Making Sense of This Moment: What Actually Happened pt1

With the smoke from the recent spat of police riots and uprisings still in the air, its hard to think about what to do now. I originally wanted to post about the WildSeed Society, the project that I have spent the past couple of months envisioning and how the plans have been accelerated by recent events. Yet it felt premature to move forward before I had a good grasp on what just happened. How can we understand the present moment if not through the lens of the immediate past and the longer historical processes that it is a part of?

To me, making sense of this moment means answering the questions: what happened, why did it happen, and what implications does that have for things that matter to us?

This essay has become quite the behemoth but I also think that what is happening in this moment is important enough to justify the length. I have been surprised at how many interesting things happened that I had not seen before I started searching for more information. There was no way I could put them all into a coherent essay (I’m not actually sure this essay is coherent lol). Because this is my blog I am going to be honest.

These past two weeks have been intense for me. I really haven’t been sleeping. This series really felt like it needs to be written but I want to acknowledge that I lack my usual perspective. This is really me, figuring some stuff out along side all of you. I hope it still proves useful.

I sincerely hope that you take the time to read and really parse through all of this. I think the link I provided have some super clarifying stuff in them. A lot has happened in the past week and this moment holds a lot of import for what happens next. I wanted to give some context that some of friends not really engaged in the Movement for Black Lives might not have. To make it easier, I will break down this essay (which is now at almost 20,000 words lol) into several more manageable essays.

This first one gives a brief overview (no where near a cohesive response) of what happened. The next essay will get into how different political stripes view what happened which will set up a third essay about why did this happen now and in this way. Hopefully I have capacity to write about the implications but I haven’t started that yet.

To that effect, I spent a couple of hours trying to get a handle on just what happened. Luckily, in this internet age there was a few timelines of the past days to help me get a sense of what actually happened:

What Happened?

[6/23/2020 Edit. Here is compilation by Amnesty International of Police Violence during the first week of the Uprisings]

The events of the past couple of days defy easy answers and explanations. What seems clear is that each city reacted differently both in terms of protestors and police actions. It also seems clear that the calls about outside agitators has mostly been disproven as arrest records in Minneapolis for example show that most arrested lived in or near the city they were arrested in. [And of course many people live in cities but take years to get new licenses].

In D.C, where I have the most personal experience and connections, almost all of my friends have noted that the protests are largely residents, with many pointing out the surprising number of young Black people [D.C has a history of white people doing “national protests” forgetting that the capital is also home to 700,000 people who are mostly not-white].

So, basically, there were wide spread protests against police brutality and the general fucked-up-ness of U.S Society right now. The protests were incredibly broad with every state and hundreds of cities having protests. According to the Washington Post, over 650 cities have had protests! Even small white towns are having protests.

It also seems clear that the protestors have generally not be engaged in rioting and property destruction. Compared to hundreds of thousands of people in the streets, the damage in minimal. But in some cities, the property damage was extensive, at levels not seen in a long time. This list of building damaged in Minneapolis provides a decent picture. Perhaps the most breath-taking moment so far has been the burning down of police stations in Minneapolis.

There really isn’t enough words to give credence to the significance of that act. To me, this is greatest example of direct action in recent memory. It shows the ability of a community to seriously impair the ability of an oppressive institution to harm them without needing to hurt anyone. While liberals might cry about property destruction, no cops were killed to burn down this building yet it lessens the ability for cops from being able to wander this community killing people. Still, this sort of action is not typical of what we saw across the country.

So, in general I would say that protests have been massive with some cities having intense protests that shut them down and rocked whole regions but most have been normal protests happening in places where they don’t usually happen. Though, with the rabid police response that typified many cities’ experiences we could hardly describe them as “peaceful.” As intense as the Uprising in Minneapolis is, I do think–though I can’t believe I’m saying this–it is dwarfed by the massive overreaction of the cops before and after. Many journalist are pointing out that the past two weeks could be best described as a police riot.

