Modern Race Riots in America

Published June 5, 2020

Viewer discretion: this post has some violent imagery.

A Tank in Downtown Chicago Source: A friend who wishes to stay anonymous

My friend personally took this photo and posted it on Facebook. This is an armored military vehicle in Downtown Chicago.

I am writing to document what I am seeing, so that people in the future and from other countries can understand one perspective from within America in June 2020.

What is Happening?

George Floyd was killed by a police officer on May 25, 2020. His death follows a pattern of excessive violence by law enforcement against African Americans.

George Floyd’s death sparked a massive response of civil unrest, with people taking to the streets in protest. Many of the protests were peaceful marches. However, not all of the protests were peaceful and significant riots and looting have occurred.

In response to the riots and looting, the American military has been deployed to cities like Chicago. However, civilians are being treated alike whether the crowd is peacefully protesting or rioting. Peaceful protesters and journalists are being tear-gassed, tasered, struck with batons, permanently blinded by munitions fired into their eyes, and other forms of physical violence.

This is a journalist being assaulted. Watch the riot shield being thrust into his stomach. On the left is a front-on view, and on the right is the journalist’s view.

Australian Reporter Being Assaulted Source: 7news.com.au via Reddit

The peaceful protesters being assaulted are not rioting or looting. Journalists are being arrested. Curfews have been instituted on a city-by-city basis, with the earliest one I have seen starting at 5:30PM.

In a previous generation, much of this would have been swept under the rug or limited in scope. These protests are nation-wide, and not limited to any age, gender, race, or socioeconomic group. George Floyd’s death has sparked broad civil unrest.

How Did We Get Here?

George Floyd’s death is the latest in a series of deaths causing social unrest in America - Eric Garner, Trayvon Martin, Freddie Gray, and many, many others.

These deaths in completely different geographies, with completely unrelated parties, but have a common thread: Excessive use of force against African Americans.

Law enforcement and military have a long history of excessive force against African Americans dating back centuries. Slavery was abolished in 1865, followed by the American civil rights movement in the 1960’s, but even in 2020 African Americans are being denied their civil liberties and equality under the law.

In recent years, a wave has started to build as each death comes into the spotlight. A societal pressure is growing that is attempting to address the injustices that people are seeing.

What is enabling this wave? Why now?

Ubiquity of Cameras

Recording devices are everywhere. They are plentiful, cheap, and powerful enough to capture details in high fidelity.

George Floyd’s death was recorded on multiple camera phones, with audio: https://www.nytimes.com/2020/05/31/us/george-floyd-investigation.html

It is much harder to deny something is happening when you can see photographic evidence of it. We have not yet entered the age of disillusionment where photoshopping and deepfakes become prevalent enough to make us distrust even our eyes and ears. That will happen in the coming decades.

For example, the official stance is that this man “tripped and fell” - I’ll leave it to you the reader to determine that.

Old Buffalo New York Man Pushed Source: WFBO, full 39 seconds clip

This 75 year old man cracked his skull and was left bleeding from his ears. Note that one officer begins to look after the man until another grabs the back of his uniform and forcibly pulls him away, leaving the man bleeding and motionless on the concrete.

Please know that a national guard member later came by and assisted the elderly man. It is claimed he is injured but stable in a medical facility called ECMC, in Buffalo New York.

For now, the camera is a powerful ally. It has captured evidence of not only the death of George Floyd, but also the military response sent to quell the protests that followed.

When I see my friends on Facebook posting photos of armed military vehicles in downtown Chicago, when I see helicopters flying barely building height over protests in Washington D.C., they become so much more real, visceral, and closer to home. These are people I know documenting and telling me about what they are seeing. I believe them.

American military vehicles in Downtown Chicago Source: A friend who wishes to stay anonymous

I later FaceTimed with my friend who posted these photos, and he showed me the tanks on the end of his street.

This kind of unpolished photography feels authentic. There is no air brushing or camera crews. Just a normal citizen with a phone.

I think people are reacting more strongly to footage that their friends and amateurs take than traditional news outlets. It is more personal. It feels like there is no narrative or agenda other than for them to share with me.

With so many cameras out there, how is attention being drawn to the right footage?

