This is the script for my YouTube video of the same name. Although this was written to be heard, not read, I know some people would rather read than watch a video, so here you go.
I hate breaking things. I have always hated breaking things. As a child, I never tore open presents: I carefully undid the tape and saved the paper in a box. I never stomped on a sand castle, I never understood the people who did. I refused to break piñatas at parties, and nothing has changed: I currently have, in my possession, a piñata I bought for a party in 2011 that I couldn’t bear to break because he was so cute. He’s gone through six moves with me.
I bring this up because I’ve noticed that the first thing people say when I defend riots is “You just like to break things” and I need you to understand that it’s not the case.
I hate the sound of broken glass. I hate watching quiet, clean spaces destroyed, goods smashed, serviceable things destroyed. I hate seeing Portland, this city that I love, crumbling a little bit more every night.
And yet I am here to tell you that I endorse these riots. Not to make excuses for riots. Not to tell you that tensions are running high and it’s sad but understandable. I’m not here to tell you that it’s a few bad actors: I’ve been at every Portland protest and although many members of these demonstrations want peace, many others want the destruction. No: I am here to endorse the riots: every shattered pane of glass, every fire, every instance of George Floyd’s name spray-painted on the side of a building. And I am here to tell you why.
In order to understand why this is justice, we must first understand the exact problem these demonstrations address. Why is America exploding into chaos? Why, in the middle of a pandemic, are so many willing to risk not merely police brutality and arrest and mutilation but a deadly virus to come together in this way?
On May 25th, George Floyd attempted to buy cigarettes with what the clerk claims was a counterfeit $20 bill. It’s worth noting that not everyone in possession of a counterfeit bill is a criminal mastermind: some of them just got fooled by a good counterfeit in a previous transaction. It’s happened to plenty of people I know.
Nevertheless, the deli clerk decided to call the police, and we all know what happened next. A police officer knelt on George Floyd’s neck while the man was handcuffed. Ordered him to get into the cop car while pinning him down and making that impossible, ignored Floyd as he begged for mercy and then became unresponsive. For nine minutes this torture continued, until Floyd died in agony and terror.
The murderer has since been arrested and for some, that seems like it ought to be the end of things. It’s true that this killer has been arrested — on manslaughter charges. Manslaughter means accidental homicide, not the premeditated cruelty of continuing to asphyxiate a man for nine minutes as he becomes unresponsive. Consider also the fact that grand juries tend to exonerate the few murderous cops who are arrested. Consider also that the police coroner report claimed that Floyd died due to underlying medical conditions — a finding contradicted by an independent investigation that would never have happened without these ongoing demonstrations. The county coroner’s false report exposes the ways in which the system has already begun to do what it does best: exonerate a badged killer once the news cycle has moved on.
But that’s not all.
The murderer, Derek Chauvin, had eighteen previous complaints filed against him during his time as an officer. Eighteen! Of those, only two resulted in any disciplinary actions: two letters of reprimand. One of the officers who stood silent while Chauvin murdered a man in broad daylight had six complaints, one of which remains open, and faced a 2017 lawsuit for police brutality. And yet both of these men were permitted to go on wearing their badges and carrying guns, permitted to continue serving on the force, would presumably still be serving if not for the clear footage of Floyd’s death and the protests that began when no arrests were made.
These officers knew from experience that brutality carries no serious repercussions. And that knowledge speaks to a problem far beyond the individuals involved with Floyd’s death. It speaks to systemic problems within the Minneapolis police system. A culture of permissiveness when it comes to brutality. An absolute refusal to take this issue seriously unless forced by mass protests and mass demonstrations.
It is not enough for Floyd’s killer and the accomplices of his murder to be arrested and punished. A first-degree murder charge would not be enough. Reformation of the way policemen are tried for murder is not enough. We cannot go on living in a society where the only way police receive justice after brutally murdering a man is with mass demonstrations, where only police whose murders are recorded by a third party face the threat of jail. The Minneapolis police department is fundamentally broken.
But that’s not all.
This problem is not confined to Minneapolis police departments. Across the nation, police departments have the same culture, the same problem. This story is intimately familiar to anyone who has watched the news for the past few years, and even more familiar to the black members of your community who remember all the murders that went unreported, the brutality that happened off-camera or away from media attention. I listened, here in Portland, as black person after black person stepped forward and shared their memories of police brutality, police murder, police aggression merely for being black and existing in the neighborhood where they were born. Go listen to the black people in your community and I guarantee they will tell you the same story.
We have nationwide protests because this is a nationwide problem, because the problem is the police. A modern institution, not part of America from the beginning: an institution that evolved in large part from Southern slave patrols. An institution with a culture of brutality and of silence surrounding that brutality. Eighteen complaints and two letters of reprimand: this story repeats in every precinct in America, this story speaks to a moral rot that reaches to the very heart of the organization. Every police officer in America serves side-by-side with someone who abuses that power, every police officer is complicit in a culture of authoritarian brutality. When protesters chant “All Cops are Bastards,” this is what they mean: if you wish to cease being a bastard, take off the uniform and break your silence.
But that’s not all.
Because the police motto is not a lie: they do in fact protect and serve. But who? A simple answer would be “white people,” or “the middle and upper class.” As with everything in politics, it’s complicated. The point is: police serve some of us but not all of us. They are the enforcement arm of a society not fundamentally opposed to their methods or targets, a society in which the presence of authoritarian brutality is automatically accepted by those who never have to experience it. This type of white supremacy is baked into American culture: not the neo-nazi, swastika-wearing, conscious white supremacy we think of when we hear that term but the subconscious and unexamined worldview that formulates white as normal and black as other; white as belonging and black as outsider. White as safe and black as unsafe. White as “us” and black as “them.”
