The wave of protests that started with the May 25 police killing of George Floyd continued apace over the weekend, nearly a month after footage of his death went public. The furor that prompted some dissidents to riot during the early days of unrest has mostly settled. The rioting of police officers inflamed by ongoing challenges to their authority has not.
The latest examples are law-enforcement agencies in Compton, California; Columbus, Ohio; and Richmond, Virginia. A march on Sunday responding to the killing of Andres Guardado — an 18-year-old who was shot several times on Thursday while fleeing Los Angeles County sheriff deputies — saw dozens of protesters trek nearly four miles from Gardena, where Guardado died, to a sheriff’s station in Compton; they were ordered to disperse, and as they did, officers unleashed tear gas and fired rubber bullets into the retreating crowd. “They just wouldn’t stop shooting,” one protester told CNN. In Columbus, a group of protesters blocked a downtown intersection on Sunday; police deployed pepper spray and swung their bicycles at dissidents, ramming people toward the sidewalks in an effort to clear the road. And on Sunday night, police in Richmond broke up an effort to pull down a statue of Confederate general J.E.B. Stuart; officers declared an unlawful assembly shortly after 9 p.m. and sprayed the crowd with chemical irritants, a culmination of weeks of crackdowns in which local police have used tear gas and rubber bullets overwhelmingly to punish peaceful dissent.
The recent conduct of American law enforcement when dealing with protests has been characterized by a broad refusal to distinguish between nonviolent dissidents — who comprise the vast majority of people taking to the streets — and the scattered rioters against whom officers claim to be protecting themselves and others. They’ve undermined their own rationale by beating, clubbing, and using chemical agents, rubber bullets, and sometimes police vehicles to target not just peaceful demonstrators, but those actively trying to heed dispersal orders; in cities from Atlanta to New York, police have made a habit of creating chaos where orderly dissent existed before, hemming in crowds from all directions so people couldn’t escape and using the resulting crush as a pretense to assault and arrest them. Video footage of police shoving elderly people to the ground, beating unarmed demonstrators with nightsticks, and smashing car windows to use Tasers against random college students has lost much of its shock value. Brutal arrests, justified by citing their targets’ alleged violations of curfew orders, seem to correlate only sporadically with whether curfew orders are actually being violated. In many cases, police unions and their rank and file have responded to criticism by doubling down in support of offending behavior; suspensions, firings, arrests, and criminal charges filed against officers have been met with solidarity walkouts by entire policing shifts and supportive applause for comrades under fire.
As my colleague Ed Kilgore recently noted, the term “police riot” gained popular purchase after the 1968 Democratic National Convention in Chicago, when a commission formed by President Lyndon B. Johnson to investigate the event’s unrest used it to describe how police dealt with protesters. “Wild club swinging,” “cries of hatred,” “gratuitous beating” that far exceeded the “requisite force for crowd dispersal and arrest” — all pointed, in the view of report author Daniel Walker, to a pattern of unchecked misrule, a “riot” in its own right. Jamelle Bouie, in the New York Times opinion section, applied the term to how police across the country have responded to the latest protests, citing officers’ widespread use of “indiscriminate violence.” This behavior has not abated, even as its geographic concentration shifts. Where public backlash might reasonably be expected to encourage introspection among law-enforcement officials, it has frequently provoked violence and indignant revanchism instead.
The persistence of this behavior dovetails neatly with recent analyses that undermine two key claims made by police and their defenders. The Associated Press reported on Sunday that since late May, 20 individuals, aged 16 to 59, have sustained eye damage or been blinded by rubber bullets or other police projectiles not intended to kill. This adds an important caveat to such weapons being characterized as “less than lethal”; that they’re not designed expressly to kill anyone is, surely, not very consoling for the journalist who can’t see anymore because Minneapolis police shot her in the face with foam bullets. A recent University of Chicago study, meanwhile, has found American police to be in violation of basic international human rights’ standards, despite routine insistence among officials that their current severity is needed. The 193 member states of the United Nations, including the U.S., have agreed to a range of principles governing when lethal force is justified, aimed at fulfilling four criteria: “legality, necessity, proportionality, and accountability.” Not a single U.S. state complies, according to the report, further delegitimizing conceptions of the police as guardians of safety.
These findings are all the more stark for emerging at a time when the excesses of American law enforcement are on abundant display — and as policing institutions, by and large, continue to insist that nothing is wrong with them, but rather that the problem is the people they’re tasked with protecting, who can only be kept “safe” by using wanton brutality and murder with impunity. Violence over the past weekend in Compton, Columbus, and Richmond, attests to the durability of this outlook. The defining features of the police response to protests asking them to do their jobs differently have been an imperviousness to criticism and insistence that their officers are under siege by an ungrateful public. The result has been — and will likely continue to be — repetition of the same methods for at least as long as protesters are in the streets. And the police will keep providing reasons to protest; Andres Guardado and Rayshard Brooks were both killed while demonstrators were still mourning George Floyd. But the enduring lesson from earlier civilian riots is that no one actually has to riot for the police to respond in kind. When you’re tasked with public safety but rarely asked to prove that you’re preserving it, there are few limits to what you can get away with in its name.