Our country is burning. Many are sad, and angry, and fed up, and frustrated because they don’t know what to do about the fact that not everyone is sad and angry and fed up. All of this came to a boil yesterday here in Santa Monica, as it has and continues to across the country. In a matter of hours, Santa Monica was torn apart and set on fire.
It was not the protestors’ fault. The protests were calm, and thoughtful, and peaceful.
(And as an aside here, hey — members of the media. Stop it. “Protestors” and “looters” are not the same thing. You hate editorializing except when you decide you want to, and you hate taking sides except when you decide you want to. Fine. But at 7:30 at night, local newscasts were still talking about all the “protestors” who were out, but helicopter video provides images of mostly looters and bad actors who were still out. You aren’t helping, media. Be better.)
Ahem. Anyway, it was not the protestors’ fault, it was the cops’ fault. It’s that simple.
Now don’t get me wrong, the ultimate culpability is on all the looters. Some of the lootings that have been taking place during these protests over the last week aren’t about selfish-criminality; some of this looting is a thoughtless, physical manifestation of deep and long-lived frustrations with the entire system, a frustration that many of us are privileged not to see and live under day-in and day-out. However, most of the looting that went down in Santa Monica yesterday is being done by those who come to protest areas knowing the tinder box is ready to be lit and anxious to get their piece. F**k them.
But also, f**k the police. Black lives matter more than damaged/stolen property and because, at least here in Santa Monica, yesterday didn’t have to happen.
The protest group I accompanied yesterday had two run-ins with the police. The first one came after the group had marched maybe a mile and stopped at an area that, for these local marches, is used as a rally point where protestors gather to hear speeches. This protest was less organized than some here in the past, so there weren’t formal speeches. But protestors all kneeled in silence for several minutes:
And then protestors chanted George Floyd’s name. They chanted for George. They chanted for Treyvon Martin, and for Eric Garner, and for Breonna Taylor, and for other senseless victims of murder-by-police. Eventually, we would turn from one street to another and continue our march.
Before that could happen, however, the cops showed up. Not a lot of cops, but enough to barricade off most the street protestors were going to be going down. There was absolutely no reason for this. Well, there’s one reason for this, which I’ll get to. When folks noticed the cops had arrived, they did exactly what the cops expected and wanted, and pivoted towoard confrontation. However, our group didn’t aggressively confront. They kneeled and asked the police to kneel with them. The police were not interested in condemning the action of those who wear the same uniform (and, thus, they condone it). For about ten minutes, our group peacefully stood and sat and kneeled in front of them, chanting and protesting against their disinterest:
The police know what their presence in a moment like this does. How it charges the situation, how it tweaks already raw nerves and pours gasoline on an ember looking for an excuse to light up. This didn’t happen yesterday, but after ten minutes, you could see it start. The energy was bad. We were having a peaceful protest, but suddenly, there were multiple shouting matches going on between protestors. Peaceful debate, but loud and heated. Others tried to keep the yellers apart from each other, to remind everyone that we’re all in it together. It worked and after the arguments were calmed down, the group collectively seemed to say “f**k this,” and moved off the street to go around the cops and continue our march.
At that moment, it would’ve taken nothing for just a tiny, thoughtless shove or punch to happen and the jackboots would’ve unleashed the hell that they seemed itching for, the hell they showed up specifically to dole out. That’s what sticks in my mind. It was one of those “I’ve always known, but I’m not sure I really understood it.” I’m angry at cops for murdering people. Earlier in the weekend when I saw videos of police instigating violence at protests across the country, I was angry at that too. But my anger is something different now. Feeling the very specific way that their presence, and the way they chose to hold themselves, negatively charges the atmosphere. Seeing how they know this and how they chose to use this power to lord over some people who are just trying to march and be heard is infuriating.
Meanwhile, what the police should have been doing was establishing a presence in the areas that were about to be destroyed. Instead, they’re intimidating peaceful protestors while others, I’d later learn, were doing the same with other protestors. Our group eventually moved on, and while one cop SVU slow-rolled behind us for a mile, the rest all left. But! The cops still achieved something. Because in that time they lorded over our group, many protestors left, understandably uncomfortable with the threats of violence and police confrontation, and the very energy of “I f**king dare you.” Their presence silenced voices, and they knew it.
While our group peacefully marched the next 5 miles or so, the cops could’ve been working to protect the city. Instead, as our group wound its way back to where it started, it had our second run-in with the police as a much larger number were barricading up the large area around the Santa Monica pier. A block away, one of the leaders of our march stopped the group. He reminded everyone that it was a peaceful protest. Protestors marched that next block chanting “hands up, don’t shoot,” calmly and peacefully approaching the police. And then we sat. Everyone sat on the street. We chanted while sitting, while the cops and national guard stared us down.
While the cops stared us down, mere blocks away looting was already going on. There weren’t any fires yet and the looting was mostly contained to one mall. Had these cops made their way over there, maybe they could have used that presence to prevent a local sushi joint, The Sake House, from looking like this a few hours later:
This is what’s left of The Sake House in Santa Monica. pic.twitter.com/DJwhW6ndwi— Gadi Schwartz (@GadiNBC) June 1, 2020
Instead, someone announced that this group of sitting protestors — again, the group was literally just sitting on the ground chanting — had been deemed an illegal gathering and would be arrested if we didn’t disperse. As if to punch the point home, other cops tossed a canister of tear gas at another protest group a block away.
