of medical personnel saying they have treated many injured police officers and were stunned to see how many “white power” and similar tattoos they had.
So, finally, to the main issue for today. Multiple American cities are in turmoil. Protests have turned violent and the violence has been met with more violence, by the local police backed by state police and National Guard forces in full combat gear with military grade vehicles and weapons. To be sure, the LEOs are usually outnumbered but the protesters are unarmed at least usually. There are exceptions, of course, but the evidence so far is that the protesters’ main weapons are water bottles and traffic cones. And their bodies. Multiple videos have surfaced of police crashing cars into crowds of protesters, pepper spraying passively protesting individuals, physically attacking unarmed women and on and on.
Meanwhile, of course, the inevitable has happened. We are told, and there is no reason to doubt, that much of the violence (burning of buildings, destruction of storefronts, looting) has been caused by people from out-of-state to the city in which they were arrested. I expect that the affected cities will “throw the book” at these provocateurs; surely by now there is a state law everywhere for crossing a state line to perform terrorist acts or something similar.
I say this is inevitable because it simply is. Society, sadly, includes many people who are unwilling or unable to comply with law. It also includes people who, for reasons of ideology, will try to coopt a protest to make the protesters look bad. The right-wing media and the politicians to whom they cater will then try to shift the narrative to “it’s not a legitimate peaceful protest because, look, it’s looters and arsonists, etc etc.” This is a familiar refrain that is often, wittingly or otherwise, legitimized by the mainstream media. It doesn’t take long on the main channels to realize that the violence is getting most of the attention. It always does. And that’s part of why it happens.
The obsession with the violence obscures critically important issues that arise every time we are in this situation.
The major police presence at the scene of protests does not just happen. The police has a command structure. Orders are given. In light of the scenes of police behaving in inexplicably violent and seemingly random ways, it’s more than fair to ask, indeed, it’s essential to know:
What role do the police have? Stop the protest? Arrest as many protesters as possible? Just wait and crack down after the curfew? Why are they on the street?
Without focus, they seem intent on attacking demonstrators. Their role of protecting property seems minor or irrelevant to their reason for being there.
What instructions were the police given?
The videos I have seen tend to show large numbers of police either blocking protesters’ path or trying to push protest groups into particular spaces. If they are resisted, they react explosively. The videos show police using batons in repeated blows to protesters on the ground and multiple instances of pepper spray being used against unsuspecting, fully complying individuals.
Where are the police on-site leaders during these events?
There appears to be little or no leadership. If it’s present, the leadership seems to condone if not actually order these attacks.
One situation that brings the above question sharply into focus is a video of a roughly few dozen police marching down a residential street in Minneapolis, screaming at residents to “get inside.” The person who was apparently on her front porch filming this and expressing surprise at the force appearing on her street is suddenly fired out with either paint balls or rubber bullets. They flee inside. Fortunately, no one was hit in the face or worse.
In another video that has attracted the attention of the Mayor of New York City and the Governor of New York State, a police car drives up to a metal rack, similar to a bike rack, being held by a large group of protestors in the middle of the street. The car stops. Water bottles and a bag are thrown at the car. Another police car appears and passes the stopped car on its right and plows ahead into the protesters. The first car then moves rapidly against the metal rack, driving it and the protesters holding it sharply backwards. Many people go down. It appears, miraculously, that no one was killed. But they easily could have been.
I understand that the police in those cars may have felt threatened. But they could have backed up. If they had a critical reason to advance at that particular moment, despite the risk to the protesters, it will presumably be disclosed in the forthcoming investigation ordered by the Governor to be conducted independently by the state attorney general.
It is difficult to understand how these seemingly random acts of police violence contribute to anything positive.
Why were the police sent into these situations? Do they not employ spotters and have advanced communications to produce high-grade situational awareness?
The police in the Minneapolis residential video can be heard issuing the order “light ‘em up” just before the shooting starts.
Is that what the police are for? To “light ‘em up?” Rough them up so they’ll want to go home?
There is, of course, another way. There is a video from Flint, Michigan, one of the most troubled communities in recent history, in which the sheriff tells the protesters, “we’re with you. We’ve put down our batons. Let’s make this a parade…. My officers love you…. Where do you want to go?…. we’ll march all night. Tell us what you want.” The result: protesters want their selfies with the sheriff and peace prevails.
Another image shows police on one knee in solidarity with protestors, while yet another shows Kansas City police holding signs that say, “End Police Brutality.”
I want to make three other points. First, Governor Cuomo, whose work on the pandemic has been, in my judgment, exceptional, passionately addressed the protests in his briefing today. He, of course, decried the violence. Fine. He also offered several specific proposals to change the way things work. He mentioned having independent review of complaints about police conduct, saying “self-policing just doesn’t work.” He argued for a uniform state law across the country on what constitutes “excessive force.” Both are good ideas.
But they do not go to or anywhere near the root problem, which is the persistence of racism throughout the United States. We won’t eliminate racism everywhere overnight, especially given the history that has brought us to this sad day. But, is it not time to address racism in the police departments around the country? Surely, it is not acceptable to have police be members of white supremacy organizations. Surely, there are ways to detect suppressed racism and subliminal bias and racist attitudes through testing and investigation. What is missing is the will to do it. There is simply no excuse to have racist cops on the force. On any police force. Yet, judging from the events of the past five days, likely to be repeated tonight, there is a staggering amount of racism rampant among our law enforcement services.
Next, I have been disappointed, stunned really, to see that the past five days of protests have seen few if any political or religious leaders on the streets with the protesters. This is not how it was during the Vietnam protests. We often had major political figures with us and “handlers” who understand how to keep the crowd’s “temperature” down when “outside agitators” tried to provoke violence. And it wasn’t that way during the major civil rights protests and the Women’s March.
Finally, I truly understand how horrified many people are about the looting, burning and rioting of some of the protesters. Related to the other points I’ve made, however, is the proposition that if you don’t given people anything to hold on to, they will just choose something at random. This usually has bad outcomes, as it did this week. We might have expected that the president of the country would step into that void but was kept busy throwing red meat to his political base with tweets promising “vicious dogs” and “ominous weapons” would be used against protesters if they breached the security perimeter of the White House. Then, the president took the day off. Nothing more need to be said about this total failure of leadership except that it, yet again, shows how unfit Donald Trump is to lead the country.