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How We Can Make Milwaukee’s Race Riots The Last


Milwaukee had a rough weekend. After a controversial police shooting, rioters burned businesses, threw rocks at police, and damaged multiple police cars. It’s a hot conclusion to a hot summer, and few have felt the heat like America’s police officers.

After July’s tragic beginning, many of us were quietly relieved when the violence tapered off, allowing the news cycle to turn to political conventions and the Olympic Games. Clearly, though, it’s no time to relax. Winter is coming, but maybe not quickly enough.

The New Race Riots

As this weekend clearly showed, America’s cities are still roiling with discontent. In Chicago, violent crime is spinning out of control. Last week the U.S. Department of Justice released a lengthy report on Baltimore’s Police Department with disturbing allegations of people being tased for no real reason, arrested just for loitering on sidewalks, or beaten even when they were already restrained and under officers’ control. Now we have a riot significant enough to activate the National Guard. When Barack Obama first took office in 2008, did any of us anticipate that his administration would end with widespread race riots?

Here’s a shred of comfort: major riots tend to be a summer thing. Cold weather has a chilling effect on everything, including racial tension. Thus far, America’s major riots have always taken place between April and August (although we should note that unusually warm weather is forecast for this September).

There may still be time to head off violence on a level of Watts, Rodney King, or the Holy Week uprisings of 1968. Any viable solution to the problem, however, must involve greater accountability on everyone’s part. Stop finger-pointing. Start cleaning your own house.

First, The Police

There’s no way to know for sure, but I bet the incredible grace with which Dallas Police Chief David Brown handled his city’s policing crisis has saved lives. He spoke warmly of the courage and commitment of his officers. He unashamedly asked for the nation’s prayers. But he also made clear that he understands why so many poor, black kids grow up mistrusting the police, and that he’s personally committed to helping rebuild trust. Dallas has, in fact, been working to improve community relations, especially with black residents.

Brown’s masterstroke was inviting Black Lives Matter protesters to put in an application and come work for him. He’d love to put them back into their own neighborhoods as trained and salaried problem-solvers. We could use a lot more sane and compassionate people like Brown.

Policing is difficult and dangerous work. Sometimes our officers are judged too harshly. Sometimes we expect too much of them. The police are at the front lines of most public safety initiatives, and are more trusted than any state actor except the military. That’s both a blessing and a curse.

We can respect the police, though, without writing them a blank check. Turning a blind eye to police misconduct isn’t any kind of favor, either to good police officers or to citizens who feel threatened by the police.

The DOJ’s report on Baltimore leaves a strong impression that the department’s police officers are undertrained and overwhelmed, and discipline has lapsed as a result. It describes officers shooting at retreating cars (which endangers the public and rarely disables the suspect) and chasing down residents merely on the suspicion that they might be armed (which, needless to say, is not itself illegal). They tase suspects who are already restrained in an effort to make them more cooperative. They ignore departmental guidelines for dealing with teenagers and the mentally ill.

It seems pretty clear that black citizens of Baltimore are disproportionately likely to suffer the consequences of these mistakes. Although they plausibly aren’t (in most cases) manifestations of overt racism, they’re the sort of abuses that undermine trust and make neighborhoods more dangerous for officers and residents alike. We shouldn’t try to paper over these problems. The BPD needs to do better, and so do many other departments around the country.

Next, Local Government

The DOJ concluded that Baltimore’s policing issues “result from a longstanding practice of overly aggressive street enforcement with deficient oversight and policy guidance.” That seems quite plausible, and it means we shouldn’t lay all the blame on the beleaguered beat cop.

We should note, as well, that Baltimore has languished under corrupt and incompetent Democratic governance for decades, which explains a lot about its training and oversight problems. Like Chicago, Baltimore can’t plausibly complain its bad reputation is attributable to Obama’s inflammatory rhetoric about racial bias in policing. The department has long been infamous for criminal misconduct, kickback scandals, and harassing citizens. There are many good officers who don’t want things to be this way. It’s hard to change things, though, when the city’s government is riddled with similar problems.

There are lots of ways for a city to neglect its poorer citizens. Quite often, the officers are just the hapless enforcers who get the blame for everyone else’s failings. For instance, many cash-strapped cities pressure police to issue scores of fines and citations to collect revenue. Turning cops into low-level tax collectors is a great way to destroy community relations, but the officers themselves may have little choice if they want a paycheck.

On other occasions, cities may simply prioritize the demands of wealthier and more established citizens, leaving poorer neighborhoods underserved. When inexperienced officers are coping with unmanageable crime control problems, they may just decide the Constitution is a luxury they can’t afford.

In the wake of the Baltimore report, some have stepped up to defend stop-and-frisk and broken-window policing, which in some circumstances has shown real success in deterring crime. Insofar as we use these strategies, we need to note this important caveat: Aggressive policing must be done in such a way as to assure local residents that it serves their interests. That will only happen with adequate oversight provisions, and a governmental structure that shows concern for neighborhood order instead of lining its own pockets.

Your Turn, Black Lives Matter

Let’s start here: Riots don’t fix anything. They ruin the lives of innocent people, undermine trust, and exacerbate tensions with law enforcement. We should all resist the urge to call rioters “protesters” and to justify lawlessness on the grounds that “people are upset.” This is America. We can express our anger without resorting to arson.

This is America. We can express our anger without resorting to arson.

Next, let’s talk about police safety. Black Lives Matter doesn’t sanction the murder of police officers, and last month’s cop killers seem to have been acting independently. Black Lives Matter put up a public statement that clarified, somewhere in the middle of the third paragraph, that it didn’t condone the violence. That’s pretty representative of the organization’s response. It’s something, but it would be awfully nice to see more.

It’s not fair to blame whole groups of people for the atrocities of an isolated few. Nonetheless, the reality is that Black Lives Matter protests are now legitimately dangerous for police officers, and they go anyway, because it’s their job to keep protesters safe. This is the life of a police officer.

Black Lives Matter could massively increase its credibility by showing they too can show concern for people outside their own ranks. A few small gestures could go a long way. How about putting up a “Blue Lives Matter” on the website? Why not distribute a list of tips for protestors: “Keeping Rallies Peaceful”? Urge participants to see it as their responsibility to ensure that everyone present is safe, including law enforcement.

Clearly, this wouldn’t be popular with all BLM participants. A brief foray into social media will demonstrate that many activists feel serious malice towards the police. In the end, though, these are the decisions that distinguish mature social movements from the more juvenile. Mature movements can restrain negative emotions for the sake of promoting lasting change.

Many Americans still seem to be deciding whether BLM represents a serious social movement or just one more excuse for unruly youngsters to wreak havoc. Every time a protest devolves into violence and vandalism (as happened in Milwaukee this weekend), a few more people are tipped into the latter view. Rein it in, Black Lives Matter. Many desperate people are counting on you.

That Means You, the Reader

I’m not a big believer in collective guilt. I’m not going to ask you to wander into your local coffee shop and Start A Conversation About Race. I won’t demand that you search your subconscious for some hitherto-unsurfaced bigotry that needs addressing.

Here’s what I would ask. Get beyond the impulse to defend either protestors or police at all costs. Don’t hit “share” every time you encounter a piece of evidence that The Other Guy (the one who doesn’t have your sympathies) is the real problem. Try to keep in mind that riots are a lose-lose sort of event, while genuine law and order is good for just about everybody.

Support good cops, but also keep an eye out for activists who seem to be making a thoughtful effort to promote peaceful change. Don’t apologize for corrupt officials, bullying officers, or violent vandals. Let’s have a nation with more David Browns and fewer Rahm Emanuels. That should be common ground we can all support.