police brutality

This Will Not Be Contained

Two weeks in George Floyd’s America.

Then Is Now, by Hank Willis Thomas. Art: Hank Willis Thomas
Then Is Now, by Hank Willis Thomas. Art: Hank Willis Thomas
Then Is Now, by Hank Willis Thomas. Art: Hank Willis Thomas

Over the past week, protests and riots in response to the police killing of George Floyd in Minneapolis have been met with increasingly menacing calls to restore order. But chaos isn’t going anywhere soon. Order, in this context, just means forcing chaos back where it belongs. There are positive signs for the near future, especially if one understands the dissent as aimed primarily at reducing police violence. Public sentiment is on the side of the dissidents; a recent Monmouth poll found that more than half of Americans thought the torching of the Minneapolis police’s Third Precinct station on May 28 was at least partly justified. Repudiations of Floyd’s manner of death, under the knee of now former officer Derek Chauvin, have been mostly bipartisan. Minneapolis schools have kicked out the police department, and the city council has announced it may rebuild the force from the ground up.

Yet when President Trump came out of hiding on June 1 to demand in a conference call that America’s governors “dominate” the dissidents, and threatened to deploy the military to their cities if they couldn’t, he could also claim to be speaking for most of the country: In one poll, nearly 60 percent of Americans said they supported dispatching soldiers to help local police quell the unrest.

This may seem like a contradiction. To support the protests but endorse their policing by light infantry looks like ideals at odds and could suggest anything from a polling quirk to a refusal to contemplate the contradictions of one’s political impulses. But the split is plausible through a particularly American understanding of order: Disruptive tension is put down by violence without being properly resolved, even when its causes are deemed worthy in principle. What qualifies as “disruptive”? That differs by person and era, but the word rioting is a constant across generations. This fits its social function. A riot is not a tactic to gain widespread sympathy but an expression of how inadequate other efforts have been. The same standard is routinely applied to more peaceful protests, though, and is used to make appeals for order, which then becomes the prerequisite for resolving dissenters’ grievances. First order, then reform — as though the structure of order weren’t the very thing that protesters demand reforming.

One result is that the social problems civil-rights activists sought to rectify more than 50 years ago are still urgent ones. To some, the events of the past week have echoed the struggles of the past. To others, it looks like the beginning of the future.

But history suggests that, more often than not, grievances like these are addressed piecemeal, if at all, because the choice as originally presented was a lie: Order was never required as a building block for good-faith negotiations; it was a pretense for rerouting chaos back into the lives and communities of the dissenters, where it could be contained. And just as this dynamic has endured into the Black Lives Matter era and beyond, so too has its enforcement tactics. Sending combat troops into American cities to contain protests would mean another dramatic escalation of the violence that is already being used widely by police and that, in the past week, has expanded to include targeted beatings of unarmed protesters, their detainment on specious grounds, the use of chemical weapons, and even the killing of dissidents. To understand how much more toxic this dynamic can get, we need only be patient.

In the meantime, nonviolent BLM protesters demanding an end to racist policing are in the streets alongside black-bloc vandals, even as the less ideologically aligned set fires in anger and pillage stores out of desperation for goods long denied or, in other cases, in an opportunistic loot-grab sanctioned by the lawlessness of the law’s enforcers. What unifies these and other factions is the force that antagonizes them: a governing order that demands their submission while reveling in their destruction. The black people and young people who compose the lion’s share face not only police violence with regularity, in the case of the former, but among the most dire generational economic prospects in modern U.S. history, all in the midst of a world-stopping pandemic. These are rendered starker by the ballooning assets of the country’s billionaires — a 15 percent overall wealth increase since March, even as millions of Americans have lost work. The near future stands to see a compounding of the resultant phenomena. Food lines, coronavirus-safety measures, the simmering desperation of the unemployed, all are poised to become the purview of armed agents of the state in some form, if they aren’t already.

This will seem outwardly as if order is being kept. But people who are harassed, detained, arrested, beaten, and killed by law enforcement and the military do not hurt in a vacuum; these encounters reverberate outward in the form of work lost owing to jail time spent, fines and fees levied by the state as restitution for disobedience, psychological damage, medical bills accrued, families destroyed because of lives lost. For many Americans, this will be viewed as acceptable because it targets groups they think deserve it.

Even so, these protests may well produce more just and less violent law enforcement, at least in some places. But the degree will depend on Americans controlling their impulses — meaning less the demonstrators than those who support parachuting a military occupation into cities to crack down on protesters at the behest of the most erratic, unhinged president in recent memory. They’ve had an inauspicious start. While polling suggests some people do support reform, it also suggests reform with preconditions, namely, recontaining through violence the chaos of human lives that are already under siege. We’ve seen where that kind of escalating state brutality gets us. The challenge today is to try something whose failure isn’t already assured.

Minneapolis, May 27: In front of the Third Precinct police station, which was burnt down the next day. Photo: Zachary LeClaire
Louisville, May 28. Photo: Jonathan Cherry
Minneapolis, May 28: Protesters on the ruins of the Third Precinct building. Photo: David Guttenfelder / Nat Geo Image Collection
Minneapolis, May 29. Photo: David Guttenfelder / Nat Geo Image Collection
Atlanta, May 29. Photo: Ben Hendren
Brooklyn, May 29: Aiding a protester who was pepper-sprayed by the police. Photo: Maiya Imani Wright
Minneapolis, May 29. Photo: Michael Spear
Minneapolis, May 29: A protester receiving first aid after being struck near the eye by a rubber bullet fired by police. Photo: David Guttenfelder / Nat Geo Image Collection
New York, May 29. Photo: Chris Facey
Brooklyn, May 29. Photo: Alex Golshani
Washington, D.C., May 29. Photo: Stephen Voss / Redux
Richmond, May 29. Photo: Grade Soloman
Oakland, May 29. Photo: Brandon Ruffin
Washington, D.C., May 30. Photo: Alex Wong/Getty Images
Brooklyn, May 30. Photo: Jordan Gale
Brooklyn, May 30: A police officer shoots pepper spray into a crowd of protesters. Photo: Jordan Gale
Los Angeles, May 30. Photo: Michael Christopher Brown
Brooklyn, May 31. Photo: JD Barnes/ESSENCE
Brooklyn, May 31: Protesters gather outside a police precinct house. Photo: Jordan Gale
Brooklyn, May 31. Photo: JD Barnes/ESSENCE
Santa Monica, May 31. Photo: Michael Christopher Brown
Minneapolis, May 31: Targeted by police after the 8 p.m. curfew. Photo: Joshua Rashaad McFadden
Portland, Oregon, June 2: A die-in on the Burnside Bridge. Photo: Andrew Wallner/@and_rew_and_you
Washington, D.C., June 2: At a protest near the White House. Photo: Stephen Voss / Redux
Los Angeles, June 2. Photo: Michael Christopher Brown
Manhattan, June 2. Photo: Jessica Foley
Brooklyn, June 2. Photo: Jelani Rice
Seattle, June 2. Photo: Noah Lubin
Minneapolis, June 3: A vigil for George Floyd. Photo: Brandon Bell
Los Angeles, June 3: Outside District Attorney Jackie Lacey’s office. Photo: Michael Christopher Brown
Brooklyn, June 4: On the Brooklyn Bridge after a George Floyd memorial. Photo: Chris Facey
Baltimore, June 5: A protest for Tony McDade and black trans lives. Photo: Devin Allen

*A version of this article appears in the June 8, 2020, issue of New York Magazine. Subscribe Now!

This Will Not Be Contained