I don’t write about politics on this blog, even though I’m very interested in politics and society. But the death of George Floyd and the ongoing protests make me feel that I should make an exception. Speaking out is the minimum I can do, the minimum I should do.
Keep in mind that I’m writing this as privileged person living in Belgium. If you feel any of this is wrong, I’m open for (civilized) discussion.
On Police Violence in the US
As an outsider, it certainly seems that the US, or at least certain parts of it, has a problem of police violence. Moreover, this violence is mainly aimed at minorities.
I believe at least two things are at play here.
First, the dynamics inside police schools and departments. Is it necessary to sit on someones neck to keep them under control? It’s probably sufficient to sit on their back. There might be other ways. I don’t think it’s technique used in Belgium often, if at all.
So is this taught in the police schools or in the departments? Or is it a remnant of some macho cowboy culture of the past? I have no answer here, but somehow, a group of police officers should learn how to remain calm, assess the situation and be open for dialogue with citizens. At least in the situations where there is no need for an overwhelming show of power.
There’s also the code of silence by other police officers. There are probably officers who want to see change but are afraid of speaking out in an organization that doesn’t accept a differing view.
These all indicate that some police departments have a rotten culture that needs to change.
But then there’s a second thing playing. That many (black) people in the US are truly afraid of the police is a testament to how they’re being treated. In Belgium, there are definitely groups that have recurring problems with the police (and vice-versa). But I dare say they’re not scared of the police. Not scared to death (figuratively and literally). Because while they may have incidents, while the groups may dislike or hate each other, and while they may even have physical fights now and then, they aren’t afraid that a simple argument in words will kill them. End up in jail for a few hours yes, but not in a coffin.
This also touches on the subtle and not so subtle racism that many minorities in the US are still subjected to. This is seen in the actions of many police departments, but not only there. It also happens in the job market, the house market, in shops, on the streets, and in many organizations.
As long as this isn’t fixed, situations like the current will occur again in the future. And this is a word of warning to other countries like my own, as I mention below.
Is this all Trumps fault? No, because the systems working against minorities have been doing their work for years. But Trump did make things worse by making open racism seem OK and by setting up groups against each other.
Will Biden (or any other Democratic candidate in the future) fix this? I don’t believe so, because US politics are more complex than the one person that is president.
Any change will have to come from the bottom up until the top is forced to follow.
On Violence And Riots
Violence Can Work
Contrary to common belief, violence can bring about social and political change. This doesn’t mean I’m advocating for violence or justifying it. It’s just a fact.
Don’t agree? The examples are spread out through history. Here are just a handful:
- the French revolution
- the American revolution
- the Belgian revolution
- the defeat of Nazism in World War 2
- the struggle for the right to vote in many countries
- the fight for worker’s rights in many countries
- the many revolutions in the Arabian world (Libya, Tunisia, Egypt,…)
This might not be the reality many people want to see. Violence always means someone loses. Many times their lives. So it is not only a positive outcome. But reality is what it is.
Of course, there are examples of revolutions or changes without violence. So at least we can conclude that it’s complicated. But saying that violence is never the answer is wrong, how unfortunate that may be.
Violence Breeds Violence
But, you might say, violence wouldn’t have been necessary in the above examples if there hadn’t been violence to begin with (oppression of workers, the Nazi’s conquering Europe, etc).
True, but are you then saying that violence can at least be an answer to other violence? You see that this argument leaves the pacifist in a bit of a conundrum. Violence shouldn’t be necessary if there isn’t violence, but looking at the world I can only take note of the violence that is happening. And sometimes things get resolved peacefully, sometimes not.
Hurt people long enough and they will lash out. History has learned us this. I’m not judging here (good or bad). I’m just observing the mechanism. As they say: “a beaten dog soon turns to bite.”
Violence Turns People Away
But, you might say, violence only puts the cause in bad daylight. Now that is true. At least to a group of people. Usually people that have a lot to lose: people in power, but also business owners both big and small.
So this is a tough one. Even though violence does sometimes work and is understandable, it can harm a cause. If enough people are turned off by the violence, support will dwindle and a movement turns into a small group that nobody listens to anymore.
I believe in the current situation in the US, protesters will have to be prepared for violence (as video footage has shown, where police officers violently attack peaceful protesters and even journalists). Whether or not they answer that violence with other violence is not for me to decide.
But I also believe the protest movement might help their cause by identifying any looters and expelling them from their protests. Maybe they should even have “stewards” that physically remove looters from their protests. Looters direct their violence at the wrong target, in my opinion.
On Peaceful Protests
But let’s be honest: most protests have been peaceful.
I believe the movement should try hard to keep up the protests. The group of people that don’t want change can wait out a few days of protest. Heck, even the less polarizing politicians (not like Trump) could talk the talk about change and reconciliation after which nothing changes.
That is why only continued protest can really force change.
This should probably also be combined with concrete demands. Yes, the officer that killed George Floyd and the ones that stood there and watched should be prosecuted. But that won’t do enough to prevent the next death.
Why do so many police officers in the US take such an aggressive approach to law enforcement? Maybe there are better techniques? Why are these cases seldom investigated in a true independent fashion? These are just some of the questions that need to be addressed with concrete changes.
If these questions are let over to the politicians, chances are they will just apply cosmetic changes. I believe the movement must make real, concrete demands for specific changes.
Update: Erica Chenoweth made a study of protest movements and found that non-violent movements have twice the chance of achieving their goals. Movements that succeed in engaging 3.5% of the population have a very large chance of bringing about change. So while violence has been part of many movements for change, it’s important that violence remains the exception and not the chosen tactic.
What About Other Countries?
We Europeans often watch in disgust at the way many non-white people are treated in the US. But we often forget that Europe has its own portion of institutionalised racism.
It might be less along “race lines” (i.e. black vs white) and more along the lines of migrant vs non-migrant. Young people whose grandparents were migrants have continuously testified about the subtle racism they are subject to: more identity checks by the police, less chance of getting well-paid jobs, exclusion from renting certain houses, etc.
When it rains in the US, it often drizzles in Europe. I believe many young people with an immigration background in the US will (and already do) identify with black people in the US. And they will become more vocal as they see the movement grow in the US.
I sincerely hope the protests in the US can bring around real change and that we can do the same in Europe. As a privileged person (white, middle-class, higher education, good job,…) I have nothing to lose when my oppressed fellow citizens rise and demand change. On the contrary, society as a whole can only gain.