In the national discussion about policing in America, a common phrase has emerged: "There are just a few bad apples."
When Officer Derek Chauvin spent 8 minutes and 46 seconds taking the life of George Floyd, National Security Adviser Robert C. O'Brien said on CNN, "We have got great law enforcement officers ... but we got a few bad apples that have given -- given law enforcement a bad name." At the June 9 U.S. House of Representatives committee hearing on police brutality, Louisiana Congressman Mike Johnson blamed problems in law enforcement on a "few bad apples."
Yet rarely is this logic applied to the racial protests occurring over the last several months. Instead, we hear, "The rioting needs to stop," "Stop burning down the country," and Black Lives Matter supporters "kill, loot and steal." (The Young Turks video, 2020).
Why does the logic of "a few bad apples" applied to police misconduct not extend to property damage in relation to a protest for racial injustice? Why do we zero in on individual actions when it comes to police, yet use broad strokes to categorize protesters as innately criminal? There is no definitive national data on whether those who choose to riot are the same people who peacefully protest. However, we do know that when you look at riots in our recent history – nationwide riots in 2020, Los Angeles riots in 1991, Queens riots in 1973, Detroit riots and Newark riots in 1967, Watts riots in 1965, and Harlem riots in 1964 -- the impetus for every single one was police brutality against the Black community.
In Ava DuVernay's documentary "13th," Dr. Kevin Gannon argues: "If you dismiss black complaints of mistreatment by police as being completely rooted in our modern context then you are missing the point completely. There has never been a period in our history were the law-and-order branch of the state has not operated against the freedoms, the liberties, the options, the choices that have been available for the Black community, generally speaking, and to ignore that racial heritage, to ignore that historical context means that you can't have an informed debate about the current state of Blacks and police relationship today because this didn't just appear out of nothing. This is a product of a centuries-long historical process and to not reckon with that is to shut off solutions."
Yet we continue to hear a broad chorus equate organized protesters against police brutality as equivalent to "anarchists" and "looters." According to the Armed Conflict Location & Event Data Project (ACLED), when it comes to protests and violence in relation to demonstrations, of the 7,750 protests that were associated with the Black Lives Matter movement, less than 7% included violence or destructive activity.
The First Amendment assures every American citizen the "right of the people peaceably to assemble, and to petition the government for a redress of grievances." Protests as a means of democratic change existed even before the Bill of Rights was created. One of the first well-known protests was the Boston Tea Party of 1773 when a large group of colonists dumped 342 chests of tea into the Boston harbor protesting the lack of colonial representation in the British Parliament. At the heart of every struggle for justice and equality in this country – women's rights, civil rights, disability rights, marriage rights – protests helped mobilize support and legal action.
In 1963, President John F. Kennedy reacted to violence during protests in Birmingham by announcing that he was going "to preserve order, to protect the lives of its citizens, and to uphold the law of the land." He also listened to the pain and frustration of African Americans, reminding the nation that America "was founded on the principle that all men are created equal, and that the rights of every man are diminished when the rights of one man are threatened." In an era of agitation and protests, John F. Kennedy understood and responded to the call for moral leadership.
It is not just the president's job to answer this call; it is ours as well. There will always be a "few bad apples," but how many more Rodney Kings, Sandra Blands, George Floyds, Breonna Taylors and Daniel Prudes are we willing to tolerate before we focus on the soil that produces not only the apples, but the orchards? Civil rights attorney and activist Bryan Stephenson says that after civil rights laws were passed, "instead of talking about it, we just tried to move on ... and because we didn't deal with it, that narrative of racial difference continued and it turned into this presumption of dangerousness and guilt that follows every brown and black person wherever they are."
Today's protests are a response to that legacy of denial and indifference and the broad strokes of dangerousness and guilt inflicted on the Black community. As history attests, we avoided this conversation for far too long.
Now that the bell of centuries-long oppression has been rung, we cannot unhear it. It's time to listen and it's time to talk.