UPDATE: If they are sustained, the protests can lead toward more repression, or genuine reform, such as Minneapolis pledging to dismantle its police force on Sunday, writes Joe Lauria.
Minneapolis to Abolish its Police Department;
Massive Protests Across Towns and Cities;
Denver Judge Rules Against Gas and Projectiles;
Congress Considers Ending Pentagon Program
By Joe Lauria
Special to Consortium News
Hundreds of thousands of demonstrators poured into American cities and towns on Saturday to protest police violence against African-Americans in the wake of the killing of George Floyd, an unarmed black man, in Minneapolis, Minnesota nearly two weeks ago, where on Sunday the city council pledged to take apart the city’s police department and replace it with a public safety system.
Saturday’s organized demonstrations came after eleven days and nights of spontaneous protests in cities across the nation in which citizens squared off in violent confrontations with heavily armed police.
In Washington, tens of thousands of protestors gathered at different locations including the Lincoln Memorial, Freedom Plaza and Capitol Hill and at the park across from the White House, the scene of the most contentious events over the past week.
President Donald Trump is still reeling from serious criticism, from within his own party and administration, for his reaction to the protests. While decrying the death of Floyd, Trump reacted harshly to largely peaceful protests that also included some incidents of arson and looting.
He called governors of the 50 states “jerks” if they did not call out the state National Guards to “dominate” the streets and threatened to send in federal troops if they did not act. His defense secretary, Mark Esper, call those streets “battle spaces.”
But after Trump on Monday had military and local police use pepper pellets, rubber bullets and batons to clear peaceful protestors from near the White House to open a path so that he could walk across the street to pose in front of a church damaged by arsonists with a Bible, much of the establishment has turned against him.
Even Esper publicly opposed the president after that, saying he was against sending federal troops into states to quell the protests. The former defense secretary, Gen. James Mattis, said Trump was not even attempting to pretend to unite the country.
Muriel Bowser, the mayor of Washington, has marched with the protestors and was able to get the military out of the city. But before she did, military helicopters during the week had flown low above protestors to scatter them, a tactic used in Iraq and Afghanistan. And there are still thousands of armed federal agents, some not wearing identifying markers, surrounding the White House.
In New York on Saturday, thousands of protestors gathered in parts of Brooklyn and Manhattan, ultimately meeting at 34th Street. New York, as have dozens of other U.S. cities, has been under a nighttime curfew, especially after a spree of looting of high-end shops on Monday. The mayor, Bill di Blasio, has been under fire for defending police, who’ve been caught numerous times inflicting violence against peaceful protestors.
In Seattle, health care workers battling the pandemic joined in the demonstrations, chanting “Black Health Matters” and “Racism Is a Public Health Emergency.”
In San Francisco, hundreds of protestors briefly blocked traffic on the Golden Gate Bridge. There are more than 20 demonstrations planned this weekend in the Bay Area.
In Philadelphia, thousands poured into a park near the Art Museum where some demanded a 10 percent cut to the city’s police budget. Defunding police departments has been a common demand across the country.
Hundreds of instances of police violence against protestors captured on mobile phones since Floyd’s death on May 25, has led to a shift in the public mood and in the responses of authorities.
The vehemence and endurance of angry demonstrators appear to have taken government by surprise until Saturday’s organized marches. Police forces and municipal governments have begun instituting numerous reforms in direct response to the demands of the protestors.
For instance chokeholds and other tactics that have led to deaths of arrested persons are being banned in numerous police departments. The governor of California has called for a ban on “carotid holds,” the maneuver that led to Floyd’s death. A judge in Denver ruled that police could not use chemical agents or projectiles against protestors.
And in Minneapolis on Sunday, where Floyd was killed and the protests began, the city council pledged by a veto-proof majority to abolish its police department and replace it with a public safety system. “It shouldn’t have taken so much death to get us here,” Kandace Montgomery, the director of the activist organization Black Vision, told a crowd gathered at a rally. “We’re safer without armed, unaccountable patrols supported by the state hunting black people.”
The federal government has also responded. There is a bi-partisan push in Congress to end a program begun in 1990 in which the Pentagon makes excess military equipment available to police departments around the country, turning many into small, militarized forces, greatly increasing tensions in times of social unrest. This would not likely have happened before these protests. Even the U.S. Marines banned the Confederate flag, more than 150 years after the Civil War.
The outburst of widespread, and so far, sustained public vehemence has proven that even public officials can be moved. Government has long held it in its power to make reforms to policing, but refused to act.
The public anger is no doubt also fueled by decades of austerity and neoliberal economic policy designed to transfer wealth from the majority to a shrinking elite.
Towards the end of his life, Martin Luther King Jr. expanded his peaceful protests from civil rights, to economic repression facing black and white workers, and ultimately to a crusade against American militarism. Some say that broadening beyond racial issues to matters touching at the heart of rulers’ dominance cost him his life.
Sustained protests that make economic demands, spreading to protests against America’s aggressive foreign policy might bring similar ruling class reaction, stunned by the anger of their population, which could go in two directions.
There can be either an increase of force against an aroused people, or serious social and economic reforms.
Watch the discussion of the nature and future of the protests on CN Live!:
Joe Lauria is editor-in-chief of Consortium News and a former correspondent for The Wall Street Journal, Boston Globe, Sunday Times of London and numerous other newspapers. He began his professional career as a stringer for The New York Times. He can be reached at [email protected] and followed on Twitter @unjoe .