The police are the rioters — and the president is the looter

The police are the rioters — and the president is the looter
President Donald J. Trump walks from the White House Monday evening, June 1, 2020, to St. John’s Episcopal Church, known as the church of Presidents’s, that was damaged by fire during demonstrations in nearby LaFayette Square Sunday evening. (Official White House Photo by Shealah Craighead)

Republican Sen. Ben Sasse of Nebraska was a notable critic of Donald Trump before he became much quieter — apparently realizing he needed the president's support to keep his job. With his win in his state's 2020 GOP primary recently secured, all but guaranteeing his re-election in the fall, he seemed on Tuesday more at liberty to criticize Trump once again, issuing a statement obliquely chastising the president's horrific photo-op the day before.

But that wasn't really the interesting part of his statement. Instead, what came next really stands out:

Every public servant in America should be lowering the temperature and that means saying two basic truths over and over: (i) police injustice — like the evil murder of George Floyd — is repugnant and merits peaceful protest aimed at change; (2) riots are abhorrent acts of violence that hurt the innocent. Say both things loudly and repeatedly, as Americans work to end the violence and injustice

Here, Sasse, like many observers — and Republicans in particular — wanted to put the police killing of Floyd to one side and the riotous violence by civilians on the other. Even Trump himself was quick to condemn the cops who crushed the life out of Floyd, recognizing the undeniable horror in the video shared around the world for what it was. Fox News host Greg Gutfeld took it as so obvious that everyone objects to the killing of Floyd that he couldn't understand why his black colleague Juan Williams was still upset and supportive of protests against the status quo.

But what these perspectives ignore is that the killing of Floyd is just one more moment in ongoing oppression and abuse of law enforcement. And it hasn't paused or taken a break since the day he died. It continues in the face of the protests in his name. The police violence against the protesters continues to fuel yet more demonstrations and paves the way for continuing unrest. While it might be convenient for Sasse and other to pretend to be evenhanded and blame both sides of conflicts between police and protesters, it's the police violence that is fundamental.

As Trump and his administration call for an end to the "chaos," seeking to quell the protests and vandalism with curfews and amped-up military and law enforcement presence, they're continuing the another form of the brutal oppression that end George Floyd's life. His death, undoubtedly, sprang from the systemic racism and bias deeply rooted in American society. And this oppression is fostered by the idea that law enforcement has wide discretion to use force against unarmed and unthreatening civilians. Police know they are likely to face few consequences if they cross a line, a fact that has been on stark display as the protests spread.

In recent days, videos shared on social media and reports for journalists on the ground have revealed the dark violence, menacing, and abuse carried out with the authority of the state on harmless victims in the name of supposedly keeping the peace.

Defenseless protesters have been pummeled with rubber bullets, which can maim and disable, and they've been chemically attacked with pepper spray and tear gas. Flashbang grenades have been added to the trauma, and many police have taken to outright physical assault in response to mild or no provocation. Others, including journalists, live on-air, have been arrested and detained with no justification — the definition of state-sanctioned kidnapping.

Trump himself wants to ratchet up the hostilities, telling governors "to deploy the National Guard in sufficient numbers that we dominate the streets." Defense Secretary Mark Esper urged them to "dominate the battlespace," which a Pentagon official revealingly defended as "a common term to denote the area we are operating in." Of course, applying the military playbook to American streets is a frightening proposition.

While officials have cited arrest statistics to convey the weight of the unrest they're dealing with, they've been less forthcoming about the consequences that await the unnamed and uncounted abuser cops. New York Mayor Bill de Blasio, for instance, defended the cops for doing what would get anyone else arrested when confronted about a video showing NYPD SUVs plowing through groups of citizens: "If a police officer is in that situation, they have to get out of that situation."

Apparently, the plan from the federal government — which is not necessarily being embraced by local officials — is that things must get worse before they get better. The president and those around him believe that the protest and unrest will only stop if the law enforcement response becomes so overwhelming that their will to resist is broken. This is the recipe for a police state and a terrorized populace, not to mention uprisings.

According to defenders of the administration, of course, it's the members of the protests who are the terrorists. And undoubtedly, many of the protests have been accompanied by forms of rioting — burned cars, broken windows. There's been violence against police and other civilians as well, though often reports and videos of these incidents don't tell the whole story. And it's not always clear who are the agents behind this destruction — reports have suggested right-wing and left-wing agitators alike are taking advantage of the situation, and some observers have even suggested that police officials could be implicated in false flag attacks as they try to pin violence on the protests. Regardless of who is behind it, these criminal actions should be stopped and dealt with appropriately, particularly the violence against individuals. Many videos and reports have shown the protesters policing themselves by denouncing, calling out, and thwarting would-be destructive agitators in their midst.

There's no question, though, that the police are committing widespread unjustified abuses of the citizenry and the press. Many of these acts have been captured on film, but around the country, there's doubtless many more that happened when the cameras were pointed in another direction. Occasionally, a video will show another officer stepping in to restrain a colleague, but far too often they act together and without restraint. T. Greg Doucette, a defense attorney, he has compiled a growing list on Twitter of videos showing this violence. Here are just a few examples:

Of course, this violence is counterproductive. It inspires more distrust and conflict with the protesters, who may become more inclined to use illegal tactics. This has the potential to further ratchet up the state violence. It's the state's responsibility to keep its own agents under control, even if they're dealing with tough situations. Police officers' obligation to the citizenry they're sworn to protect is even greater than the general obligation not to commit crimes, but thus far, it seems cops many of these cops can commit crimes with little impunity.

There may be some progress on this front. BuzzFeed News reported Tuesday that six cops in Atlanta have been charged with assault and battery for using a taser to detain two protesters. But it shouldn't be only extreme cases that get punished — there must be accountability for the casual use of tools like pepper spray and physical force when they are clearly not needed.

Meanwhile, the president himself, while decrying rioters and looters, is himself looting the country.

As David Frum wrote in the Atlantic: "The president has helped himself to money from the U.S. Treasury, using political power to direct public money to his personal businesses. It’s not as visual as a riot, but until 2017 it would have been regarded as equally criminal."

He's also been credibly accused in office of many criminal acts, including obstruction of justice and violations of campaign finance law. The New York Times and ProPublica have compiled compelling evidence that he is guilty of tax fraud over the decades, likely on a grand scale.

The damage to the rule of law caused by his actions and impunity is far greater than a few items stolen from a local store, but the many of the officials now decrying petit theft have stood by and clapped as the president commits his own version of unabashed robbery.

There's no way for him to credibility lead this country back to anything resembling "law and order." He is lawless, and his enablers ensure that he stays that way. To move toward a more just country, he must resign, be removed, or be voted out of office as soon as possible.

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