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A Tale of Two Protests

Why did the president and the police treat the armed Michigan militia protestors better than they treated the Lafayette Park protestors?
June 5, 2020
A Tale of Two Protests
Demonstrators take part in an "American Patriot Rally," organized on April 30, 2020, by Michigan United for Liberty on the steps of the Michigan State Capitol in Lansing, demanding the reopening of businesses. - Michigan's stay-at-home order declared by Democratic Governor Gretchen Whitmer is set to expire after May 15. (Photo by JEFF KOWALSKY / AFP) (Photo by JEFF KOWALSKY/AFP via Getty Images) Protesters march over the Brooklyn Bridge to demonstrate the death of George Floyd on June 4, 2020 on top of the Brooklyn Bridge in New York. - On May 25, 2020, Floyd, a 46-year-old black man suspected of passing a counterfeit $20 bill, died in Minneapolis after Derek Chauvin, a white police officer, pressed his knee to Floyd's neck for almost nine minutes. (Photo by Angela Weiss / AFP) (Photo by ANGELA WEISS/AFP via Getty Images)

1. Trump

One month ago a large group of men armed with handguns and rifles descended on the state capitol building in Michigan.

These men were part of an organized protest effort. In Facebook postings leading up to the event, some in their virtual groups had threatened violence against the state’s governor. The threat was egregious enough that Facebook even removed the organizers’ private group from the platform.

Many of these armed protestors entered the capitol building where they paraded around with guns while shouting at state legislators. This is what the scene looked like:

"Let us in!" protesters chant at Michigan Capitol

And here is what President Donald Trump had to say about the protests:

By contrast, this is what Trump had to say about protests surrounding the murder of George Floyd in Minnesota, one month later:

It’s just interesting.

2. Police

What’s more interesting that Trump’s response, however, is the difference in the way law enforcement has handled the various protest groups.

In Michigan, we had men open-carrying firearms on government property. Maybe they were doing so legally, maybe they weren’t. Open-carry is legal in Michigan, but the state has a vague and rarely-used prohibition against “brandishment.”

But despite the large presence of firearms in the possession of the protestors, the state police in Michigan were extremely disciplined during their confrontations. Even when protestors tried to force their way onto the House floor or screamed at the police from inches away, challenging them to fight.

Contrast this with—to pick just one example—the Monday night crackdown on protestors in Lafayette Park in Washington, D.C. In this explosion of police violence, law enforcement attempted to justify its actions after the fact by first claiming that the protestors had turned violent (there is no evidence to support this claim) and second by claiming to have found weapons among the protestor, including “frozen water bottles” and “metal poles.”

Of course, carrying a frozen water bottle in Washington is as legal as carrying a long gun in Michigan. But in one case the “weapon” was tolerated and in the other it was used as a pretext for government assault.

This might be the most depressing example of realpolitik I’ve ever seen.

In Washington, unarmed people on the right side of the law were protesting police misconduct and so they were subjected to police misconduct.

In Michigan, armed people trying to intimidate public servants by dancing right up to the edge of the law were afforded every bit of leeway and legal protection of their rights imaginable by the police.

You do the math.

Look: To some extent we’re talking apples and oranges here. There are as many different law enforcement cultures as there are colors in Pantone. There are good cops and bad cops. Managing a crowd of a couple hundred is different that managing a crowd of a few thousand. Context and environment matter. Leadership matters.

But we’re not taking about apples and battleships.

There are basic similarities to be grasped unless you’re being willfully obtuse.

3. Black and White

Radley Balko has been the best writer on the need to reform law enforcement in America for years.. Here’s a piece from last week that’s really worth your time:

Four years ago, a white man named Daniel Shaver was shot and killed by a police officer in Mesa, Ariz. Shaver, who worked in pest control, was in Mesa on business. While in his hotel room, he showed two acquaintances a pellet gun used to shoo birds out of stores. Someone outside the room saw the gun flash outside the window, and called police. In body cam footage that police were later forced to release, Shaver can be seen unarmed and on all fours, pleading for his life as officers shouted contradictory commands at him. When Shaver reached back to pull up his shorts, Officer Phillip Brailsford shot Shaver dead.
The Shaver video is one of the most haunting and horrifying recordings of police abuse you’re ever likely to see. Brailsford — who had a history of excessive force and had engraved the words “You’re F****d” on his service weapon — was later acquitted by a jury, reinstated and allowed to retire with a pension and disability pay for the trauma he said he suffered as a result of killing Shaver.Shaver’s death is often brought up by people who are sympathetic to the argument that policing has grown too aggressive and militaristic, but who are skeptical that race has anything to do with it. They ask: Isn’t Shaver’s death proof that policing isn’t necessarily racist, but just too aggressive against everyone? And why didn’t Shaver’s death spark protests like those seen in Minneapolis and elsewhere since the death of George Floyd?The answer to the first question is easy. The problems in policing — from militarization to lack of transparency, to misplaced incentives, to the lack of real accountability — certainly do affect everyone, not just black people. According to The Post’s database of fatal police shootings, since 2015 police have shot and killed about twice as many white people as black people. . . .A 2017 NPR/Robert Wood Johnson Foundation poll found that half of blacks said they had been unfairly stopped by a police officer. About 6 in 10 said they or a family member had. That means that if you know two black people, one of them feels they’ve been treated unfairly by police. Philando Castile, a legal gun owner who was shot and killed during a traffic stop despite by-the-book obedience, had previously been pulled over more than 50 times for petty traffic violations. Status offers little protection, whether you’re a professional tennis player, a fellow police officer, a district attorney or a Republican U.S. senator. . . .

A 2017 Pew poll asked police officers if the high-profile police killings of black people were isolated incidents or part of a more systemic problem. More than 7 in 10 white officers said these were isolated incidents, while nearly 6 in 10 black officers said they were signs of a broader problem.

2004 Vera Institute of Justice study found that black attitudes about police are shaped far more by personal experiences and the experiences of friends and family than by media coverage. And a 2016 Cato Institute/YouGov survey found that blacks were significantly more likely than whites to report being sworn at by a police officer and experiencing physical violence at the hands of a police officer. They were also five times as likely to expect worse treatment from police because of their race. Perhaps the most revealing survey of all is a YouGov poll last year that found that black people were more worried about being a victim of police violence than being a victim of violent crime.

When white people see video of unjust police abuse of a white person, it may make us angry, sad or uncomfortable, but most of us don’t see ourselves in the position of the person in the video. If we’re polite and respectful, we think, and don’t put ourselves in scenarios that lead to confrontations with police officers, there’s little chance that we’ll ever end up like Daniel Shaver. When black people see video of Officer Derek Chauvin kneeling on George Floyd’s neck, their reaction is much more likely to be that could have been me — or my son, or friend or brother.

Read the whole thing.

Jonathan V. Last

Jonathan V. Last is editor of The Bulwark.