On Sunday night, rioters set fire to part of St. John’s Episcopal Church in Washington, D.C. Those rioters are working to undermine the message of the protesters. The protesters grieve at the murder of George Floyd and all other people of color who have been harassed, intimidated, beaten, humiliated, tortured, and murdered by police and white mobs. We call for justice; for equal treatment and protection under the law; for treating humans with decency. We actually call for the United States to at least try to fulfill the principles that are the basis for governing legitimacy.
It does not matter whether the rioters are extreme-left or ‘false flag’ extreme-right agitators. Either way, they are seeking to undermine legitimate public grief at illegitimate police behavior. What does matter is that any citizen or public official who tries to conflate rioters with protesters is using that violence as an excuse to reinforce white privilege, institutional racism, and a grotesquely unjust government. By only acknowledging the rioters, those officials are adopting the same belief in terrorist violence as the rioters, rather than engage in the hard work of implementing justice and public accountability.
I teach planning and public policy and San Francisco State University. My students represent the diversity which is increasingly the United States as a whole: Latinx, Anglo, Asian, African-American, Native American. Furthermore, as a state university, we serve many veterans and I have had at least one veteran or active-duty serviceperson in all of my classes. Like many of my students, I am a public servant: as a teacher, as an employee of the State of California, and as an advocate of the planning profession.
Planners serve whole cities: not just the people we like, nor just the people we agree with. Like park rangers, astronauts, soldiers, pandemic researchers, and police officers, we are part of the ‘deep state’—which is another way of saying that we are public servants.
A central principle of our profession is E Pluribus Unum. Unity, in this public sense, cannot be coerced. It can only be earned through recognizing and respecting the pluribus—the plurality of our people in all aspects of race, class, gender, and gender preference. This is the practice of soft power that enables urban policies to be implemented effectively.
I grieve for the people who have been harmed by abusive police violence, especially when that harm has been made permanent by officials and agencies who do not acknowledge that violence, and who do not hold themselves answerable for abuses. Truly, I cannot image what it is like to live with daily reminders of that poisonous official contempt of you as a human being. What I can understand is the shared threat we all face when public officials act with arrogant impunity. An unjust government lacks credibility, and therefore loses the broad-based support of a society which might otherwise help enforce laws and policies.
Several of my colleagues teach in the Criminal Justice program at SF State. Their students often pursue careers as police officers, and the faculty often work with police. They point out that in communities with a bad history of suffering abusive police behavior, officers cannot get witnesses to give evidence and testimony to prosecute violent crimes. This is toxic on both sides: honest officers cannot actually enforce the law, because prior abusive officers have undermined community trust. For residents of these cities, they have no one to call during emergencies, because the police historically have been the instigators of harm and violence, not the protectors from it. What this also means is that abusive behavior breeds long-term resentment towards police, and therefore endangers future police officers. Abusive police behavior is a uniquely heinous crime: it is a betrayal of the public trust, and a betrayal of your fellow officers in the most profound way.
Public officials who excuse abusive behavior are direct accomplices to this heinous public crime. Even worse, elected officials claim to speak for the whole society; so when they remain silent about abuse, and only condemn protesters, they essentially argue that ‘white people only object if there is threatening social unrest’, but not when a human being is murdered by abusive police officers. This is grossly malicious towards all Americans—the many who are directly harmed, and the whites who DO NOT accept this contemptuous impunity.
Which brings me back to St John’s Episcopal Church in Washington, D.C. A Fox News report portrayed the church and its community as crime victims. Fox did not differentiate rioters from protesters. At the end of the interview, Rob Fisher, the rector of St. John’s, said that this unrest will persist until racism in America is addressed. The Fox News correspondent did not even acknowledge his comment, because it does not fit the conservative narrative. Conservatives would like to presume that all Christians are white-supremacist Evangelical Fundamentalists. In fact, the dominant Christian view is that racism is sinful, and police violence is unjustified both as a provocation and as revenge. Mariann Budde, Episcopal Bishop of Washington, was appalled that Trump presumed to visit St. John’s church in a violent way:
I am the bishop of the Episcopal Diocese of Washington and was not given even a courtesy call that they would be clearing with tear gas so they could use one of our churches as a prop, holding a Bible, one that declares that God is love and when everything he has said and done is to enflame violence.https://thehill.com/homenews/administration/500590-bishop-says-she-found-out-trump-visited-historic-dc-church-by
It is difficult to evaluate this president in terms other than the malice and hatred that he espouses and promotes. A compassionate response seems like it will only invite sneering derision from both Trump and his supporters. However, this raises some important questions. For those who support sneering contempt and disparagement of anyone who disagrees with Trumpism, do you feel that you support a unified republic? The Constitution was intended “to form a more perfect union.” Do you oppose the Constitution and the principles within it? Anyone arguing for justice and rights-recognition at this moment is arguing in favor of the principles and promise of the Constitution. If you oppose calls for justice, what are you advocating?
The Floyd family asks us to grieve, to protest, to call for justice. They oppose the violence of extremists, and I agree: including extremists who command troops and helicopters.