In Santa Monica at the pier there was a 100% peaceful protest happening and the cops came in, surrounded everyone, announced a 4pm curfew, and then tear gassed them. It’s 3:20. It’s not about people not “obeying.” They’ll tear gas you no matter what you’re doing.— Erika Ha He Hi Hu Dewald (@erikaheidewald) May 31, 2020
So folks stood up and moved off the street. Our group didn’t leave; it continued to chant. But there it was again, that agitated energy the cops crave, the energy that creates trouble.
Peaceful protest with people sitting on the ground chanting was just declared an illegal gathering with tear gas in the background. There is no winning with these fucking assholes #NoJusticeNoPeace pic.twitter.com/AnX009Rl0o— Seth Becomes Her (@LuvSpackle) May 31, 2020
But yet again, nobody bit. The leaders of our group talked with the cops, and some folks sat back down. The discussion continued. And we know the police don’t like talking, so suddenly, FOR NO GOD DAMNED REASON AT ALL, about twenty fucking jackboot cops come hustling down the street towards our crowd:
All this, again, served their goals. Folks left, the crowd thinned, voices were silenced. Looting was spreading but protestors weren’t chanting, so mission accomplished, right?
Eventually, the cops and the group came to an accord that the protest could continue at a park a block away. As we walked toward the park, more tear gas canisters were shot at that other group. With that, I chose not to stop at the park, but continue the few blocks home. The situation was past the point of no return. We were ten minutes out from curfew, and everything I was now seeing online was that the looting was escalating and spreading. This was confirmed two minutes later as I walked past a group talking about which car they wanted to break into, a battery-powered drill being spun by one of them.
From my apartment, I watched on TV as my city descended into anarchy. And yet. Even still. The cops stood in lines, lording over what was left of the protestors, while blocks away it was mayhem. On the news, I watched the city courthouse being attacked, cars being set on fire. Online I watched so many great local places being vandalized and burgled. I watched the cops arrest a handful of protestors who were now committing civil disobedience by being out past curfew, while doing NOTHING about those causing mayhem and destruction.
It wasn’t until about 7:30, over 3 hours after our curfew had been set, that the Santa Monica police finally confirmed that they were going to do a sweep of the city and arrest anyone who was out. It was too little too late. While the city was being robbed and burned, the police were more worried about stifling voices that cry out for justice, that call out the very rotten core of their system. The cops should be kneeling with protestors, not harassing and arresting them.
Protests, in general, have a way of creating hope out of the collective anger, sadness, and frustration of a group that speaks with one voice. Yesterday was different. This week has been different. It’s the most enraging week since 45 got into office. Earlier this week, a good friend wrote something to the tune of “stop saying the system is broken, this system is working just as they have intended it.” Damn it, that’s right. Which is why the anti-quarantine protests and proud boy protests are met with silence. It’s only the Black Lives Matter protests that call out this particular system, that dare try to shine a light on the inherent violence and racism that is baked into the very center of that thin blue line.
Today, LA is voting on a ten billion dollar budget that will give almost a third of that, and over 50 percent of the city’s general tax fund, to the LAPD. While city services are otherwise cut. While we have this type of equipment disparity:
If you had any doubt about America’s priorities, here’s how the people killing us are equipped vs the people keeping us alive pic.twitter.com/oCb7u74hBQ— Zack Bornstein (@ZackBornstein) May 31, 2020
While the country burns, we have a national leadership that remains silent. And it’s not because they don’t care. It’s because the system is working as they want it to work. The military-industrial complex isn’t just the Department of Defense. It’s local, and it’s protecting our streets. Unless we have the wrong skin color. As Zach says in the video below, “they use force to make you do what the deciders have decided you must do.” And yes, I say with exhausted breath, not all police. We saw some encouraging videos over the weekend, albeit few and far between, of men and women with a badge who seem to care, who believe that this fight is their fight as well. Some took a knee. Others recognized that they didn’t have to show up in riot gear and stand in the street to intimidate, that they could simply be on the sides, observing while making their presence known in a non-confrontational way. But I’m not sure the mere fact that there are good ones is enough of a reason to protect this broken-ass, murdering machine. Because the rest aren’t listening, aren’t willing to learn, aren’t willing to be better. Look at this:
Later today, we’ll try to go out and help clean Santa Monica (while I imagine that many of the cops who did nothing yesterday will similarly do nothing today). But I don’t think it’s going to help bring anyone any peace. When the institution itself isn’t remotely interested in growth and change, where does that leave us?
I don’t know how you tear it all down to build it up again. The whole country has a fire like this in its belly. And the one thing I know is this — if these cops continue to behave the way they do, if they continue to passively and aggressively agitate and fight protestors, if they continue the cold-blood-murder of black people, if they continue to refuse to join the rest of us … at some point this fire is going to consume us all. Honestly, right now, I think I’d help light the fucking match.
Header Image Source: Getty Images