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Why Are Peaceful Protests Turning Into Riots?

Let's shine a light on the darkness in the aftermath of George Floyd's murder.

Since the murder of George Floyd by police officers in Minneapolis, peaceful protests have taken place in cities across the country, with thousands of people gathering in solidarity to speak out against systemic racism, and to demand change. Unfortunately, riots have also erupted, causing some police forces to shift from being a supportive presence to donning riot gear and focusing on damage control. Tragically, this disturbing turn of events is sabotaging the protesters' worthy mission and obscuring this urgent message: Black. Lives. Matter.

Why is this happening? Before you condemn this movement or dismiss these protesters as mindlessly acting out, ask: Who is actually inciting and participating in the violence? And why?

First, there is mounting evidence that disruptive outsiders, including extremists and white supremacist groups, are infiltrating these protests to advance their own agendas and subvert the racial justice and equality movement, by engaging in destruction and violence in order to trigger violent government reactions.

This brings us to a second factor: Law enforcement response. As local police and National Guard presence ramps up to curb violence, rising tensions have only escalated the aggressive reactions of law enforcement in some cities, including attacks on peaceful protesters with rubber bullets, pepper spray, batons, and tear gas, further antagonizing protesters. It has become a vicious cycle. And it is unconscionable that police brutality is being used against protesters, particularly people of color, who are exercising their right to peacefully protest against police brutality.

Indeed, we are here because police are more likely to respond aggressively to people of color, who also represent a disproportionate number of those killed in police custody. And these racial disparities are not new; they've been documented for decades. Also note that police in the U.S. kill far more people than police in any other developed, industrial democracy. Driving the point home, police violence is currently on full display in many cities.

And so, a third factor is the pent up and justified rage of perpetually, systemically oppressed people.

Clearly, we have a problem. Our society is rife with terrible racial injustice. And we can't afford to be distracted by the riots erupting out of these peaceful protests. We must address the systemic racial injustice at the root of disproportionate police violence, inequities, and discrimination against black and brown citizens. To right these terrible injustices would be to finally, truly make America great.

Where do we start? Here are five suggestions, particularly intended for all white people, and to inspire change agents and anyone who holds social power and influence:

First and foremost, be a better ally. Recognize that, as Dr. Beverly Daniel Tatum writes, we all live in the smog of systemic racism and white supremacy--smog that surreptitiously pollutes our hearts and minds, and makes us, especially us white people, complicit without even knowing it. To rid our society and ourselves of this smog, we must become aware of its presence, notice all the damaging effects, and build non-polluting systems based on justice, equity, and racial equality. (For more details and guidance, especially for white folks, dive into the references listed at the end of this post.)

Second, we must shine a light on the outside disruptors fueling the riots, and hold them accountable. And we must continue to shine a light on brutal policing, and hold them accountable, and demand change, so that police get the training and support and leadership they need to protect and serve their communities, instead of terrorizing them. In fact, research shows that militarizing police departments warps the relationship between police and the community, creating more unrest. In contrast, when police show solidarity with protesters, such as in Queens, NY, Petersburg, VA, Flint, MI, and Oklahoma City, this "protect and serve" approach elicits unity, mutual cooperation, and far less conflict. Let's aim for more of that!

Third, make room for angry protests. Whenever peaceful demonstrators get swept up in the rage and power of their protest, we--especially us white people and police officers-- must empathize and accept their fury. And what about the looting? See it as a reaction against a society that has been looting black lives for centuries. As Trevor Noah explains in a powerful video (see references below), how can we even ask black and brown citizens to abide by social contracts, when our society violates those contracts every day with racial inequality, injustice, and systemic racism? Even Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., known for promoting peaceful protest, underscored the fact that when oppressed people don’t feel heard, such as when change isn’t forthcoming and promises prove to be empty, they may well decide that rioting is their only option. So, whenever angry words or violent actions are perpetrated by people of color protesting against racial injustice, we must acknowledge that their outrage is justified. Because racial injustice-- and the white supremacy reinforcing it-- is truly an outrage.

Fourth, make the racial equality movement a priority. If we as a society are going condemn rioting, whoever is inciting or participating, it is imperative that we even more vigorously condemn the unjust conditions that spark riots and condemn the white supremacy that reinforces those conditions. As Dr. King so powerfully pointed out, “Social justice and progress are the absolute guarantors of riot prevention.”

And even if you argue that implementing social justice won't stop far-right extremists bent on burning everything to the ground, Dr. King's vision still stands. Because when social justice and equality prevail, oppression is lifted and everyone benefits, everyone thrives. And when people are thriving under the status quo, they're not interested in burning it down.

Fifth, but not least, vote for justice-minded, follow-worthy leaders, who can talk about race and prioritize the racial equality movement. Because as long as there is oppression, no one is free.

References (2003) Race: The Power of Illusion. An interview with Beverly Daniel Tatum.

Saad, L.F. (2020) Me and White Supremacy: Combat Racism, Change the World, and Become a Good Ancestor. Sourcebooks.

Stein, T. (May 30, 2020) Racism and Violence Aren't New and Won't Change Until We Do: We must demand and work for change if we are to heal as a nation. Psychology Today Blogpost.

Noah, Trevor (May 29, 2020) George Floyd, Minneapolis Protests, Ahmaud Arbery, and Amy Cooper. The Daily Social Distancing Show.

Martin, M. (May 31, 2020) "Raising White Kids" Author on How Parents Can Talk About Race. NPR All Things Considered.

Kendi, I.X. (2019) How To Be An Antiracist. One World

Tatum, B.D. Can We Talk? In Defining Racism, pp 65-68.

O'Brien, Conan. (June 1, 2020) Van Jones on George Floyd, Police Brutality, & What Comes Next. Conan on TBS

Fallon, J. (June 1, 2020) Jimmy Addresses Past Mistakes and Speaks to NAACP President Derrick Johnson. The Tonight Show with Jimmy Fallon.

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