Why Violence?

Night and day (Photo on left: AP/Alex Brandon; Photo on right: AP/Seth Wenig)

I watch with horror the violence and destruction that seems to accompany peaceful protest. I admire the protesters, the ‘wall of moms,’ and believe they are acting in good faith. Who is to blame for the fact that it devolves into riot? Is it because the response by the police and ‘troopers,’ (from whatever Federal agency they may come – which is another troubling issue) are so aggressive? Is it troublemakers who seize an opportunity? Is it both? Who is benefitting from the chaos? And, is it really chaos? How much violence and destruction is there really? These days, when where you get your information makes such a difference in your reality, it is hard to know what to believe.

I have attended a number of protests in my life. Gary and I went to Washington D.C. for the Women’s March. I’ve gone to several Planned Parenthood demonstrations. I went to show support for our local Jewish Community Center after it had been targeted with anti-Semitic bomb threats. All of them were peaceful. None of them were held at night. Something seems to change at night. Why?

I continue to reflect on the role that law enforcement plays in our society. I wrote about it previously here. I have been thinking about my own experiences. I am my father’s daughter and that means that I have an instinctive negative reaction to authority figures – at least those who are heavy-handed. Dad left the Air Force as soon as he could; the culture of taking orders without question wasn’t a good fit.

Fortunately, I have had minimal interactions with police officers, other than a few speeding tickets. The blaring siren, the lights flashing in your rearview mirror and the realization that it is directed at me gets the adrenaline flowing full force, even though I know that I haven’t done anything seriously wrong. I have been envious of friends who have been able to sweet talk their way out the ticket. I don’t have that skill set. On those rare occasions when I have been stopped, I try to curb that instinctive resentment (sometimes not that successfully), minimize the interaction, obey their direction, and move on.

Once back in the late ‘80s, Gary and I were pulled over in Brooklyn. We were heading to a friend for Sunday brunch and wanted to pick up a cake or pie, so we were looking for a bakery or grocery store in an unfamiliar neighborhood. As a result, Gary was driving a little erratically – stopping and starting, pulling over to the side to see if shops were open. Next thing we know, we hear the siren from a patrol car and look back to see we were being flagged down. After the police officer explained why he stopped us, we understood his concern, but the officer was more than a little rude and condescending in questioning us. Gary was very respectful (more than I would have been capable of being), explaining what we were looking for, producing his driver’s license and registration. When the interaction was over, we breathed a sigh of relief. We agreed that the cop seemed to take pleasure in his power trip, he enjoyed seeing us quaking in our boots.

On the other hand, we had a positive experience with a state trooper in Pennsylvania. Our car broke down and we managed to pull over on the shoulder of the highway. It was cold and damp out. Within minutes a patrol car arrived. The trooper radioed for assistance and let us sit in his warm, dry car until the AAA tow truck came. We took the trooper’s name and Gary wrote a letter to the state police to thank him for his service.

In both of those instances, we did not fear for our lives. The two interactions were very different, but even in the case of the unpleasant police officer, we weren’t concerned that we would be arrested, abused or killed. I would not have labeled it as ‘white privilege’ at the time, but we both recognize it as such now.

My feelings about the police includes quite a range of emotion, including fear, respect, resentment and appreciation. I guess it depends on the circumstances.

Many years ago, when we lived in the city of Albany, we heard screaming coming from our neighbor’s house. Our house was set on higher ground so we could see into the apartment, the curtains were not drawn. Upon hearing the sounds of distress, I looked out our bedroom window and saw a woman being chased by a man from one room to another. I waited a minute or two to see if things calmed down. They didn’t – I thought she was in danger. I didn’t know the couple despite the fact that they lived next door. I called 911. Fortunately, they responded quickly, and it appeared that they successfully deescalated the situation. I was grateful to be able to call upon them. The incident was never repeated.

As far as I know, that was a success story. I know it doesn’t always go that way. The couple, by the way, were Black. That scenario raises a lot of questions. Is that the role of the police? Who would I have called if the police were no longer assigned that responsibility?  I suppose there could be another service, but what would that look like? There are so many unknowns in a situation like that. The man or woman could have had a gun; mental illness or drugs/alcohol could have had a role. Whoever responded to the call wouldn’t know what they were walking into.

I guess that is one of the problems at the root of this. We don’t know what we are dealing with and the situation can evolve. A peaceful protest may be proceeding without incident until it isn’t. A loud argument between people can turn violent. I attended a training for school resource officers several years ago where one of the presenters explained that police are taught to gain control of the situation – their mindset is to shut things down and get the upper hand. While that strategy makes sense in one way, in another it may be counterproductive, especially when someone is angry or desperate and wants to be heard.

It is clear to me that law enforcement needs to improve its ability to deescalate rather than inflame. In the meanwhile, as protest continues and may even be spreading, I pray it can happen without destruction, injuries or deaths.