New York - When George Floyd died under the knee of a Minneapolis police officer, the scourge of police violence, festering for generations, became a rallying point for Americans yearning for the fulfillment of this country’s founding aspiration to promote life, liberty and happiness.
Yet as they turned out to exercise their most basic rights as citizens, these Americans have often encountered only more contempt for those rights from the people who are supposed to protect them.
Some protesters crossed the line into violence. Some people took advantage of the chaos to loot. But all too often, facing peaceful demonstrations against police violence, the police responded with more violence - against protesters, journalists and bystanders.
In a handful of cities, local leaders recognised what was at stake, and their response can point the way forward for the country. In Houston, the police chief, Art Acevedo, told protesters: “We will march as a department with everybody in this community. I will march until I can’t stand no more. But I will not allow anyone to tear down this city.”
He had the sense to recognise that a vast majority of demonstrators wanted what he wanted, a better city. And he clearly saw that the responsibility of the police was not to abridge but to safeguard the First Amendment, which protects freedom of speech, assembly, the press and religion.
In many places, the country is experiencing a communal breakdown so complete that mayors have thrown up their hands and ordered curfews or called in the National Guard. Unable to maintain urban life, they have tried to suspend it, just as they had done in response to the spread of the coronavirus.
Healing the wounds ripped open in recent days and months will not be easy. The pandemic has made Americans fearful of their neighbours, cut them off from their communities of faith, shut their outlets for exercise and recreation and culture and learning. Worst of all, it has separated Americans from their own livelihoods.
Fear of the police has further separated communities from those sworn to protect their rights.
President Donald Trump, who tends to see only political opportunity in public fear and anger, is in his customary manner contributing heat rather than light to the confrontations between protesters and authority. In the absence of national leadership, it is all the more vital that mayors and governors affirm the rules that ought to govern American society. The nation is founded on the freedom of speech - and particularly the right to gather in protest against the government. Politicians must hold the police accountable for protecting the rights of everyone they are sworn to protect and serve.
In the same vein, city and state leaders should pursue the reopening of houses of worship in consultation with public health authorities. Particularly in this agonising time, many Americans want to turn to their communities of faith for support. And religious leaders have often been at the forefront of nonviolent social change.
The chaos unleashed by the death of Floyd defies simple prescriptions; it is a result of too many underlying conditions. Authorities are facing a stern test: It can be all but impossible to police the boundaries of legitimate protest, particularly on the ground. And it must be painful for many police officers who put their lives on the line to hear themselves criticised by their fellow citizens.
Yet the testimony of local journalism, eyewitnesses and videos posted online make clear that too many police officers have little interest in protecting legitimate protest. While some officers have joined protests or knelt in solidarity, others, often in the same cities, have acted savagely, inciting or exacerbating violence.
Just a few weeks ago, the police demonstrated remarkable forbearance as heavily armed groups turned out in several state capitals to oppose coronavirus-related public heath measures. Now the police are demonstrating an equally remarkable intolerance to protests against their own behavior.
The police have imposed arbitrary limits on protests, creating excuses for confrontation. They have fired countless rounds of tear gas and rubber bullets into unarmed crowds, sometimes without warning. They have attacked with fists, truncheons, shields - and cars.
They have behaved as if determined to prevent peaceful protest by introducing violence.
In some of the most troubling attacks, police officers have singled out those who spoke up, wading into crowds of protesters and silencing the loudest voices.
In Charleston, South Carolina, a black man dropped to one knee and told the police, “All of you are my family.” The police arrested him.
In Kansas City, Missouri, a black man shouted from a crowd of protesters, “If you ain’t got the balls to protect the streets and protect and serve like you were paid to do, turn in your damned badge.” The police arrested him.
In scores of incidents across the country, police officers also have deliberately attacked journalists reporting on the protests. Minneapolis police arrested a CNN crew on live television. Video captured Louisville police firing pepper bullets at a local TV crew. The Manhattan district attorney’s office is investigating the alleged assault of a Wall Street Journal reporter by the police. Protesters have also targeted reporters, including a Fox News crew outside the White House.
In a brazen display of this administration’s disregard for the First Amendment, the nation’s chief law enforcement officer, Attorney General William Barr, ordered federal officers to clear a peaceful protest in front of the White House. The police used tear gas, rubber bullets and riot shields to drive away protesters, journalists and priests standing on the private porch of St. John’s Church, all so Trump could pose for photos. The photo op managed to take aim at the freedom of assembly, speech and religion all at the same time.
On Tuesday, the Trump administration sent more troops into the streets of Washington. Armoured vehicles patrolled downtown. Helicopters buzzed overhead. Soldiers trained for war in foreign countries stood on the corners of American streets, hands on guns.
Americans aren’t holding their breath for the president to change his incendiary behavior. But city leaders and governors have plenty of room to act in the meantime.
There are signs some leaders recognise the damage that has been done. In Richmond, Virginia, where the police gassed peaceful demonstrators on Monday evening, the mayor, Levar Stoney, apologized Tuesday and promised to join a march. The chief of police, William Smith, took a knee in a show of contrition and solidarity.
The governor of Minnesota, Tim Walz, apologized to the CNN reporters arrested in Minneapolis, and then took a moment to dilate on the importance of a free press.
“The protection and security and safety of the journalists covering this is a top priority, not because it is a nice thing to do, because it is a key component of how we fix this,” Walz said. “Sunshine, disinfectant and seeing what’s happening has to be done.”
On Tuesday, Walz ordered a civil rights investigation into the “systemic racism” of the Minneapolis Police Department. It is not enough, right now, for officials to focus on protecting private property. It is not enough even for them to think only of protecting life, though that is critical. They need to also protect the freedoms of assembly and expression, and then, like Walz, to hear what’s being said. That’s where the healing may begin.