A salon article by Andrew O’Hehir put it like this:

If you’ve spent any time on social media in the last few days, you’ve seen this stuff: Numerous journalists have been shot, beaten, attacked or arrested by police. Freelance photographer Lisa Tirado reported that she was permanently blinded in one eye after being struck by a rubber bullet or some similar projectile on the street in Minneapolis. Journalists in Louisville shot video of police apparently targeting them with pepper balls.

“New York police drove an SUV through a crowd of protesters in the Flatbush neighborhood of Brooklyn; by sheer good luck, no one was seriously hurt. In Atlanta, police assaulted two people in a car for no evident reason, smashing the windows, subduing the couple with Tasers and forcibly dragging them from the vehicle. In Erie, Pennsylvania, a young woman was maced and then kicked by police while she was sitting on the ground. In Salt Lake City, an officer shoved an elderly man with a cane to the street. We could keep going with this, but you get the point.

The militarized police response is perhaps the biggest factor that feels “new.” The police have always been brutal and often repressed protests through wanton violence. Yet, they have generally tried not to mess with their most sympathetic supporters: middle income white people. It appears like they just said “fuck it.” The video from Minneapolis of the police and national guard firing at people on their porches, or the journalist intentionally targeted by cops or chasing protestors into private houses with tear gas in D.C point to a turn in policing to outright fascism.

At the same time, there have been clips of police officers kneeling with protestors, hugging protestors and even police chiefs making statements about how terrible these killings are. In a moment where it might feel to some of us that things are unraveling into something scary and dangerous, these pictures are calming. The offer an anecdote to all the hate and violence that we see. They offer hope that maybe, just maybe, we can work this out peacefully, civilly.

That’s exactly what they are designed to do.

“We’ve seen officers kneeling in the same departments that are brutalizing journalists and protesters,” said Philip Atiba Goff, director of the Center for Policing Equity research center. “You can’t say justice for George Floyd, that you condemn the actions, while you condone the actions in your own house.”

A Brief Aside About The Culture of Policing in the U.S

We should be very skeptical of these PR stunts. Some of the same police departments that had photo ops of police kneeling later brutally beat and pepper sprayed protestors later that same day. It is undoubtedly true that there are cops who truly care, I am related to a few of them. There are police chiefs who really want to make changes. But they are no where near as organized, prominent or connected as the cops that see them selves as members of a “wartime police department.”

The culture of policing in America is the same persistent siege mentality and unstable persecution complex that Donald Trump has. As the endorsement of Trump by the International Union of Police officers shows, they believe they are great but constantly attacked and constantly undermined by Democrats who “make criminals into victims.”

It is telling, if ironic, to see the police unions being so partisan. The Democrats are not all or even predominately for significant police reform. The most radical approaches to police brutality on the national democratic scene still go out of the way to valorize the work that police officers do. Here is section of the Criminal Justice Reform Plank of the 2016 Democratic platform :

We will rebuild the bonds of trust between law enforcement and the communities they serve. Across the country, there are police officers inspiring trust and confidence, honorably doing their duty, deploying creative and effective strategies, and demonstrating that it is possible to prevent crime without relying on unnecessary force. They deserve our respect and support, and we should learn from those examples and build on what works

That’s hardly a condemnation of the policing. Biden has gone out of his way to say that he is not for defunding the police. The truth is that weren’t really sides before the police choose one. 5 years ago, when the Uprising in Ferguson catalyzed a movement, there was a debate with radical Black people about what do to with the police. Many Black people have lived with crime all their lives and so no alternative to the police, so they simply wanted police to “stop shooting them.” Others say police brutality as a feature of the system, not a bug.

Yet organizers didn’t have a lot people agreeing with them. They certainty didn’t have many politicians on their side. They were a small, group that happened to be pretty prescient about what kind of change would be necessary but they were hardly a social force that people could side with. But I think the police themselves have clearly shown that there is no reform that they will accept, making the question of reform mute. It doesn’t matter if reforming the police is theoretical possible, if they are just going to ignore it like they ignored the Mayor of Portland’s pause on tear gas.

