In the past several months, the United States has witnessed arguably the most tumultuous period in American history since 1968.
The coronavirus has taken the lives of over 100,000 Americans in just four months, cementing America’s COVID-19 death toll as the highest in the world, according to the New York Times.
The virus has disproportionately taken a toll on the black community, as black people in the United States are twice as likely to die as a result of contracting COVID-19, and people of color constitute a significant portion of frontline workers that bear the brunt of exposure to the virus, according to Market Watch.
For example, although African Americans only comprise 30% of Chicago’s population, they comprise 70% of all coronavirus fatalities. This trend is consistent across the nation and is likely to escalate as certain states take steps to reopen despite the disapproval of public health experts.
However, even before the first case of COVID-19 arrived in the United States, black Americans from all over the country, regardless of their socioeconomic status, have been disproportionately afflicted with chronic illnesses like hypertension and diabetes due to institutionalized health care inequity.
Coronavirus especially preys on individuals with underlying conditions. Therefore, the outbreak has revealed the large-scale impacts of structural racism on the health of African Americans nationwide.
In the midst of the pandemic eviscerating black communities across the country, a video surfaced of Minneapolis police officer Derek Chauvin kneeling on the neck of 46 year old George Floyd, an unarmed African American man, as he begged for his life and choked out among his final words, “I can’t breathe.”
Chauvin’s fellow officers aided in restraining the dying man for over eight minutes until he perished of asphyxiation. The video triggered immediate nationwide outrage and elicited condemnation from law enforcement and private citizens alike of the Minneapolis police officers’ blatant use of excessive force.
In the days following Floyd’s murder, mass protests broke out in cities all over the United States with Americans of all races and backgrounds coming together to unite against the troubling pattern of law enforcement officers murdering unarmed African Americans without any type of accountability.
Some of the protests were peaceful, while some involved looting and vandalism, but they all shared a common goal to end the police violence and culture of racism that precipitated the murders of George Floyd, Breonna Taylor, and Ahmaud Arbery.
With protests intensifying across the country, many Americans have fostered a problematic dialogue of solely speaking out against the chaos sparked by some violent demonstrators who committed acts of looting and vandalism.
This type of rhetoric largely ignores the root of the problem that inspired most of these protests in the first place. Throughout 2020, black Americans have been fighting a two-front war: coronavirus and police brutality.
Riots and looting are not the problem, but rather, they are mere symptoms of a larger problem that has plagued the United States since its inception: institutionalized racism, discrimination, and violence toward African Americans perpetrated by members of law enforcement.
Floyd’s murder ignited the spark that caused these tensions to boil over. It is easy to champion peaceful acts of protest when one is not being constantly targeted or victimized for their race, especially when this victimization is being perpetrated by members of law enforcement, individuals intended to protect and serve civilians.
While nonviolent direct action has proven effective in the past in achieving desegregation and civil rights legislation, peaceful acts of protest often fail to garner the level of media and political attention that this week’s demonstrations have extracted.
In the wake of the protests, Derek Chauvin was charged with third-degree murder and manslaughter and is currently being held in custody in a state prison.
The three other officers involved in Floyd’s murder have been fired, but they have not been detained or charged with any crimes, further contributing to national fury surrounding a lack of police accountability.
Since the birth of the U.S., riots and violent expressions have broadly been perceived as symbols of patriotism and national pride. Leading up to the American Revolutionary War, violence was the rallying call for rebellion.
Phrases like “Give me liberty or give me death,” or “Rebellion to tyrants is obedience to God” have always been celebrated by Americans as patriotic sentiments. In the U.S., violent acts of rebellion have always functioned as vital tools to protect individual freedoms and fight for liberty and justice for all.
However, today, when some Americans respond violently to the oppression of black people and the tyranny of some members of law enforcement, the leader of the United States condemns them as “thugs,” signaling the rest of the nation to do the same.
Those who criticize violent reactions to brutal police murders of unarmed black civilians should consider that throughout American history, black Americans have utilized both peaceful protests and violent demonstrations in their many fights for equality, from slave rebellions, to 1960s sit-ins and boycotts, to the L.A. Rodney King riots in 1992.
These acts of resistance have proven irrefutably that violence almost always evokes a response from those in power. Acts of violence disturb societal regularity and obliterate the potential for Americans to imagine a normal future.
But is violence an effective means of bringing about societal progress? The most pivotal moments in our nation’s history have been marked by riots and rebellion — violence is the key agent that drives society from injustice to outrage to progress.
Violent protests have the unique ability to not only amplify the institutionalized flaws within law enforcement systems across the country, but also to magnify the ability of those in power to rectify these racial disparities.
While peaceful protests are beneficial and impactful vehicles for social change, it is irrational to condemn acts of violence as undermining the cause of racial justice.
Recent protests, both peaceful and non-peaceful, represent the manifestation of generations of outrage at the killings of innocent black Americans at the hands of police officers without justice or accountability. George Floyd’s murder powerfully opened the centuries-old wounds of racially-motivated violence in the United States.
Riots are not the prevailing issue at hand, but rather, they are indicative of the larger issue of systemic racial injustice within law enforcement and health care systems that are responsible for the premature deaths of untold numbers of innocent black Americans throughout history and into the present.