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Political Protest and the Racial Double Standards of American Law Enforcement

The past 12 months have been marked by widespread political protest, much of which has revolved around America’s race problem. As I have discussed in a previous post, the killing of George Floyd on May 25, 2020 sparked a “wave of protests” across the United States and my choice of words align well with those of Thomas Sugrue in a piece published by National Geographic on June 11.

Sugrue explains how “three major waves of nationwide uprisings in the 20th century shed light on how the fight for racial equality has grown, how it’s changed, and what has stayed the same”. The first of these waves was the Red Summer of 1919: resulting from rising tensions caused by the Great Migration, this summer was marked by white supremacist terrorism and racial clashes, with “some 30 riots [breaking] out across the eastern U.S., with hundreds of accounts of beatings, lynchings and the burning of churches and buildings”. The violence of the Red Summer was mostly instigated by Whites, with the Black community being forced to defend itself; as Sugrue points out, however, despite this “the police turned a blind eye to white violence and instead arrested African Americans for defending themselves”.

Sugrue’s second wave occurred during WWII, sparked in 1941 when the March on Washington Movement successfully pressured President Franklin Delano Roosevelt into opening up defense jobs to African Americans by creating the Committee on Fair Employment Practices. The opening of this job sector to African Americans angered white workers, who were afraid that their positions would be lost due to this new competition. There were more than 240 race riots in the Summer of 1943, most famous of which was the Detroit Race Riot of 1943, however Sugrue points out that “In all of these cities, the police swept in, taking the side of white rioters” despite their role in instigating much of the violence.

Sugrue’s third wave of racial protests and uprisings occurred between 1963 and 1968 as part of the Civil Rights Movement. Sugrue calls particular attention to the Birmingham Protest of 1963, during which “Birmingham Commissioner of Public Safety Eugene ‘Bull’ Connor infamously ordered police officers and firefighters to turn guard dogs and fire hoses on nonviolent protestors”. Sugrue credits this violent show of force for causing the Black Power movement to resort to more disruptive tactics throughout the remainder of the 1960s.

Sugrue’s goal was to call attention to the ways in which the Black Lives Matter protests of 2020 strayed from the recurring patterns of racial animosity present in the previous three waves of racial unrest. Most notable of these differences, according to Sugrue, is the interracial makeup of the 2020 protests. Nonetheless, Sugrue acknowledges that “2020’s uprisings resemble those of 1919, 1943, and 1968 in certain respects”.

One such respect that I have paid particular attention to is that throughout the 20th century, as well as today, American police consistently side with white rioters at the expense of black protesters: during the Red Summer era, Tulsa’s “police chief… deputized at least 250 white men on the spot, issuing them badges and weapons” and on June 1, 1920 “White men… wearing police badges, shot at black pedestrians, looted… and torched 1,256 private homes, a black hospital and school, one of the nation's largest black-owned hotels and Tulsa's premier black church”; during the Detroit Race Riot of 1943 “White mobs overturned cars owned by blacks and set them on fire and beat black men as white policemen looked on”; the actions of the Birmingham Police Department in 1963 speak for themselves.

This pattern continues today, exemplified by the stark differences in the law enforcement response to the BLM protests in 2020 and the Capitol Riot of January 6, 2021. I’ve seen with my own eyes the treatment of BLM protesters by law enforcement, including the events of June 2, 2020, as “Members of the DC National Guard, armed and wearing camouflage uniforms, stood on the steps of the Lincoln Memorial… as crowds of demonstrators held a peaceful protest”, yet was unsurprised to learn that the “DC National Guard was not anticipating to be used to protect federal facilities” on January 6.

Black Lives Matter protesters peacefully approaching the Lincoln Memorial, June 2, 2020

Trump rioters rioting at Capitol, January 6, 2021

There were 88 arrests and 44 people charged in connection to nonviolent protests in the District of Columbia on June 1, 2020 alone, a day on which “police near the White House released tear gas and fired rubber bullets at protesters in an effort to disperse the crowd” so Donald Trump could wave a Bible around outside St. John’s Episcopal Church for five minutes. As of January 8, 2021, two days after rioters stormed the home of the nation’s legislature in an attempt to overturn a democratic election, only thirteen (mostly white) individuals had been charged in federal court.

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