✏️ Amy Tierney
It has been over a week since George Floyd, an unarmed black man, was murdered in broad daylight by police officer Derek Chauvin in ‘the land of the free’ over a $20 bill. His murder, watched by thousands online, has sparked protests against police brutality against people of colour across globe, from the scene of the crime in Minneapolis as far as Berlin and London.
Protests have quickly turned violent with reports of rioting, looting and increased violence by the same police forces that protesters are holding in contempt for the murder of one of their own. In this piece I intend to shine a light on the escalation of violence by the police and the people while also commenting on why the protests have turned into opportunities for some to commit acts of crime such as theft and assault.
If a building was on fire, you would not attempt to put it out by pouring gasoline into the flames. That is what is happening in America right now. How can local and national governments attempt to fix an issue by using the problem in their defence? By sending the police and national guard into the peaceful protests against them, they are simply throwing gas on the fire.
The use of an institutionally racist system should not be used to disperse a protest against police brutality and racism. It is an attempt to control protesters using fear, fear of being a victim of unjust measures themselves, of being attacked with rubber bullets, batons, tasers and tear gas, fear that people in the black community already face every day.
Despite the violence being used by police forces across the country, most main media outlets are focusing their coverage on the violence of a minority of protesters, specifically the looting taking place after imposed state curfews. The focus on violence instead of the peaceful protest and the reason for the anger felt by so many across the globe in regard to the murder of George Floyd by the media is a danger in itself to society.
The overwhelming coverage of looting and riots is likely to further enforce the view held by racists and much of the police force that black people are ‘dangerous’ and considered a threat to peace, despite this being an inaccurate representation and the fact that the majority of those looting are not members of the organisations initiating the protests.
It is however, important to look at why some people take the initiative to loot and use violence during a time of crisis such as this. Studies by well-established criminologists such as Merton and Agnew have shown looting to be a result of strain and labelling. Strain occurs when someone’s social bonds to society, those that create our collective conscience of right and wrong, are weakened.
This is often as a result of inequality or feeling like there is no way out of your socio-economic situation. People who are protesting the use of aggression by the police force in America through means of looting and violence are likely to be experiencing strain as a result of feeling helpless and unable to see a way out of the current situation of police brutality and racism.
The weakening of social bonds results in anger at the system, which some people take out with criminal activity. Rioting and looting therefore isn’t just people taking advantage of a situation and using it for self-serving purposes, but simply lashing out in one of the only ways they can see how to.
Speaking to someone who has witnessed the looting first hand this week in New York gave me an insight into the anger being felt across the state, “the police and the media feel so strongly about the destruction of property and stealing goods…when will they feel the anger that we feel when they steal from us”. The protester I spoke to compared the anger he felt to that the police felt claiming, “We’re taking their material items that can be replaced, they’re taking our rights, our lives. There is no comparison”.
Citizens accept the authority of a government or institution based on a social contract, a concept discussed by Rousseau in his work The Social Contract (1762). The United States made a vow in their constitution to supply all of its people with equal protection of the law.
The police also made a vow, ‘to protect and serve’, yet it is failing to do this for thousands of black Americans across all states.
To take part in a social contract, citizens sacrifice some of their individual rights in order to protect society’s rights as a whole. Society’s rights are no longer being protected by the system, so people are rioting to show the authorities that without them allowing them power, they do not have it. The social contract is dead, and the riots are a result of the breakdown of the social contract we chose to enter into.
Every revolution in history started as a riot against oppression; Stonewall (1969), France (1789) and even the American revolution in the 18th century that was intended to create the rights of the American people that are being infringed upon every day by those who vow to ‘serve and protect’. These ‘revolutions’ are no longer seen as riots due to their success and social acceptance.
The leaders of the protests and riots in America this week will be seen as the early members of the Black Lives Matter Revolution in years to come. It is simply a case of people in power recognising their flaws and the institutional racism that has engulfed not just America but the world and helping change a system that was created to oppress minorities, and does very well in its aim.
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