The city of Minneapolis, at the center of the protest and uprising, is also on the edge understanding what the police really are. A really monumental report was done 2016 called “enough is enough” and available at The report explains in great detail through rigorous analysis, historical investigation and interviews that the police do not keep communities safe and are not reformable.

The US police system, we contend, is not reformable. Efforts to reform it – aimed at addressing recruitment, training, discipline, oversight and transparency -are quickly and effectively neutralized by the organized opposition of police departments and their unions and professional associations. In fact, these cycles of reform -looking remarkably the same from one decade to the next -serve to temporarily pacify resistance from victimized communities without altering police business as usual. They also reassure white communities, who are spared the mistreatment directed at their darker-skinned neighbors and often turn to the police for security. In the short term, reigning in police abuse by demanding reforms can provide only limited relief.

[emphasis added]

The police that threaten the Mayor of NYC are not going to be non-violent. They are not going to be reigned in. They have consistently attacked any of their own members who speak out against their culture. The report, “Whistleblowing and the Police,” explains why this is:

“That groups develop and attempt to enforce norms about appropriate behavior is well documented.” This is particularly true in police work where, from day one, rookie cops experience peer group socialization. “‘Forget what you learned in the police academy,’ veteran partners or sergeants will tell them. ‘I’ll show you what police work is really all about.’” As retired Minneapolis police chief Anthony Bouza describes it, “the internal culture impinges importantly on new entrants.”

According to Marcia P. Miceli and Janet P. Near, groups are particularly powerful when focal members are highly dependent on them, because they are “credible,” they “provide… information,” and “tasks are interdependent.” Police officers are dependent on their peers and they look to their peers for the information and guidance they need to succeed. The peer group provides on-the-job training. Officers tend to respond to values communicated in daily action “rather than from written policy.” The group norm defines what they should and should not do. The norms may even define right and wrong differently than a group member may believe in isolation.

The nature of police work also helps to define the group. Police bond “through the emotional glue of shared dangers” and because their “universe” so dramatically separates them from “civilians.” One of the most respected tenets of the group is loyalty.

The Cato institute published a article police brutality that has a anecdote that illustrates the kind of culture I am talking about:

In 2010, the Village Voice published an exposé of New York City police officers in Bedford-Stuyvesant’s 81st Precinct. The report was based on secret tape recordings by an officer in the department that revealed police practices that had been denied publicly, including arrest quotas and manipulation of criminal charges to satisfy departmental statistical goals.

The whistleblower, Officer Adrian Schoolcraft, was dragged from his apartment by police supervisors, and involuntarily committed to a mental health facility for six days—on those supervisors’ claims of instability. (Claims proved to be false by yet another Schoolcraft secret recording.) After his release, he was harassed at his home by officers on numerous occasions.

As much as procedural cop shows love to talk about paper work, police are by and large not bureaucrats. They have a large degree of autonomy and are expected to make legal and ethical decisions beyond their pay-grade. Most bureaucrats are constantly watched not only by their peers but by legislative and public oversight. They are also mandatory reporters for most types of things. Social workers have to report child abuse. Auditors have to report financial crimes. While cops might be legally required to report crime, they are also generally expected to make judgement calls. When their judgement is questioned it is their union that steps in to protect them and handle discipline not some outside agency.

Police departments display common organizational features. Daily, police-officers in the field exercise autonomy and their own judgment without supervision and much oversight. The many quick judgment calls police officers are required to make are a matter of “art, not science” because of the often dangerous and confusing nature of the situations that officers face. Dealing with a wide range of incidents, where “no two days work are ever the same,” the patrol officer, either alone or with a partner, “must impose authority on people who are unpredictable, apprehensive, and often hostile.”

