1992: In 1992, I lived in Los Angeles. My brother was visiting, at a conference downtown at the Biltmore. We joked about whether the Biltmore garage wanted a grand. We (me, him, and his girlfriend, who he later married and even later got divorced from) went to see a play in Westwood – a live version of a Brady Bunch episode. That night, the news about the acquittal of the cops who had beaten Rodney King came out and the city exploded.
The Biltmore is near what was then the Parker Center, L.A.’s police headquarters. The next day, the rest of my brother’s conference was cancelled and he was more or less trapped at the hotel. It was a couple of days before he could get out of downtown L.A. I thought things were nice and safe on the Westside. But at work, I heard from one of our admins about her husband being shot at during lunchtime. We got dismissed from work early. I had the sense to drive home via the 405 instead of La Cienega Blvd, and when I got home turned on the news,, where I saw stopped cars on La Cienega having their windows smashed.
The news was full of looting and arson. The fires would eventually reach to within about a mile of my apartment. People in my neighborhood were worried, but figured things would be okay as long as everything stayed east of Robertson Blvd.
Soon, there was a curfew and there were National Guard officers all over. For some reason, I found it particularly upsetting to see the National Guard outside a nearby convenience store. But, the bottom line, was that I was safe, albeit mildly inconvenienced. The LAPD did implement some changes and there was a lot of talk about community based policing and the good old days of beat cops, instead of officers who were cocooned in their patrol cars.
A couple of other things that may not be related to this: Some years later (maybe 2000?), I spent a day at a storytelling event in Watts. I had a great day, with nothing traumatic. I came home to my apartment. I was living further west by then, in Palms, a neighborhood filled with UCLA students and young professionals. I went out to return a video and, on the way, home stopped at the convenience store at my corner to pick up some orange juice. While crossing the street from the video store, I saw two boys running up the street, but didn’t really think anything about it. When I went to buy my juice, I learned those boys had just robbed the store at gunpoint. (By the way, I should clarify that I use the word “boys” because they looked about 13 or 14 years old to me.)
In 1998, the manager of a hostel in Harare, Zimbabwe told me that he thought Zimbabwe was not at all racist. But he didn’t understand why his dog barked only at black people.
In 2004, I was in Sofia, Bulgaria. On the train there from Thessaloniki, Greece, someone had warned me about Roma thieves. (Except he used the slur, “gypsies.”) He was not particularly receptive when I pointed out that, if you refuse to allow people to get an education and discriminate against them in jobs, it isn’t surprising if some of them turn to criminality.
Minneapolis: I have been to Minneapolis a few times. One of those times, I was taking a bus from downtown to the airport. (This was before the light rail was built). One seat on the bus was covered with a newspaper, apparently because someone had puked on it. A black woman commented that the city transport department wouldn’t send out a new bus because It was just the 100 bus, mostly ridden by Somalis. (I am not sure that is the correct number, but it doesn’t matter for this story).
Minneapolis is also where, in 2017, an Australian woman named Justine Damond called the police to report a possible rape in the alley behind her apartment. When she saw a police car arrive, she went out to talk to the cops. She was shot and killed by one of them, Mohamed Noor. He was convicted of 3rd degree murder and sentenced to 12.5 years in prison. Justine Damond was white. Mohamed Noor is black (a Somali-American). There was also a large civil settlement to her family.
I don’t know the geography of Minneapolis well enough to be sure, but I have heard that incident was in the same general neighborhood as where George Floyd was killed by Derek Chauvin, with three other police officers standing by. Minneapolis police training allows choke holds, which most police departments do not. Derek Chauvin had had numerous complaints against him. He’s been charged with 3rd degree murder and manslaughter. It will take a while, but I’d suggest that the same 12.5 year prison sentence would be appropriate for him at a minimum.
More generally: There are countless incidents of cops over-reacting to incidents involving black people, many of whom are not committing any crimes. I’ve heard endless examples, both from the news and from black friends. It is probably worse in some places than others, but racism is endemic in the United States. It goes back to the same problem as the Roma story I mentioned above.
As for protests and looting, I think there’s a mixture of things going on. Some is outside agitators. Some is frustration leading people to want to destroy things. Some is the police (and our President) doing everything they can to do exactly the wrong thing. Especially the latter, but that is completely in character for him.
I do want to add one thing that is often misunderstood about civil disobedience. You have to be willing to accept the punishment, even if you think the law is a bad one. Gandhi and Martin Luther King and many others served time.
So can we fix things? I like to think so. I believe that the majority of police officers join up wanting to do good for their communities. We can do a better job of getting rid of the ones with impure motives. We can train police on how to diffuse situations without violence. We can build a society which is not based on fear of the other. We can start with young children and teach them history and get them to learn about the rights and dignity of all people. As bad as things are, they’re not as bad as they were 200, 100, 60, 30 years ago. The pendulum will still swing up and down, but maybe we can dampen its amplitude.