Decentralization of Media

On social media, success is democratic. A common effect of all current social media algorithms is that the most highly engaged with media floats to the top and gets seen by more people.

This serves to document newsworthy events. It isn’t perfect, but it does provide one way of sifting through an immense amount of media. It is a bottoms-up approach where a few people engaging with a video or photo early on determine if more people see it. It’s like a popularity contest for news, where only the most engaging content proceeds to the next round and gets seen more broadly.

Traditional media is on the decline, and with it the story-stopping power of a few publishers. It is much harder to “kill a story” that is livestreamed to Facebook or posted on Reddit, and engaged with highly. This is a blessing as it prevents censoring of the truth, of the source material. With “six degrees of separation” these events are able to spread quickly and virally across most of the population.

Even just a few decades ago, the death of George Floyd could have occurred without with massive response we are seeing today. It is easy to imagine a senior police officer having a word with the local newspaper editor and the story being suppressed and photography destroyed. Muted at the source.

In the protests, journalists are being detained and their cameras taken or destroyed. However, there are too many cameras present to take them all. The taking of a camera or apprehension of a journalist is itself getting caught on camera and quickly published.

Make no mistake - this has been smoothed over in the past. We are simply able to consistently see the evidence without suppression for the first time.

Real Time Video Upload

We no longer need to wait for video reels to be processed. Even if cameras are seized or destroyed, the images are being uploaded in real time.

When this CNN crew is arrested, the footage is streamed in real time.

The ACLU has an app that directly sends the footage to them. Even streaming on Facebook, Youtube, or Twitch are all ways of getting the footage off of the phone and into distribution immediately.

All of these factors combine to a widespread ability to record evidence, that is then distributed widely and in real time, before it can be locked down.

People are now able to see a man killed in the street with no judge, no due process, immediately after it happens and the words “Liberty and Justice for all” are ringing in their ears.

Where Do We Go from Here?

Sunlight is touted as the best disinfectant, but we are going to need much more than transparency to cure this. Visibility is the first step, but what are some viable permanent solutions? Right now, people are taking to the streets in both peaceful protests and riots.

When previous progressive movements built in such a way, not merely passing in the night but growing like swelling waves over months and years, the issue comes to a head and needs to be fundamentally addressed.

It is worth noting that all of this is occurring against the backdrop of a country leading the world in Coronavirus infections. The riots are not rooted in the Coronavirus. None of the previous deaths I mentioned (Eric Garner, Trayvon Martin, Freddie Gray) occurred during a pandemic. Cooping people up for weeks, record unemployment, and compounding stresses exacerbate the issue, but are not root causes.

I wish that a culture wave was all that was needed to solve this, and it’s possible it might be in the distant future. But it’s not enough of a solution today. Culture does not change quickly enough to prevent the next tragedy.

Without a step-function change such as a landmark piece of legislation I find it hard to imagine a timely, peaceful, and permanent resolution. And that’s what scares me the most. I worry that George Floyd is the latest, but won’t be the last.

A legislative solution could address either the root causes or the symptoms, with the former being a much longer lasting solution and the latter being a stopgap solution. Either way, I believe it would go into effect immediately enough to achieve change on the pace that is needed.

A policy interpretation or enforcement solution might also provide the impact that is needed to change course swiftly. Perhaps society already has the tools to solve this, but they are not being used properly.

The most heartening aspect of all of this is that the civilian response has spanned race and socioeconomic means. I have seen both millionaires and the penniless in the streets in peaceful protest. People of all races, from across the beautiful diversity of America, are coming together. That indicates that there is diverse support, which provides the foundation for long term change. Where there’s a will, there’s a way.

These modern race riots are less about one race against another, and instead about a society collectively expressing frustration with the systematic mistreatment of one race. Even though one race is being abused, many races are coming together to say, loudly and clearly, “This is wrong.” and because of this, I have hope.

With thanks to Patty Kuo and two Anonymous Friends for reading initial drafts of this post
There is a real chilling effect when people are worried about signing their names to things. I appreciate the time and effort my anonymous friends took to edit this, and want you the reader to know that the chilling effect is real. Please, don’t stifle discussion and instead encourage it. Democracy thrives on open discussion.