Blacks end up suffering more when hostility to police makes it impossible to maintain urban order.
The violent protests in Minneapolis and around the country are devastating the people in whose name they demand justice. The brutal death of George Floyd at the hands of a Minneapolis police officer has again fanned the flames of racial discord and violence. Unlike other incidents, in which officers believably might have felt a need to use force, the sickening video of the officer pressing his knee on Floyd’s neck for more than eight minutes has been roundly condemned.
But the violent protests have also been decried by black Twin Cities residents who are witnessing the devastation of their community. Floyd’s girlfriend, Courtney Ross, urged residents to stop looting and burning in his name, saying that Floyd “loved the city” and would be “devastated” by its destruction.
The violence in Minneapolis elicits flashbacks of the rioters in Ferguson, Mo., after the August 2014 police shooting of Michael Brown. After shops were set aflame and stores were looted, then-Gov. Jay Nixon said many of those arrested had come from outside the state, including as far as Chicago. Ferguson residents suffered deeply in the wake of the violence. Public bus service was suspended and people couldn’t get to work. Volunteers from churches in the area brought in donated food because so many local stores and restaurants were burned-out shells.
In Minneapolis, as in other sites of violent protests throughout the nation, the media has helped stoke racial animosity. A CBS reporter condemned the disparity between police responses to the riots in Minneapolis and a recent demonstration by a mostly white crowd at the Michigan Capitol, omitting that the latter was nonviolent. Perhaps because of heightened media scrutiny, Minneapolis police showed significant restraint, which might have emboldened rioters to besiege and burn down a police precinct building.
The devastation will likely continue after the ashes cool and the remains of shops and other businesses are swept away. A pattern known as the Ferguson effect has emerged across American towns and cities racked by antipolice protests in recent years. To avoid charges of racism, officers have stepped back from fully enforcing the law. In this state of “police nullification,” entire neighborhoods have descended into free-fire zones, where street violence and homicides have skyrocketed.
After the 2015 police shooting of a black man in Cincinnati, civil-rights activists descended on the city to decry the institutional racism of law enforcement. When officers subsequently declined to enforce the law aggressively, there was a significant increase in murders in one crime-ridden black district. The civil-rights advocates who had led the protests didn’t have to live with the consequences of lawlessness when they returned to the safety of their neighborhoods.
Animosity toward police also makes some blacks reluctant to cooperate with law enforcement. In St. Louis last spring, 18 children under 14 were killed by gunfire, but many residents withheld information from police, and only one arrest was made by the end of the summer. Last year 86% of police chiefs nationwide said recruitment had declined since 2014, and in many cities law enforcement hasn’t been able to respond even to desperate 911 calls. Communities like George Floyd’s will feel the greatest impact of this dearth of law enforcement.
Protests won’t reverse this frightening trend. Those who are truly concerned about addressing the tragic loss of black lives should look for proactive measures that could reduce the incidence of violence between police and civilians. I witnessed one example several decades ago when I worked with the National Black Police Association, which called for a policy that would require a police officer to restrain or arrest a fellow officer if he witnesses him using undue force. Loyalty and commitment to the rule of law should prevail over loyalty to fellow officers. If the officers who were involved in the killing of Floyd had come upon three civilians engaged in an assault, they would have made arrests; the same should have applied to their fellow policeman.
Law-enforcement officers should be held to a higher standard because they carry the authority of the state. When they abuse that standard and engage in actions that result in the needless loss of life, they should be prosecuted to the fullest extent of the law.
Martin Luther King Jr. cautioned that the only protection that a minority person has is to demand that social principles be applied equally. If racial profiling is wrong, it is equally wrong to stereotype all police based on the actions of a few. The killing of George Floyd was heinous, and justice must be served. But violent protests against police are not the answer.
Mr. Woodson is founder and president of the Woodson Center.