Wednesday 17 June 2020

Twice now I've seen my old neighbourhood on the news

Of the planet’s 7,500 million, about one-thirty-seventh of one percent of one percent come from in or around Ferguson, Missouri, which saw massive riots six years ago as a result of police killing a black man. Only about a quarter of a percent of a percent come from in or around South Minneapolis, whic h saw the same thing happen a few weeks ago. I’m probably not the only person who has lived in both neighbourhoods, but I think I’m one of the few.

Twice now I’ve been in another country, watching violence break  out in peaceful neighbourhoods I knew well. Twice now I’ve had to call friends or family to make sure they’re not in the middle of it. And most people I know – already stressed because of the pandemic, the quarantine and the sudden blow to the economy – are feeling anger and despair like they’ve never felt before. 

So I want to speak carefully on this; of course I’m not there on the ground right now, and I’m not black, and I don’t pretend to speak for anyone else. But twice now I’ve received reports from friends and family on the ground as it happened, and it might not seem like it, but I think there’s a lot of good news here. 

Virtually everyone is united on this. I check out multiple news sources – what are considered far-left, far-right, and mostly people who go beyond the stereotypes of the political spectrum. Everyone agrees these police were terrible, and everyone is celebrating that they are going to prison. Think of any other issue that has so many people agreeing.

You got things done. In a lot of times and places people might have looked the other way or been afraid to speak up, and that’s still the case across much of the world today. But here, as a result  of the massive and immediate public outcry, these officers were fired almost immediately, charged swiftly, and are now in jail. I used to be part of the Minneapolis political scene, I can tell you that this response happened because people there are so politically active, and so prepared to take action. The famously scrappy French labour movement doesn’t have so many strikes and marches because conditions there are worse; rather, conditions there are better because they take to the streets.

The media is getting better. I’m seeing a lot of news outlets point out something very important, something that should have been talked about in Ferguson; the rioters are not the protesters. I knew some of the Ferguson protesters; they were locals. The Ferguson police were locals. But some of the rioters came from thousands of kilometres away. As a former newspaper reporter I was incensed by the news coverage, which neglected to make this the lead story, or ask questions about where these people came from.

I heard stories of protesters helping police protect businesses from rioters ... but most journalists didn’t make those important distinctions. In Minneapolis, I’m seeing news agencies make those distinctions. Business Insider – not a radical publication -- has run articles about this. That’s important.

We don’t see most of the good people are doing. For every tragedy highlighted by social media, there are tens of thousands of people not just protesting, but babysitting kids, looking after each other, helping clean up, donating to bring back the businesses that were destroyed, all volunteers. This is what happens in a crisis; people pull together. They won’t be on the news, but they are, in their own way, heroes.

Many cops are good. In a recent survey most Americans believed that a police officer fires their gun in the line of duty at least once, and 30% guessed they shoot someone a few times a year. In fact, it’s the opposite; three-quarters of US police have never fired a gun once in their careers. I’m not implying that shooting their gun is always bad, or that they can’t do wrong even without shooting – that negligent police officer didn’t need a gun to kill George Floyd. My point is that almost all the time, police defuse life-and-death situations peacefully.

If officers defuse violent situations, say, once a week – and for some it’s every day – that’s 200 violent situations over a career, and I don’t mean that 75% of those are defused without shooting. I’m saying that for 75% of officers, 100% were defused peacefully.

That doesn’t make the exceptions okay, or imply that there’s no problem with police in America. It does mean that police aren’t all one thing. A lot of news coverage depicts conflicts of police vs African-Americans, but it’s important to note that nine of ten African-Americans oppose even cutting the number of police, almost half rate their local police highly, and of course a lot of police – a third in my native St. Louis – are black themselves. 

That said, there are a few other things to remember:

Police are civillians. As more of our social fabric has broken down, as I hear more people talk about their neighbours with fear and loathing, we put more of a burden on police to take care of neighbourhood disputes, mental health crises, and all kinds of issues that aren’t their job.

Some activists are talking about “de-funding police,” which if they mean getting rid of all police, is idiotic. But in fairness, what a lot of them mean are taking some of the burden off police and passing it to people trained in family disputes, mental health, and so on. Depending on how it’s done, that has possibilities.

Most articles I read from the USA talk about police vs. civilians, and no one – not even the protesters I know – think this is strange. As far as I know, that’s not the language that was used in the USA decades ago, or in most Western countries today. Police are civilians. I cannot stress how important this is. If you think of them as soldiers, what country are they occupying, and what enemy are they fighting?

Anger makes you vulnerable. I keep seeing memes passed around that people should get angry. Anger is easy. I were one of the people in power, I’d want people to get angry; angry people are easier to manipulate. 

How many Americans would have accepted their government launching a war in the Middle East, had they not witnessed the middle of their greatest city levelled by a terrorist attack? The US government wasn’t attacking a country that was behind the 9-11 attacks, but it was difficult to say that at the time to people so filled with anger, however justifiable. If you want to defuse a situation, you calm people down enough to listen to the better angels of their nature. Angry people do stupid things that get everyone hurt.

Don’t pick a side. I see a lot of slogans about how everyone needs to pick a side, you’re either with us or you’re against us. I’ve heard that before, both in my own life and in history, and that’s when things really go south.

I hear more and more people talk gleefully about shutting down anyone who says anything they don’t like. But that’s not how people learn. That’s how civilisation breaks down.

I hear more and more people talk about doing anything to defeat hatred. But hatred is always other people; it’s never you.

This could get a lot worse. I see a lot of memes about how the people need to rise up, for they have nothing to lose. If you live in a modern Western country with ample food, relative safety, and some vestigal trappings of democracy, you have a lot to lose. Again, in movies like V for Vendetta or the Hunger Games, riots and insurrection are how you take down an authoritarian rule. In real life, they’re how you start authoritarian rule. And remember that these memes are started and spread by people with an agenda, some of whom might gain from violence breaking out.

Beneficial movements in the past succeeded, not by lashing out in anger, but by talking with neighbours, listening to each other, pooling resources, creating a logical plan, and negotiating practical solutions. The marching down the street? That’s the one percent that was filmed – most of it was behind the scenes, done by people you’ve never heard of. And things got better. It can happen again.

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