#Black Lives Matter: Does protest?

Large demonstrations yesterday in Washington, DC and New York City–and smaller ones across the United States–kept public attention on the issue of police violence. Activists–and others who just might come out next time–wonder whether anything will come of this moment of attention.

The police killing of Michael Brown, an unarmed teenager, in Ferguson, Missouri, was the spark that set off this round of national attention.  There’s no kind of good policing in which a dozen shots are fired at an unarmed man.  As if to underscore how poor this policing was, Michael Brown’s body was left on the streets for hours afterward, and police overreacted and inflamed the understandable public protests that followed.

It was about Michael Brown and his family, the sad tale of a life lost, but it was never just about Michael Brown.  Across the United States, activists recalled the names of young black and Latino men killed by police, and a much larger number of men recalled non-fatal instances of police harassment.

The failure of a grand jury to indict the police officer who killed Michael Brown stoked the outrage, while the video of a police officer in Staten Island choking Eric Garner to death circulated.  Again, we don’t want police strangling unarmed young men, even if they’re selling cigarettes illegally.  And again, another grand jury far from Missouri chose not to indict the police officer.

Demonstrations spread across the United States; protesters marched with their hands up.  “I can’t breathe,” audible in the Eric Garner video, appeared in signs and chants.  Sometimes, protesters clashed with police.  But this time the campaign was bigger than a protest against a particular instance of police violence.  The message–and the movement–spread beyond familiar campaigners against police brutality; the crowds became increasingly diverse in terms of age and race.

Medical students nationwide held die-ins to identify violent policing as a public health hazard.  At right are the medical students from Harvard University, and that’s not a study break.

John Legend and Chrissy Teigen (musician and model/food blogger), not previously known for their politics, hired food trucks to feed protesters in New York City.

Chris Magnus, the police chief of Richmond, Virginia, joined the demonstrators in his city last week, wearing his uniform–provoking criticism from some of his own officers.

The point: this time the protests against police violence has spread far beyond “the usual suspects”–and I use that loaded term intentionally.

But winning indictments, much less criminal convictions, of the particular police officers who killed these young men, is extremely unlikely.  After all, our criminal justice system is designed to insulate the legal system from popular pressures–for good and ill.  More than that, a trial–and even a conviction–placing the responsibility for systematic injustice on the shoulders of one officer–is hardly an adequate response anyway.

What would be?

Alas, we have a long record of episodes of concern about racialized policing.   You remember the petitions and protests around Trayvon Martin’s killing two years ago (by a community watch volunteer–warned by the police).  You may have only heard of the national wave of attention that followed the beating of Rodney King and the acquittal of the Los Angeles police officers who participated in it–vigorously.  After that 1992 acquittal, people in Los Angeles–and around North America–protested, sometimes violently.  Fifty three people were killed in Los Angeles, more than 2,000 were injured, and authorities called the military in to end the unrest.

The King riots produced a commission on policing in Los Angeles, and ultimately reforms in police procedures.  Bureaucratically, the tenure of police chiefs was no longer essentially unlimited, but subject to renewal every five years.  Demographically, the leadership and composition of the police force diversified, with black and Latino officers increasingly visible.  Programmatically, Los Angeles hired a large number of new officers, and the police faced new restrictions on the use of force.  All this stuff should matter.  Police say it does. 

But read any article detailing changes in policing in Los Angeles and you’ll find the comments section filled with the names of black and Latino men–in LA and elsewhere–who have been the victims of police violence.

Does this mean no progress? or unrealistic expectations? or just the difficulty of realizing how much work it is to make even incremental progress?

The next step for activists is to move beyond the specific cases to the larger cause and make claims that extend beyond indictments.



About David S. Meyer

Author and professor of Sociology and Political Science at the University of California, Irvine
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