- Glenn Sonnenberg
Musings from the Bunker 6/7/20
We have all been concerned this past month about the terrible handling of the COVID-19 pandemic and the lack of leadership in Washington. It is hard to believe that such a scourge—which still poses risk and that has devastated lives and livelihoods—has been moved off the front page, if only temporarily. But everything changed with the murder of George Floyd. There is hope that addressing police brutality, mass incarceration and the racial injustices in our nation may finally move to the front burner. That these inhumane things continue to exist over 150 years after the Civil War makes me ashamed of this lack of progress.
And then something happened that made me proud to be an American. During the course of this week, Andrea and I tagged along with Jake and Lauren to three protests. There is nothing quite as American as complaining. It is even more American to complain about something as important as this. At these protests, we saw people of various ethnicities and ages giving voice to their outrage. And we saw not one act of violence, not one act of property damage, and, other than temporary street blockages, not one crime.
No doubt not all protests have been as peaceful as those we witnessed. No doubt some protestors committed acts of vandalism (although most observers have concluded the majority of this was the work of opportunistic criminal behavior unrelated to the protests). Obviously, there is no excuse for burning down someone else’s place of business or for defacing property, and certainly not for putting someone else in physical danger. But to focus on these concerns dilutes the lessons of this past week, and we will empower those who choose not to act by focusing on some unfortunate byproducts of legitimate outrage.
VIOLENCE ENCOURAGED BY OUR LEADER
Clearly the protests around the White House devolved into violence—but largely because they were instigated by the propagator-of-violence-in-chief. But let’s remember that the violence was largely caused by peace officers enforcing orders from the President. He directed forces under oath to protect and defend the constitution to aggressively push, shove, gas and club citizens peaceably assembled in protest for a history of murders of black men, in order to clear the way for him to have a photo op at a church he doesn’t attend, with a bible he doesn’t own (nor, I would hazard a guess, has read), without making a statement (either of support, or urging calm and healing), when neither he nor anyone else was in danger. That’s the leadership we’ve come to expect from a man unfit for the office.
LOOK AT THE PERPETRATORS—NOT THE VICTIM
Some people are posting on Facebook that George Floyd was not a model citizen. But this is not about the character of the victim. He posed no harm. The stuff floating around the internet about his not being a role model reprehensible. I don’t care if he was drunk, resisted arrest, or committed crimes in plain view of the police (which he didn’t)—NO ONE DESERVES TO DIE IN POLICE CUSTODY. Just as no one deserves to die in a traffic stop, or walking home, or sitting in their own home when the police burst in.
To be clear, I think most police officers are good people who are dedicated to faithfully discharging their duty to protect the public. But there some people who should not never have been permitted to become or remain police officers. More importantly, the system of policing and the attitude of the police—at least in some jurisdictions—is broken. This will require much effort from the police themselves, elected representatives and the public.
MOVIE TIME—WITH A PURPOSE
We came home Thursday night to watch the documentary, 13th. It is the story of Jim Crow and the racism that ensued after the passage of the 13th Amendment, which outlawed slavery in this country. I recommend this film, available on Netflix, not because you necessarily will learn something new. I recommend it because it will remind you of the history we all know or have lived through. These reminders should move us to act.
SOME THINGS WE CAN DO
As is the case with many instances of great change, it will not come from the top down (and, it is safe to say that this is especially true today). It will come from localities demanding better policing and reforms in the system. Given their actions this past week, it may well begin with the police chiefs. But it also must be enforced at the ballot box. Among the many “takeaways” is that I will never vote for the “law and order” candidate again. We need to elect representatives at all levels of government who will dismantle the “three strikes” regime, establish rehabilitation (versus retribution) as the primary objective of the criminal justice system, decriminalize activities that require medical treatment (like drug use), eliminate cash bail for all but those who truly can be demonstrated a risk to public safety, take a sledge-hammer to the private prison system, and fix the infrastructures that lead toward criminalization and incarceration, including homelessness, and poor educational alternatives.
We need to get smart about ending the perpetuation of mass incarceration. One thing particularly shocking is that many people are imprisoned in jails because they are being held without bail before a court hearing (as yet not convicted of anything). Here’s an article from the The Atlantic about our woeful bail system and what we can do: https://www.theatlantic.com/culture/archive/2020/06/why-sudden-popularity-bail-funds-matters/612733/
WHAT DO PROTESTS ACCOMPLISH?
While listening to a speaker at the protest on Thursday, I was trying to think what these protests accomplish. Being a temporary blip in the news cycle can’t be it. Participating in the energy is great, but might not be too productive. Expecting that our political leaders act upon these protests would be great. But sitting in the back seat of our car on Santa Monica, I contemplated what our presence might mean at that moment. Then it came to me that the greatest value of these protests is simply that people were present—most of them not the victims of racism. Our presence, being a few more people in the crowd, so that those who truly are harmed by these injustices can see that there are a few more people out there standing with them, perhaps is the greatest value of all.
Now we need to vote, reduce the effects of cash bail, and agitate for justice and police reform.
Better days lie ahead,