“The number of different duties which a police officer may be called upon to perform is almost endless.” “Most of the time when an officer on patrol is summoned … he or she can expect to encounter a situation in which great discretion must be exercised over matters of the utmost importance (life-and-death, honor and dishonor) involving frightened, drunk,quarrelsome, confused, angry, injured, evasive, or violent people.” Thus, when police-officers “take charge” and try to restore order, they alone, have to decide who is telling the truth, who started the encounter, who is the victim, and who is the perpetrator. This an organizational characteristic common to police work. The job is “unusually demanding and dangerous.” Lack of supervision is an important characteristic of this extraordinary exercise of autonomy.

The discretion of police officers exercised on the streets is virtually free of control by superiors at the station house. And since, as James Q. Wilson suggests,“police work does not leave a paper trail,” patrol officers can use discretion “without worrying that each and every act will be reviewed.”18The activities leading to their judgment calls often involve “a long, subtle, low-visibility process of interviewing-victims, observing people, and questioning suspects,” all “in the absence of supervisor.”

This autonomy is really need in the “proactive enforcement” model of policy we have where cops are expected to prevent crime. But it is almost impossible to know if cops are preventing crime. How do do know the number of crimes you prevent? Likewise, how do you know if your cops are presence is reducing crime, if they are playing basketball with local kids to build trust or if they spent their time cleaning up abandoned lots? As a supervisor, you don’t. Thus there is a big temptation to have quotas because you can track how many people they pull over, how many youth they pat down and how many guns they recover.

So, even without racial or class biases in policing there is a practical need for quotas to simply get the data on whether or not this system is working. There is, at the same time, a massive disincentive to collect data on the social cost of proactive policing. Does being treated like a criminal lead to more crime? Does the stress of over-policing led to more conflict within heavily policed communities. Do youth who feel violated and angered by interactions with the cops then feel a need to vent that anger? With the community programs defunded and schools looking like prisons what are chances that excess energy is put out in “pro-social” ways. When “quality of life crimes” including graffiti and noise violations are also criminalized proactive policing seems to cause of vicious cycle we police create very crime that justifies their existence.

There is a lot evidence to suggest that, even without racial bias (which is a big if) the combination of having people tasked with preventing crime, the autonomy to make judgement calls about what is or isn’t illegal and the ability to use force is a recipe for disaster. Those three things are the essence of what police say they are. At the very least police are set up to fail and will always fail. At the worst they are set up to become the hired thugs of a carceral klepto -fascist regime with paranoid delusions of both grandeur and persecution which is the only way I think to describe the Trump regime. You will see below that that is exactly what they have become.

Other Notable Incidents

Military Invasion of D.C

In other news, Muriel Bowser, continues to pretend like she thinks Black Lives Matter. She has been trying to play up a feud with the President publicly. Yet residents remember that she initially tried to work with Trump and “mend relationships” after the city overwhelming voted for Clinton. Just like residents remember how excited she was about the Trump hotel.

The Mayor, who initially requested the national guard and established the curfew on election night that gave the police wide latitude and discretion to arrest anyone after 7pm, tried to an about face and become a leader of the “resistance.” She later asked for Federal law enforcement to be removed after it became clear that she would not be in control of the police response but would be responsible for governing the citizens afterwards.

It’s hard to fully explain to people how militarized D.C became. First, you have to understand how heavily policed D.C is on a “normal day.” There are 4 local police departments in D.C. [Park Police, Capital Police, District of Columbia Protective Services Division, Metropolitan Police Department.] They have “4,262 sworn police officers, about 722 for each 100,000 residents.” [Wikipedia] That means there is a cop roughly for every 138 people! On top of that, there are more than 30 additional police and law enforcement agencies with an official presence in D.C.

This includes everything from the FBI, DEA, to the Secret Service Police (who are different that the secret service that protects the president and treasury). There are federal protective services who are supposed to protect federal employees and buildings. Then there are seemingly random police like the Federal Publishing Office Police. You can see the list here.

