I was channel surfing local Portland news last night watching the protest and the riot. They were happening at the same time on different streets. The protest left downtown and ended up where it started, Revolution Hall in inner SE. There were still thousands of people listening to the presumed leaders. Finally, I heard one young man with a bullhorn say, “We will be back tomorrow?” As I watched the cheering crowd, I said out loud, “Why?”
I like to ask “why.” It’s the hard question, the one that gets you to philosophy, purpose and outcomes. The brutal murder of George Floyd has presented America our oldest and most important question, “Why has America never fully addressed the deal with the devil it made to shunt aside slavery at its founding?” Intellectually, I understand why the founders punted on that one. It was the only route to unify and separate from the shackles of a monarchy. The men who lead our rebellion made a choice to break one set of shackles while keeping another. I think their’s was a reasonable, if immoral, choice given the times. The nation almost buckled during a civil war fought over slavery. And still, there was George Floyd, and too many others, dying because we have yet to figure out how to address the results of the awful founding compromise.
The vortex that concentrated all the factors that led to the world-wide protests is spinning faster and faster. We had 3 months of kinetic human energy stored by the Covid-19 lock down. There are two new generations raised on a steady diet of social justice narratives. For the first time, we can see injustice 24 hours a day because it can’t hide from ubiquitous cell phone cameras. This means that everyone who pays attention can call out 100 George Floyds. And, for so many people around the world, the grinding injustice of Trump and everyone around him has taken us to the breaking point. I get it. I really do. How long can people scream alone in the dark at the forces of evil? Eventually, the magnetic attraction, the sense of collective power, of a crowd of the like-minded, the exhausted, the angry and those seeking hope was going to bring people to the streets. My first march, in high school, was the very first Earth Day. You never forget that feeling of gathered power and no longer being alone. It is one of life’s great endorphin highs. In setting after setting, sports events, churches and choirs we seek that wonderful sensation. It is a basic human impulse.
But last night when I asked “why” another part of me was bubbling up. Maybe it’s just my particular nervous system, but I when I come down from the high, I want to know what is going to happen next. Catharsis and catalyst without action leading to permanent change is just so much wasted time and emotion. I fear that now, after a week of protest, we have reached a frightening moment where no one seems to have considered outcomes. The rhetoric about people being tired and ending systemic racism is shopworn. Anyone with a lick of knowledge of not just American history has heard that one before. The steps after the marches are mind-numbingly dull. They take place not on the streets but in conference rooms, committee rooms and in night after night of contentious public meetings. I have been part of that work. It is frustrating and at no point does one feel anything like what you feel in a crowd of thousands of people, shouting and marching.
Let me be way too white and cite Martin Luther King, but not for the reason you may think. People easily grab the inspirational King out of the air. The one who marched and spoke to large crowds. But the civil rights activists of that generation strike me most as brilliant tacticians. Every march, each speech was crafted to mobilize tangible action. Do you recall why King was killed in Memphis? He was there to support the demands of striking garbage workers. He had an outcome, a life changing one, in mind. King also knew the late-night calls, the conference rooms and private offices were where the wheels of the greatest civil rights changes in American history were set in motion. And, MLK knew he would ultimately be a failure if he didn’t work with a sometimes racist, southern president Lyndon Baines Johnson. What distinguished MLK in his work with LBJ was not purity in effort but a laser focus on life altering outcomes.
I would argue that the current marches are perilously close to being co-opted by the forces they have unleashed. Trump has seen them as an opportunity to invoke the 1968 law and order campaign of Richard Nixon. He is also bounding toward the dictatorship he craves by pulling the military into domestic affairs. I don’t think he will succeed with this new plan because he lacks the single-minded discipline of Nixon. But that doesn’t mean he won’t try. Nightly, the peaceful marches have been co-opted by 2 other forces. I got to see the mostly white anarchists up close. They have rebranded under the label Antifa but it’s the same people. They are dedicated nihilists who see the destruction of the capitalist republic as a worthy goal. Their animus towards law enforcement is genetic. The pattern is this: declare cops evil, provoke cops with direct action, declare themselves victims of cops; rinse and repeat. They are utterly predicable and don’t really give a damn about Mr. Lloyd. The other group are thoroughgoing capitalists. This second group is largely people of color who exploit the fact that the police are busy elsewhere to destroy and loot. They are organized and in it for the money. That too is a powerful motivation to an oppressed underclass. I marveled last night to see an organized gang of looters in California break into a car dealership, get the keys to all the new cars on the lot and drive off with 70 new cars. Mr. Lloyd was just an opportunity. The endless marches are increasing the symbiosis of Trump, Anarchists and Thieves. The protesters are very close to losing the narrative.
