George Floyd Protests: The Police Are Who We Thought They Were - Rolling Stone
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They Are Who We Thought They Were

Millions of Americans have taken to the streets to protest police brutality, where their criticisms of the criminal-justice system have been reinforced with horrifying clarity

TOPSHOT - United States Park Police pushes back protestors near the White House on June 1, 2020 as demonstrations against George Floyd's death continue. - Police fired tear gas outside the White House late Sunday as anti-racism protestors again took to the streets to voice fury at police brutality, and major US cities were put under curfew to suppress rioting.With the Trump administration branding instigators of six nights of rioting as domestic terrorists, there were more confrontations between protestors and police and fresh outbreaks of looting. Local US leaders appealed to citizens to give constructive outlet to their rage over the death of an unarmed black man in Minneapolis, while night-time curfews were imposed in cities including Washington, Los Angeles and Houston. (Photo by ROBERTO SCHMIDT / AFP) / ALTERNATE CROP (Photo by ROBERTO SCHMIDT/AFP via Getty Images)

U.S. Park Police push back protesters near the White House on June 1st.

ROBERTO SCHMIDT/AFP/Getty Images

The protests began in the days following George Floyd’s death last Monday. They raged over one of the most chaotic, inspiring, and horrifying weekends in this country’s history. They will continue into this week. The demonstrations, in which millions have flooded the streets of cities across the nation to protest police brutality, represent a display of civil unrest unlike anything most Americans have ever seen, and though their long-term effect is unclear, one thing has been made clear: The police very much are who the demonstrators who turned up to protest their brutality thought they were.

Tension that had been building all week boiled over in several major American cities on Friday. In Minneapolis, the site of Floyd’s death, a police precinct was set on fire. In New York, more than 200 were arrested in Lower Manhattan and Brooklyn, where what began as a peaceful demonstration at Barclays Center exploded into chaos after police started firing pepper spray into the congregation of protesters. In Atlanta, CNN headquarters was vandalized and cars were set on fire. In Washington, D.C., demonstrators gathered outside the White House, leading the Secret Service to ferry President Trump into a bunker.

On Saturday, the protests spread throughout smaller cities, and intensified in the larger ones. Countless videos surfaced of hyperaggressive police forces brutalizing citizens with batons, mace, rubber bullets, Tasers, cars, and their hands. The shows of force were in response to minimal, and certainly not commensurate, provocation from demonstrators, if there was any provocation at all. While chaos continued to sweep through major metropolitan centers like New York, Los Angeles, Dallas, Atlanta, and Miami, videos also showed militarized police forces marching through smaller cities like Fargo, North Dakota, and Columbia, South Carolina. This was a nationwide uprising.

The aggression from police continued to compound on itself Sunday night, as did the looting and vandalization. In New York, high-end fashion stores were ransacked throughout SoHo in Manhattan. A few blocks north, just south of Union Square, an officer pulled his gun on protesters. In Brooklyn, protesters were chased through the streets and pepper-sprayed with little thought. Similar scenes continued to play out in Minneapolis, Los Angeles, and other hotbeds of protest. In Louisville, Kentucky, David McAttee, who owned a barbecue joint in the western part of the city, was shot and killed by law enforcement as they were attempting to break up a crowd of demonstrators. The two officers involved did not have their body cameras turned on.

The new week, and with it several new curfews, did not slow down the demonstrators — or the police, who continued to take aggressive action against peaceful protesters. In Arkansas. In Charlotte, North Carolina. In Kansas City, Missouri. In Oakland. In Philadelphia. In Washington, D.C. It’s difficult to find a city where demonstrations are taking place that isn’t also rife with examples of police brutalizing those protesting police brutality.

The demonstrations have also resulted in more widespread targeting of the press than anyone has ever seen. Journalists who identified themselves as such were arrested anyway. Others were sprayed with mace or fired upon with rubber bullets. On Saturday, Vice journalist Michael Anthony Adams was prostrated on the ground of a Minneapolis gas station that had been stormed by law enforcement. “I am press,” he said to an officer. Without breaking stride, the officer unloaded pepper spray in Adams’ face.

This was caught on video. So were countless other instances of police-on-journalist assaults, like in Seattle on Monday night, when MSNBC’s Jo Ling Kent was struck by a tear gas canister. Surely, even more such instances were not recorded. The attacks weren’t happening in any particular city or being perpetrated by any particular police force. They were happening simultaneously in cities all over America. Meanwhile, President Trump continued to tweet, and tweet repeatedly, about how the media is the Enemy of the People, and how demonstrators are radical agitators, or, as he wrote last Friday, “THUGS” who should be shot.

Fully aware they will not be held accountable for their actions, both the president and law enforcement have abdicated their responsibilities and gone rogue — largely because people said some mean things to them and they couldn’t handle it. This isn’t news. It’s been happening for years. But it’s never been laid as bare as it was this weekend, when law enforcement was needed more than ever to protect and serve, but did the opposite, and a national leader was needed more than ever to bring the country together, but only drove the wedge in deeper.

Trump wasn’t the only political leader absent. Most of those who possess the power to hold law enforcement in check have bristled at the idea of aligning themselves with demonstrators. Bill de Blasio, the nominally progressive Democratic mayor of New York, sided with his police force for days before finally, on Monday, condemning an officer who attempted to run over demonstrators with an NYPD SUV. On Saturday night, he pinned the blame on the protesters for “surrounding” the SUV. Video shows otherwise. “That was so troubling,” de Blasio said on Monday. “I don’t think I expressed it as well as I should have.”

The president and Republicans, meanwhile, have pushed for more violence. On a call with governors Monday morning, Trump berated state leaders, calling for them to exert “total domination” over demonstrators, while suggesting mass arrests and 10-year prison sentences. Though Joe Biden has emerged from his basement to stand with protesters in Delaware, there has been no unified Democratic counterweight to the right’s messaging that demonstrators are rioters, looters, vandals, anarchists, and terrorists. That messaging is resonating on social media.

Later Monday, thousands of people — predominantly young people of color — gathered outside the White House to protest a president who they said was a racist authoritarian whose administration was willfully endangering their lives on a daily basis. Trump held a nationally televised address to declare them the enemy, attacked them with tear gas and heavily armed police officers, and then walked past where they had been standing to pose for a photo. He, too, is exactly who they told us he was.

It’s impossible to predict what will unfold in the coming days and weeks and months leading up to the election, and what kind of lasting impact this early-summer weekend, when America reached its boiling point, will have. The immediate impact, however, is clear. Law enforcement’s response to the demonstrations obliterated the idea that people like Derek Chauvin, the Minneapolis police officer who killed George Floyd, are merely “bad apples” in an inherently just system. There may be a few good apples in the bunch, but, on the whole, the bushel is rotten to its core.

Patrick Reis contributed reporting from Washington, D.C.

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