Monday, September 14, 2020

What Makes These Protests Different From All Other Protests?

I'm trying to figure out why this round of protests against police violence feels different, in terms of the public resonance it's having, than what came before. It seems every few days we get a new wave of breathless commentary about how the backlash is coming among White suburbanites in Wisconsin and ... so far, it hasn't manifested. It'd be wrong, obviously, to act as if the entirety of America is behind the protesters or anything like that, or if there aren't important divisions and controversies among people who generally do count themselves as supporters. But in the broad sweep of things, support has been far more robust than one might have predicted based on past history.

One candidate that stands out in my mind is that the latest round of protests, sparked by the police killing of George Floyd, occurred basically immediately after a different round of protests by mostly White right-wingers angry about mask-requirements and coronavirus lockdowns. Americans had just been swamped with pictures of heavily armed and kitted-out protesters getting right up in the face of police officers and screaming at them, as the officers stoically endured the assault. A lot of people remarked that the police would be a lot less stoic about this sort of thing if non-White people tried to pull it. And then, wouldn't you know it, we immediately got confirmation.

The response to the anti-lockdown protests was tangible proof that the police could, if they wanted to, respond to high-emotion and fraught protest situations without significantly escalating the situation. So when we saw how they responded to the Black Lives Matter protests occurring essentially at the same time -- indiscriminately using force, arresting journalists and lying about it, and more -- it really underscored that these were choices the police were making that were not inevitable byproducts of having a tough job and being in a difficult situation.

Of course, the differences in how some protests are treated compared to others is nothing that new under the sun when one takes the macrolens out. But the direct juxtaposition -- where one protest immediately followed the other, and the differences in the police response was so drastic and so visceral -- I think made a serious impact. Watching the police act like basically like a type of gang caused a lot of White observers who maybe had a basic faith in the general professionalism of the police to reassess their views. And that reassessment is proving stickier than I think many anticipated.

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