We do not decide to think these things or want to see the world this way: we were raised in this cesspit, we have absorbed it, I know that I will never fully be rid of it. Changing something so ingrained, so accepted, so normal means moving against the weight of history and the weight of self-identity. Of mass acknowledgement that despite our best efforts, we carry inside us unconscious and insidious racism: bequeathed unto us by our fathers, a curse we did not ask for but bear regardless.
How do we solve this?
We cannot, we should not be able to bear to be a part of such a system: a self-enforcing system of prejudice and brutalization and an entire underclass of people. It has to stop. We must take action, we must begin the long and agonizing process of cutting into the body politic and excising the cancer that has eaten at its heart since its very founding.
But why riots? Are riots really the best way to change things? Aren’t they counter-productive? Why can’t we demonstrate peacefully?
I have seen people at these protests — fully-committed, authentic members of the movements, black and otherwise — who are against violence, rioting, and looting for this very reason. There are also fully-committed, authentic members of the movement of all races who endorse the riots. I do not, cannot, speak for any of them. I speak only for myself.
And I have sat at home and watched every other means fail. I have watched as many members of the middle and upper classes, many white people, decry any level of protest as counterproductive and inappropriate. I have watched as they denounced Colin Kaepernik for politicizing football, celebrities for politicizing art, peaceful protests for being rude and blocking traffic. They have asked nicely. They have tried to do it your way. And none of it has worked.
Here, in 2020, we see the final result of working quietly within the system: a choice, in November, between an authoritarian monster — a racist whose top-level officials forward articles from alt-right news sources and push alt-right immigration policy — and on the other ticket, one of the chief architects of America’s mass incarceration system, the one that imprisons black people at far higher rates than white people for the same crimes and tears apart black families: the new Jim Crow.
One of these options is worse than the other, but neither option offers hope for meaningful reform capable of addressing even a fraction of the problems I just outlined.
“But riots harm public opinion!” you say, as though public opinion has changed a goddamn thing about this mess, as though any of the many previous efforts to cultivate public opinion have resulted in any kind of meaningful reduction in police murder
“But the businesses whose windows are smashed: they didn’t do anything! They aren’t racists. They aren’t the problem.”
And here’s where we get to the heart of it. The heart of why I endorse these riots, why I hope they continue until we see meaningful change.
Because I don’t know what it’s like to be a black person in America. I never will. I can listen to these stories all day, I can immerse myself in them, and they will never be more than that to me: stories. They will never be more powerful to my heart than my own lived experiences, my own memories of the world.
And all those memories are the memories of a person who looks white and female. Protests aside, all of my memories of cops are positive. Cops might give me a ticket but they will never threaten my life and often let me off with a warning and a smile. Cops come to my house when some young punks destroy every mailbox on the suburban street I used to live on and take a police report and assure me they take this crime seriously. Cops are there to help if I’m afraid walking home at night, there to give me directions if I get lost. Cops never ask me what I’m doing in a neighborhood, never follow me for no reason, never pull me over because I look suspicious. I have never — not once — been afraid for my life in the presence of a cop.
For me, the status quo is bearable. I might feel bad for black people, these stories might disturb me to my core, but I have no skin in this game. If things continue as they are, I can live and die in relative comfort. This is not life and death for me, nor is it life or death for anyone else of my upbringing and skin tone.
Riots change that equation.
Riots put everyone’s skin in the game. Riots are a message, born of desperation, delivered to those who have consistently refused to listen to anything else. We will not help them? We will not fix this? We will write op-eds and make angry Facebook posts and attend vigils every time a cop kills a black person, but stop short of meaningfully demanding actual change, treating it with the same urgency we would treat a disaster that befell us personally? Then perhaps we must suffer, perhaps we must face material consequences for our complicity. Perhaps the only way to move America in a positive direction, perhaps the only way to fix this, is to create a situation where the status quo is untenable. Where your favorite store lies gutted, where you cannot go to Target because the store got looted, where you are afraid to live in a city that has become foreign to you, a city you always felt you belonged in.
A riot says, you cannot return to normal. We will not allow you to return to normal. We will make normal as unbearable for you as it is for us.
I don’t want Portland to be a city of broken windows. I want it to be a city of beauty: of the smell of rain and flowers, of sunshine in the summer and the sound of street musicians. I want it to be a place my dog can walk without stepping on glass, I want it to be a place I feel safe, where benevolence reigns, where I can work and be productive and go to bars and see concerts, and I want it to be that way for every single goddamn person who walks into this city. I want the Portland I experience to be the Portland every single person experiences. Black, brown, white, yellow: we all deserve to live in the same beautiful world, instead of a segregated reality where the spaces that welcome me are hostile to others.
And I will go out on the streets, I will run with the looters and challenge the cops, I will learn to walk through tear gas and I will stand strong while the flash bang falls, I will march beside my fellow humans every night I can until we fix this. Until the people in power come to the table ready to talk, in earnest, about what it would take for the riots to stop, about how to fix America.
And I hope you’ll join me.
George Floyd Resource Compilation: https://docs.google.com/document/u/0/d/1J0m3eYct6wByXjtNP_a73W13_pY3Bnx1igM_C8DA5E4/mobilebasic
The Cut: How to Support the Struggle against Police Brutality: https://www.thecut.com/2020/06/george-floyd-protests-how-to-help-where-to-donate.html
Ways You Can Help: https://blacklivesmatters.carrd.co/#
What to do if you can’t donate: https://threader.app/thread/1266461236012646410