Looking out across America, I believe it is time to stop marching and start organizing. I have 5 generations of law enforcement in my family. My loyalty to the good intentions of the people who decide to take up law enforcement is unbroken. Unfortunately, what IS broken is the system cops live inside. The dichotomy is astounding. Almost everyone who takes up that profession does so because they have a powerful instinct to serve others. But once inside, the daily trauma of the job changes them. In any one week, they see more evil, neglect and societal breakdown that anyone else sees in a year. The trauma is shared. Every policy failure, each funding cut, all the bad choices of the powerful end up at the end of the line where cops are all that is left to deal with the mess. Even as a family member, I only ever got the top line of the stories from my brother. Only their peers can truly understand what they do and see. The psychological bunker, the tribe becomes the daily salvation. They become us and we become them. Good cops always know who the bad cops are but they build a system where every cop is a brother or sister and must be protected. Almost anyone in their position would do what that they are doing. Yes … you would.
What to do. We have a structural problem in Portland. The force is about 200 empty positions down. Training and community engagement won’t happen if all officers are doing is going from 911 to 911. Some here want to eliminate the police. Silly. To fix the system you have to fill out the roster and hire wisely. There needs to be time for cops to interact with the community when they are not adrenalized. There is actually a desire among law enforcement to be seen as just other humans. The phrase “community policing” has been tossed around forever. What we really need is community connection. That takes creating the time to connect. Part of that would be making it easier for cops to live in the neighborhoods they serve. A rookie with a new family can’t afford to live in Portland. We provide all sorts of carrots in public policy. Let’s bring our cops home. With all the housing needs, this may seem absurd, but think of the benefits. It would actually be cost effective.
Police chiefs need the almost unquestioned power to fire bad cops. There seems to be a good police chief in Minneapolis who immediately fired the 4 officers. Guess what? I bet the police union will fight those firings. Via contract negotiations, it is time to reign in the police unions and associations. In my old job, I was liaison to public safety. I had monthly meetings with command staff and the union representative. Part of the barrier between the public and the cops is the union’s institutional maintenance of the “thin blue line.” Bad cops are protected by unions. Good cops won’t risk being outcast if the union always comes to the rescue of bad cops. I was amazed at the immediate condemnation of the murder by the Portland Police union. That is not a normal reflex but even the union saw things were out of hand. If you want to bring the cops home, then work on the institution that builds and maintains the bunker they live in. Reign in the unions.
For activists and police both, the way to break down institutional racism and improve policing is going to be very difficult. It will require that, like MLK and LBJ, they drop what seem like fundamental values. But this is a specific problem that can be addressed. There is an abundance of magical thinking, engendered by the woke left, that what needs to happen next is the elimination of racism in America. No single moment is going to do that. No pattern of moments will do that either. Live in the world we have and chip away at its evils. One good result of the marches is a recognition, across many institutions, that we have work to do. In that, the marches have already succeeded. Protesters should take a moment and consider then consolidate their gains.
I know those “storm trooper” suits that cops wear are intimidating, but they are also protective. As someone who worried about my brother when he was on patrol, I always wanted him to come home at the end of shift. Those suits protect the cops from flying bottles and bats (like the ones thrown at them in Portland last night.) But here’s the deal, they are hot and heavy and exhausting. Locked down in City Hall during protests, I talked to cops who rotated inside to cool off and get water and food. We are making a big mistake to keep cops in a defensive posture day after day. They are on duty before the marches begin and well after they have broken up. People wear down. Imagine standing quietly, hour after hour, with people hurling verbal abuse at you. No human is designed to sustain that. I get that this is how Black people feel each day. Maybe there is an inflection point for empathy here. I am deeply afraid that with each passing day, across the country, the likelihood of even a good cop making a bad mistake increases.
I try to be heartened by the cops who are taking a knee and marching with protesters. This is not a solution, but it is an opening. When I hear radical protesters and rioters reject such acts out of hand my heart sinks. Think of the world the two sides come from and open up just a little to the courage it takes to kneel together or shake hands across a line of conflict. Posturing in the face of an opportunity will just keep us all caught in this vicious circle.
I believe it is time to stop marching and ask “why.” Discord, even righteous discord, is in time a breeding ground for evil. There are agents on the internet who are reveling in this opportunity to use us against ourselves. The extremes see dysfunction as opportunity. We are still in a pandemic. Gathering in large groups is an invitation to the virus that we can’t afford. To come out of the pandemic, and our crisis of trust, the first job is not opening the doors of businesses, no, it is to lower fear. Americans are afraid now. We have never needed each other as much as we do now. The good work of protest is done. If you ask “why” you will see that. Now the real work begins. It is far harder than walking a few miles and carrying a sign or yelling at the top of your lungs at strangers across a divide. This new work will be quiet, frustrating and demand every ounce of steadfast courage we can muster. But here’s the deal. We have no other choice.