Hopefully by the time this makes its way to you via print or the internet ether, the unrest will have quieted down. But I must tell you that writing about it provoked some heated discussion at El Paso Inc. There was a great concern, especially among our younger staffers, that I would take a “back the badge, crush the looters” position that would be totally out of touch with what they view as mainstream. They suggested that since I do not pay a lot of attention to social media, I could not fully appreciate the rage and resentment of authority sweeping the nation. So we did what has become increasingly hard: We talked about it. I listened and agree with many points.
So, partly as a result of those discussions and for whatever it is worth, I would like to offer my take on the events of this past week.
For openers, I get that it is important to acknowledge that blacks in America have been mistreated and disadvantaged since this country was founded. The deaths and abuse of blacks at the hands of police are well documented. But that is just the tip of the iceberg. What about Franklin Templeton financial adviser Amy Cooper who was quick to pull the race card when a black man asked her to leash her dog in Central Park?
Or how about this story Wednesday morning from the New York Times: Minneapolis police used force against black people seven times more often than they did on whites, yet blacks comprise only about 20% of the city’s population.
There are reasons for this and enough blame to go around: poverty, higher crime, poor education, and just plain bad attitude toward each other from cops and the people they are supposed to protect.
The thing is, and the point our younger staffers made, is that the protests and the violence that followed have obscured efforts to acknowledge and get at the underlying causes.
I also would argue that police in many communities have needlessly aggravated the situation. When cops show up in force with riot gear and helicopters clearly expecting violence, or throwing soldiers into the mix, it angers demonstrators and doesn’t take much provocation to send things south. Yet it doesn’t have to be that way – and wasn’t – in many communities.
Consider what happened in Fayetteville, North Carolina, when demonstrators approached a police line on a busy street. As the Charlotte Observer reported: “The protestors first got mad when asked to step back, but once the officers knelt down … men and women alike started crying and then cautiously came toward the police offers to shake their hands.”
Or consider the white sheriff in Flint, Michigan, Chris Swanson. When he and his officers were confronted by protestors, he took off his helmet and laid down his baton. CBS News said the sheriff told the crowd: “We want to be with y’all for real. I took my helmet off, laid the batons down. We want to make this a parade, not a protest. These cops love you. That cop over there hugs people. So, you tell us what you need.”
CBS said the crowd began chanting “walk with us.” The sheriff agreed, high-fived demonstrators and joined the march.”
Now, I feel strongly about this: Where there are agitators and people bent on using these gatherings to loot and vandalize, I don’t think cops should stand by and watch. They need to shut that down quickly and aggressively.
Having reported on demonstrations in more than half a dozen countries, including Panama, Chile, Bolivia, Argentina and Nicaragua, I have had a chance to observe various crowd control methods. The most successful was in Chile, where the Carabineros used a tactic I have not seen anywhere else.
When a crowd gathered with a potential for violence, police in lines of perhaps half a dozen officers would serpentine their way back and forth through the crowd. If somebody threw a rock or tried to bust open a store, they got their heads cracked. Troublemakers knew they were only a few steps away from an unpleasant personal encounter with authority. This was back in the days of the Pinochet regime when protestors were angry about the disappearance of hundreds of people. The worst crowd control method I ever saw was the main drag in La Paz, Bolivia, where someone lobbed a grenade onto a flatbed truck full of demonstrators.
So the first challenge is how do you keep autocratic cops who cannot stand any defiance of their authority from abusing it?
Next, of course, is the more difficult issue: How do you address latent bias, prejudice, lack of opportunity and poverty?
There is, of course, no easy answer. The hope is that the public outcry will serve to launch a renewed and far-reaching effort for real change. It won’t be easy, but the first step is acknowledging there is a problem. I hope most of the country has gotten that message. In this era of pervasive cellphones and body cameras, it is at least easier to hold authorities accountable.