So, in addition to that, Bowser’s call for the National Guard led Trump to send over 4,900 National Guard Troops to D.C. Combined with just the local sworn officers (this doesn’t include the FBI, DEA and other agencies who numbers I don’t know) up to over 9000 sworn officers. This is an sworn officer for every 80 people. In addition to this, there were “unbadged, unsworn” people out of uniform in mismatched riot gear patrolling D.C street.

The fact that there was one Black person in the group is the only thing that might lead you to believe that these dudes are anything other than a racist militia. Once you realize that they is a lot of evidence that they were unsworn members of Federal Bureau of Prisons, you realize that they are in fact a racist militia, just one funded by the tax payers and under control of an authoritarian president!

The officers, some wearing Texas patches and insignia on their outfits, refused to identify themselves or the agency they represented, raising questions among bystanders about who the unmarked forces were. But on Thursday, the Bureau of Prisons confirmed to The Dallas Morning News that it dispatched tactical teams to two cities, saying their forces were not wearing uniforms that identified them as prison officers “because they are serving a broader mission.”

The Mayor knew that calling a state of emergency and requesting national guard would put the President in control of the city. Instead of releasing a reform package to quell anger, working with community leaders to find outlets for the community pain, letting youth blow up steam with protecting lives or even calling for support from local police departments she turned the city over to a maniac! Local pacifist like me were not the only ones alarmed. Trump’s actions were widely condemned by the military community:

Colin L. Powell, a retired Army general who was the first African-American national security adviser, Joint Chiefs chairman and secretary of state, called Mr. Trump’s actions “dangerous for our democracy” and “dangerous for our country.”

A group of former military leaders and ambassadors launched an open letter condemning the issue.

The United States is passing through a period unlike any our country has experienced before. Our population, our society, and our economy have been devastated by the pandemic and the resulting depression-level unemployment. We deplore the brutal killing of George Floyd by police officers in Minneapolis which has provoked more widespread protests than the United States has seen in decades.

As former American ambassadors, generals and admirals, and senior federal officials, we are alarmed by calls from the President and some political leaders for the use of U.S. military personnel to end legitimate protests in cities and towns across America.

Mike Mullen, Former Chair of the Joint Chief of Staff released a statement that titled “I cannot Remain Silent: Our fellow citizens are not the enemy, and must never become so.”

Trump’s Former Secretary of Defense Jim Mattis released a similar statement.

I have watched this week’s unfolding events, angry and appalled. The words “Equal Justice Under Law” are carved in the pediment of the United States Supreme Court. This is precisely what protesters are rightly demanding. It is a wholesome and unifying demand — one that all of us should be able to get behind. We must not be distracted by a small number of lawbreakers. The protests are defined by tens of thousands of people of conscience who are insisting that we live up to our values — our values as people and our values as a nation.

When I joined the military, some 50 years ago, I swore an oath to support and defend the Constitution. Never did I dream that troops taking that same oath would be ordered under any circumstance to violate the Constitutional rights of their fellow citizens — much less to provide a bizarre photo op for the elected commander-in-chief, with military leadership standing alongside.

The turning point for the military, or inflection point, Admiral Mullen put it, was both calls by the President for the Military to “dominate” protestors and particularly the use of force in from of the church for a photo op. On Monday June 1st Trump had secret service and national guard members clear out a space in from of St. John’s Church. The church had received some minor damage in the unrest the night before.

The protestors were not given any notice and were protesting calmly. The Right Rev. Mariann Budde, bishop of the Episcopal Diocese of Washington and head of that particular church was there standing with the protestors when Trump cleared the area.

Right Rev. Budde left, Trump infront of St. John’s church right, riot police middle.

“I am the bishop of the Episcopal Diocese of Washington and was not given even a courtesy call, that they would be clearing [the area] with tear gas so they could use one of our churches as a prop,” Budde said.

She excoriated the president for standing in front of the church — its windows boarded up with plywood — holding up a Bible, which Budde said “declares that God is love.”

“Everything he has said and done is to inflame violence,” Budde of the president. “We need moral leadership, and he’s done everything to divide us.”

