By Charlie Plowman
It’s been a dark and emotionally draining week. It has been much longer than a week for people of color; a few centuries, perhaps.
It goes without saying that this is a brutal time for our nation. How often are we under two emergency orders simultaneously?
Last week’s death of George Floyd was horrifying. We’ve all seen the video multiple times: Minneapolis police officer Derek Chauvin’s knee on Floyd’s neck for nearly nine minutes. As a TV reporter astutely pointed out, the video appears to show the officer shifting his weight after a few minutes to seemingly apply even more pressure while already in a dominating position. And as we saw, in the final three minutes the 46-year-old Floyd lay motionless.
Pastor Albert Tate from Fellowship Church used the terms “execution” and “evil” in describing the death during the streaming of his Sunday sermon. It was the first time that I’d heard those two words mentioned in this context.
And Tate is not alone in looking for words that fit the enormity and gravity of what we saw. People from all walks of life, regardless of their skin color, are outraged by the senseless death of George Floyd.
Many of the protests that I watched on television featured ethnic diversity. In fact, the news showed a protest march in Santa Ana on Sunday that seemed to be mostly Latino. This is obviously not simply a black issue; this is a human rights issue.
We often hear explanations when these deaths occur during a conflict with law enforcement: for example, perhaps the officer needed to make a split-second decision, or the subject might have been resisting arrest. Were either of those conjectures the case here? It certainly doesn’t appear so.
I particularly liked hearing what Adam Silver, commissioner of the National Basketball Association, had to say in a balanced statement. “Racism, police brutality and racial injustice remain part of everyday life in America and cannot be ignored. At the same time, those who serve and protect our communities honorably and heroically are again left to answer for those who don’t.”
Yes, people are outraged. And that outrage was expressed in different ways by different people. Tears, peaceful protests, anger, solidarity, social media posts, loud calls for justice, frustration or silence.
The hundreds of protests throughout our country — and the world — are the genuine and rightful outcome of years of injustice and unheard pleas. And after hundreds of years, more people seem to be listening and empathizing with the pain being expressed by people of color.
But, as we saw, an ugly element emerged. A group of “opportunists” (or perhaps you have another term for these vandals) resorted to violence and looting, attacking innocent people and aggravating the already weak state of businesses on the verge of closing their doors permanently due to the coronavirus shutdown. These vandals began their Southland looting spree in the late afternoon on Saturday in the Fairfax District, with one of the first targets being the Grove. Then, on Sunday, it was the Long Beach and Santa Monica business communities that got pummeled. And it wasn’t just “black and brown” doing the damage; there were white people involved, as well. As we all saw, these looters often took everything in sight at the locations they raided, ranging from supermarkets and drugstores to high-end boutiques to mom-and-pop stores, probably already suffering devastating losses amid the COVID-19 pandemic.
The good news is that many of the protesters were peaceful. As the Long Beach police chief said, thousands of people in his city demonstrated peacefully. While 80% were apparently behaving, he estimated that approximately 20% — “the troublemakers” — were doing the vandalism and looting and were from outside the county, according to KCBS-TV (Channel 2). A number of the people who were arrested had arrived via Uber or rental cars, it was reported.
Keep in mind there is a big difference between the two groups: protesters most often do their work peacefully in order to emphasize their message; meanwhile, looters are criminally destructive.
Steve Lopez, an award-winning columnist for the Los Angeles Times, succinctly pointed out some of society’s problems. “Schools are not equal. Health care is not equal. Criminal justice is not equal. And black Americans just keep dying at the hands of police,” he wrote in Sunday’s Times. The “darker your skin, the bleaker the outlook.”
You may have also noticed one other thing on television: the name of former San Francisco quarterback Colin Kaepernick was back in the news. Do you remember when he took a knee in 2016 during the national anthem? He was both ridiculed and praised, largely along political party lines. Which camp were you in? “How could he disrespect the flag and our nation?” or “Good for him to protest against police brutality and racism in a peaceful manner”?
Many felt it cost Kaepernick his NFL career. There’s no way a franchise could risk having such a divisive figure in the locker room, they reasoned.
Ryan Michaels, a photographer and onetime critic of the 49ers Super Bowl QB, posted on Facebook: “I owe you an apology Kaep. Four years ago, you made a statement and I didn’t agree with your platform. Many of my family members, and people I love, defended and died for the flag for which you knelt before. I was offended and openly critical of your protest. I failed to lovingly come by your side and hear your heart. I looked at how you were protesting, instead of why. As a result, your cry for help fell upon deaf ears. Perhaps if I listened four years ago, things would be different today … You chose to peacefully kneel and I condemned you. For that, I am sorry.”
In the big picture, George Floyd lost his life for allegedly passing a counterfeit $20 bill. Are you kidding me? Just think about that for a moment. Let it resonate. How awful.
Awful, but not new. History tends to repeat itself. In the Southland, there is a trend that about every quarter-century the pain from oppression boils over. It was a 27-year period from the 1965 Watts riots to the 1992 riots following the Rodney King verdict. We had 28 years from the Rodney King fallout to where we have been this past week with George Floyd’s senseless death. I’m just hoping that 29 years from now, instead of enduring the next horrific civic meltdown, we can look back and celebrate the changes that will come from reforms set by recent events.
“It’s a complex problem,” said Bernard Kinsey, who co-chaired Rebuild L.A., an organization formed after the 1992 riots. “Black folks know that we haven’t been treated fairly for hundreds of years; white people know this problem is long-standing.
“It is really tragic to look at the TV; it just hurts your heart. [And] the looting … is just wrong. It’s malicious. It’s disheartening.
“I’m hopeful that we’ll be able to use this as a catalyst for a new dialogue. White citizenship is more valuable than black citizenship, and everybody knows that. You know what white privilege is and you know how you benefit. White people have to assume more responsibility. And how are we going to change this? You need constructive dialogue and a political agenda and qualified immunity for police overturned by the Supreme Court.”
Kinsey, who owns a top collection of art that speaks to the African-American story of achievement, said he has already seen positives come from the events of the past week. “To see business owners and leaders take the attitude of forgiveness; that’s an extraordinary act of compassion,” he said. “And there is more diversity in these protests than I’ve seen in a long, long time. There are people demonstrating in Palos Verdes; I’ve never seen that before!”
So where do we go from here?
I am praying — literally — that we can make huge strides as a nation on racial equality because of what happened. Such a hopeful seismic shift is long overdue.
“We will go toe-to-toe with injustice,” Fellowship Church’s Tate said. “That fight is gonna go down. We’re going to go after this in the name of Jesus. The stakes are too high. Anger is good. We need to come together.”
In the words of Martin Luther King Jr., “Injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere.”
And in the words of Rodney King, “Can’t we all get along?”