Law and order won’t save us

Put away the hammer—we need a different approach

Riot police block the freeway access for protesters during the second day of protests. (Photo by Isiah Holmes)
Riot police block the freeway access for protesters during a second day of protests in Milwaukee. (Photo by Isiah Holmes)

The angry, blaring buzzes came first, interrupting my radio oldies. The nearby City of Kenosha was telling me one recent evening of a state of emergency that required residents there to stay in their homes.

Other public announcements followed from Milwaukee, also warning residents it was time to stay in their homes.

In America in 2020, in the midst of a public emergency that truly warrants that we stay in our homes, we seem to be prepared to accommodate another warning that we should shelter in place – not to avoid contracting or transmitting a virus but to avoid being parties to or victims of violence.

“I can’t breathe” were a few of George Floyd’s last words below the knee of one police officer as three others failed to intervene. And then the words became the chants of protesters.

The COVID-19 virus, among other things, robs people of breath. So does anger that morphs into violence. These illnesses are connected by our anxiety and despair at feeling helpless. And they are linked by what we lack in confronting both problems – the leadership at the top to guide and aid us through.

By and large, local leadership is walking that fine line – acknowledging that the reasons for peaceful protest are just and decrying and acting against the violence that has followed in some cities after the sun sets. 

But President Trump’s most notable contribution in this moment of crisis is to echo a segregationist quote that “when the looting starts the shooting starts.” And now he upbraids state governors for being too soft on the protesters and threatens to send in federal troops to crack down.

Trump says he expressed his condolences to the Floyd family. But that claim is drowned out by his pugnacious calls for “law and order.”

Law and order is the distraction employed by leaders who seek to deflect attention from themselves onto an amorphous enemy. Hence, Trump’s move to label the Antifa movement a terrorist organization.

Here’s terror: Legitimately fearing any interaction with law enforcement. Heck, it’s fearing that any interaction with a white person will result in a 911 call or realizing that jogging while black is as fraught as driving while black. It’s realizing that walking while black – a la Trayvon Martin – can be deadly. 

We have a culture that permits officers to act with deadly or injurious force because they feel threatened. And when failure to prosecute or acquittals happen, civil judgments counterintuitively follow. 

There has been some change – prosecutions occurring – and, yet, tomorrow or the next day or next week or month there will be another incident. 

You can know these things are happening without having “felt” them in a direct way.

It’s called empathy. That’s why black Americans are not marching alone in these mostly peaceful protests.

A leader for all of us would acknowledge this terror. But a leader would not have spent the last four years feeding white resentment for political benefit.

Riots near or distant are nothing new in our lifetimes – their frequency a lesson in and of itself. Each time, the temptation to not see beyond the burned shells of buildings and cars is overwhelming. People say:

Don’t “they” realize that violence and destruction hurt the very communities “they” say they speak for? Lawlessness cannot be tolerated.

These are natural reactions. but when “law and order” drowns out the why of events – or that most protests have been peaceful – the remedies mostly amount to hammers.

But consider this man at the top calling for “law and order.”

He boasted he can kill someone on Fifth Avenue and still have a huge following, bragged he can sexually assault women with impunity. He vilifies law enforcement and others in our system of checks and balances who have sought accountability from him. He fires people in his own administration who do so. He tried to extort a foreign head of state for political gain. 

He has spent much of his first term evading accountability and tossing incendiaries at our democratic institutions.

Other presidents might have tried to soothe the raw emotions, exercising both empathy and regard for the equal application of the law. Other presidents had these skills – and the standing to employ them. 

A president who essentially argues he is above the law loses credibility when he calls for law and order. In pursuing a relentless course of division, he demonstrates no ability – or desire – to unify.

We can try to counter the violence and still recognize – as Martin Luther King, Jr. once said – that riots are the “language of the unheard.”

Let’s listen. And then act with more than hammers.