As citizens disobey curfews in 40 cities across the US, it is police versus protesters from coast to coast. Visuals of violent clashes, firebombs, looting and torching of stores, police firing, mass arrests are usually beamed from third world countries, where the dividing line between chaos and democracy tends to be thin.
The superpower seems bogged down, even defensive, battling its inner demons. The graffiti says it all: ‘I Can’t Breathe: George Floyd’. It has not only become a trending hashtag, but can also be seen on T-shirts and murals with the African-American’s face.
As an outsider in Washington DC, I witnessed the fragility of the republic during the past few days. Working on police reforms in India, I track the events around policing and crowd control. One also feels disoriented watching TV grabs of this laidback city burning, sirens blaring and helicopters patrolling the skies. Meanwhile, a colleague shares pictures of my temporary office in the Metro Centre building, with iconic showrooms looted and burnt down. It is depressing to see workers window-boarding rows of fashionable stores just blocks away from the White House.
But looting, vandalism and despair across the country is the side story. The main story is that streets in the US are seething with anger. The irony is difficult to miss – people who are out protesting police brutality must face their assault in full force. The cops symbolically retreated at a few places, knelt in deference to the victim and even walked a block or two with the protesters. But this has not stopped them from coming down heavily on the protesters using every weapon except actual bullets. Even the media has not been spared. The Committee to Protect Journalists (CPJ) has listed over 125 incidents of violence, harassment, arrests and targeting of journalists, mostly by the police.
The protesters are also the saving grace of this crisis. They are the microcosm of the young, modern and restless US. They come from all backgrounds, blacks and whites, Asians and Hispanics, men and women. In viral videos, protesters can be seen admonishing looters, pleading with them to stop. They are also seen cleaning the streets of glass fragments and objects thrown at the police from their own flanks, as also plastic bullets, empty shells of stun grenades and tear gas canisters which had left many injured and shocked. No recognisable leaders are in sight; the protests are led by youthful spontaneity. ‘No justice, No peace’, they chant and hold placards that read, ‘I can’t breathe’. Some others dare the cops to ‘shoot’ with their hands raised in surrender.
Unlike India where demonstrators often ‘court’ arrest to be let off by the evening, protesters in the US could spend years in the prison. This is not to suggest that the police in India are not brutal or selective. But states in the US like to use disproportionate crowd control laws. In Arizona, a protester can be jailed for one year for merely concealing identity. In North Dakota, one could go to prison for 10 years and face up to $20,000 in penalties if charges are framed as rioting. West Virginia eliminates police liability even for deaths of protesters while dispersing ‘rioters’ or unlawful assemblies.
A militarised police force
According to the US Protest Law Tracker, 22 stringent laws have been enacted and 29 others are pending at the state and federal levels. A combination of severe laws and a militarised police response makes protests in the US nothing short of heroic acts. The protesters have to expect the unexpected, such as a very low flying helicopter literally hovering dangerously over their heads in Washington DC or mounted police threatening to trample people in Houston or an officer in New York City ramming his SUV into the crowd. Two college students in Atlanta learnt this the hard way while driving close to a protest rally. One of them got 24 stitches and suffered a broken wrist when a group of very aggressive officers intercepted their car, shooting them with Taser guns.
Police officers in the US come fully armed, covered in body armour, and carrying batons and shields. Accompanying them are armoured vehicles in the size and shape of battle tanks which look incongruous on urban streets. Their presence on the road is enough to instigate fear, revulsion and intimidation. The National Defense Authorization Act 1990 allows transfer of ‘military-grade’ equipment to state agencies. Domestic law enforcement agencies have been given surplus military equipment worth billions of dollars since 1997, according to Human Rights Watch. It is standard operating procedure (SOP) for them to force a person to the ground, face down, with hands tied to the back. According to Amnesty International, police officers in the US have been receiving training from the Israeli Army, which is known for extrajudicial executions and use of excessive force.
Like everywhere, the police in America is also the most recognisable face of the state. It simultaneously represents the system and what is wrong with it. They use formidable equipment like assault rifles, armoured vehicles, aircraft and explosives, unlike the minimalist police forces in other democracies. (In the UK, very few police officers are allowed a firearm, except in Northern Ireland.)
In a 2017 study of social and demographic trends by the Pew Research Centre, a majority of officers oppose a ban on assault-type weapons while a majority of the public favour such a ban. When the police officers were asked if the high profile police killings of black people were isolated incidents or part of a more systemic problem, 70% of white officers agreed that they were isolated incidents but 60% of black officers disagreed and thought they were signs of a broader problem.
Mapping Police Violence (MPV), an American research advocacy group, says African-Americans are 2.5 times as likely as white Americans to be shot and killed by the police. For instance, 24% people killed by police were black, despite being only 13% of the population. As per MPV figures, 7,666 people were killed by the police between 2013 and 2019.
A more chilling analysis by ProPublica of data on fatal police shootings collected federally in the US found that young black male civilians were 21 times more likely to be killed by the police when compared to their white counterparts.
Another study shows that white police officers are more racially resentful and harbour more prejudices about African-Americans being violent when compared to white citizens. They also oppose policies aimed at reducing racial inequalities.
But the fact that the US policymakers have so consistently ignored these data-based studies suggests that some sections of the society may have stakes in maintaining the status quo. Maybe serving police officers are one group resisting change. But it is precisely this status quo which is being challenged by the new generation of protesters today. They have turned the clock back to 1967, when Martin Luther King Jr asked the vital question which was also the title of the book he wrote before his assassination—Where Do We Go From Here: Chaos or Community? In 2020, the US cannot afford to leave that question unanswered.
But President Donald Trump does not seem inclined to do so. He has encouraged the police to use overwhelming force, even suggesting that the military should be called in. His tweet, ‘When the looting starts, shooting starts’ and a subsequent photo-op clasping the Bible, are meant for his core constituents who are not in favour of reconciliation.
The Democrats too have little to show by way of consequential police reforms when they were in power. And that is why the new generation of protesters have contempt for the ruling elite, whichever party they may belong to. Their campaign for ‘no justice no peace’ comes in the middle of the pandemic, which has exposed the US’s worst contradictions: a broken healthcare system, stark inequalities, record unemployment and systemic racism. There are no easy answers but law and order is politics in an election year.
Vipul Mudgal heads Common Cause India which works on people-centric policing and brings out the Status of Policing in India Report, SPIR.