Violent protest reflects the violence of the system

The media focus on looting was a convenient distraction from the police’s brutal aggression against protesters.

Minnesota po-po
Security forces take position during a protest against the death in Minneapolis police custody of George Floyd, in Minneapolis, Minnesota on May 30, 2020 [Reuters/Lucas Jackson]

The death of George Floyd at the hands of police officers in Minneapolis has upended the United States and has resulted in a civil uprising not seen in over half a century. This has come as the nation is reeling from a deadly pandemic that has taken the lives of 100,000 people and an economic crisis not witnessed since the Great Depression.

While most protests since the killing of George Floyd have been non-violent and have enjoyed majority support in the US, there have been some that have turned violent, with incidents of vandalism and looting.

Some Black public figures and the authorities in various US cities with sizeable Black communities have condemned the property damage resulting from some of the protests, including Mayor Keisha Lance Bottoms of Atlanta, Georgia and Mayor Melvin Carter of St Paul, Minnesota.  

But the real problem the country is facing is by far not these material losses. Mass protest action that sometimes leads to looting and property damage is a natural and logical response to decades of police brutality and impunity.

Focusing on these limited violent acts takes attention away from the real issue at hand here: the systematic impoverishment and socioeconomic marginalisation under a racially unjust system and the long history of abuse by law enforcement in communities of colour – which has continued during these protests.

Whether in Minneapolis in 2020 or in any other social conflict, upheaval, rebellion or revolution in world history, the violence inherent in the oppression of a people, the subjugation of a group or the perpetration of injustice against them produces violent responses. The French Revolution, complete with guillotines, was violent, as were the Haitian and Algerian struggles for liberation from France, and the anti-colonial revolts in Latin America, Africa and Asia.

Similarly, enslaved Black people in the US sought their liberation through insurrection and fighting in the Civil War, which were not tame or subdued affairs, but rather inherently violent. When people – through pain and suffering, frustration and trauma – have been denied their rights and deprived of their humanity, and believe they have no recourse, they are left to feel they must take matters into their own hands.      

As Malcolm X said, “A revolution is bloody. Revolution is hostile. Revolution knows no compromise. Revolution overturns and destroys everything that gets in its way.”  

The American civil rights movement, for all its purportedly non-violent underpinnings, relied on the Deacons for Defence and Justice, an armed self-defence group that protected activists from Ku Klux Klan extremists. Similarly, the Black Panther Party sought to keep their community safe from police violence and racism through militant self-defence, community-based empowerment programmes, and multiracial working-class solidarity.

Further, the urban rebellions of the 1960s – triggered by acts of police violence similar to the killing of George Floyd – were also violent and came in response to institutional racism and poverty.

Martin Luther King understood what gives rise to riots, the social and economic deprivation existing in marginalised communities, and the priority that some white people placed on tranquillity over justice. “A riot is the language of the unheard. And what is it that America has failed to hear?” he asked, noting that postponing justice would guarantee recurring violence and riots. “It has failed to hear that the plight of the Negro poor has worsened over the last few years. It has failed to hear that the promises of freedom and justice have not been met.”

Similarly, the current unrest is not just a reaction to the police killing of George Floyd. This moment is far greater than a Black man who suffered the ultimate injustice of losing his life at the hand of the police.

The protests in the streets of many American cities are in response to decades of systemic racism and state-sponsored violence, which have persisted despite the achievements of the civil rights movement.

They are a reflection of pent-up anger, frustration, grief and trauma in communities seeking justice for racialised oppression, which today is not only embodied in the tragic death of George Floyd but also in the deaths of tens of thousands of Black people from COVID-19 due to decades of severe health inequities  and socioeconomic precarity.

Over five decades since the passage of the Civil Rights Act of 1964, white average wealth is 6.7 times greater than Black average wealth. Black people are 12 percent of the population but 26.4 percent of people killed by the police. Black drivers are 20 percent more likely to be stopped by the police than white drivers; Black students from kindergarten through the 12th grade are 3.8 times more likely to receive suspensions from school than their white counterparts.

While facing continuing socioeconomic marginalisation and police harassment and violence, Black people are also prevented from addressing many of the issues that plague their communities through the ballot because of raging voter discrimination.

For example, since a 2013 US Supreme Court ruling weakened the provisions of the Voting Rights Act of 1965, at least 17 million voters were purged from voter rolls between 2016 and 2018 alone, and typically these voters are disproportionately Black and poor. This, in addition to various local and state legal barriers, has resulted in high levels of disenfranchisement of Black voters.

In a country that wages racial violence against Black people daily, it is no wonder that some – feeling powerless to change the system that oppresses them – would consider resorting to destruction of property.

While the media has extensively covered damage that businesses have suffered, it is important to point out that protesters have also attacked what they see as symbols of oppression, including the statue of Frank Rizzo, the former mayor of Philadelphia, Pennsylvani – a racist known for his brutal police tactics against the Black community – and the statue of Confederate General Robert E Lee and the headquarters of the United Daughters of the Confederacy in Richmond, Virginia.

The overwhelming media focus on looting and “rioting” across the US has taken attention away not only from the realities that Black communities continue to face, but also from persisting police violence against the very demonstrations (including peaceful ones) condemning it.

The police have committed heinous acts of brutality and used excessive force against protesters across the country, from forcefully dispersing peaceful protests by using rubber bullets and tear gas to assaulting and arresting protesters.

In only a few cases, policemen have been held accountable. In Buffalo, New York, two police officers were charged after shoving a 75-year-old man to the ground, causing him head injuries. In Philadelphia, a police inspector was charged with assault for beating a protester with a metal baton on the head. The victim, a 21-year old Temple University engineering student, required 10 staples and 10 stitches in his head. In Louisville, Kentucky, the head of police was fired after officers opened fire while dispersing a gathering, shooting dead 53-year-old David McAtee.

In various cities, police officers have also targeted journalists even when they have clearly identified themselves as such, with some suffering injuries, including one photographer who lost vision in her left eye after being shot with a rubber bullet.

Meanwhile, more than 11,000 people have been arrested during protests across the country.

In their assault on protesters, the police have been backed by the deployment of the National Guard to a number of states. US President Donald Trump went even further and threatened to deploy the US military and shoot looters

The violent reactions of the police and the US presidency are rooted in the very same system of oppression that led to George Floyd’s death and the mass protests across the country.

As a purveyor of violence at home and abroad, America’s chickens have come home to roost. America is on fire, and the arsonists are agents of the state, stoking the flames with gasoline.  

The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect Al Jazeera’s editorial stance.