In a written statement, Presiding Bishop Michael Curry, head of the Episcopal denomination, accused Trump of using “a church building and the Holy Bible for partisan political purposes.”

I honestly, I could go on and on about the craziness that unfolded. The military hardware that was used. The Black Hawk helicopters in the sky. The chemicals used to disrupt protests. It was a lot. People I know who have been protesting in D.C, gotten broken bones from past protests, still say that this is craziest response the have seen. It is not the level of response that Trump wanted, he wanted the actual active duty military on the scene with live ammo. That fact should scare all of us.

We were only saved from that alternative history by a military leadership core that believes in American and specifically domestic exceptionalism. A military leadership that Trump has routinely fired when they disagree with him. Any more time with Trump as Commander-in-Chief might see this military leadership with replaced by less scrupulous, less capable, more sycophantic leaders as the firing of a Navy Admiral over the rogue navy seal commander shows.

Bowser’s Fake Support Starts a Trend

As the level of overreaction became clear, Bowser has attempted to be seen as at odds with the President who she has previously tried to work with. This included painting a street that heads to the White house Black Lives Matter and renaming the street Black Lives Matter Plaza. Out of context this looks like a really dope move by a Black Mayor, yet those who know Bowser’s politics see it differently. BLM DC had this to say in a statment:

Today Black Lives Matter DC stands in solidarity with freedom fighters all over the world to honor the lives of George Floyd, Breonna Taylor, Tony McDade, Dreasjon Reed, and as always those we have lost to police here in DC:

These are the names of the people that performative Black Lives Matter street art leaves out. These are the names that fuel our commitment to #DefundPolice and #StopMPD. We know that for some DC is the seat of power and imperialism, the symbolic representation of harmful systems but it is also home to hundreds of thousands of Black people who are oppressed by the very systems people claim to be against. It never fails that in the national discourse people ignore those killed right here in DC by police while protesting police brutality and murder in our city.

We stand by our critique of the DC Mayor Muriel Bowser after the unveiling of the Black Lives Matter Mural and the renaming of Black Lives Matter Plaza. “Black Lives Matter” is a complete statement. There is no grey area or ambiguity. We hold that we have a duty to the loved ones named above to ensure that they are not forgotten and their deaths are not exploited for publicity, performance, or distraction. Mayor Muriel Bowser must be held accountable for the lip service she pays in making such a statement while she continues to intentionally underfund and cut services and programs that meet the basic survival needs of Black people in DC.

Later local Movement for Black Lives groups including BLM DC and BYP 100 had volunteers add to the mural. The said Black Lives Matter = Defund the Police. I really can’t think of a more fitting response to Bowser’s attempt to co-opt support for the Movement to cover her own political miscalculations.

This has started a trend of similar Murals around the country.

A mural in Charlotte, North Carolina

More and More Alt-Right Groups showing up

While the “outside agitator” trope has been most disproved there were a lot of reports of right-wing presence at protests including the “boogalo movement” that is gaining notoriety right now. [ I strongly suggest folks read this long but informative article on the movement.] The FBI is reporting that there was very little presence from antifa despite much fearmongering by the President. My friends in the movement have reported that many of folks we know in local antifa movements were intentionally staying away form any organized presence at protests.

A respected comrade of mine who does a lot of D.C’s street medic work has a couple great threads on Twitter about the infiltration of right-wingers into street medic work in D.C. Now, I am personally of the school of thought that not all the boogalo folks are racist and that we should try to organize the ones that are not racist so that they don’t become racist. But I also think its important to be very aware of who is working with us and not it reasonable to worry about people who also work with fascist. Counter Organizing does not mean bringing into the fold during a crisis!

Okay, I think that is enough for now. In my next piece I hope to look at the different arguments around is this a massive protest, an uprising or a riot and the history behind those three ways of looking at it.

One thought on “Making Sense of This Moment: What Actually Happened pt1

  1. Pingback: Making Sense of This Moment: What Actually Happened pt 2.1 | The Well Examined Life

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