We Americans are living in a highly consequential time. We are beset by many conflicts, which, if waged well, can be broadly beneficial, but if waged badly, will have destructive consequences. The struggle for equal justice for Blacks, under the banner of Black Lives Matter (BLM), erupted nationally immediately after the rapid spread of videos of George Floyd’s murder by police in Minneapolis, Minnesota, on May 25, 2020. Massive protest demonstrations quickly spread to over 2,000 cities and towns across the country, and also in many other countries.
Surprisingly, the protesters were diverse in ethnicity, age, and experience. The demonstrations were essentially nonviolent and peaceful; in some localities, police expressed solidarity with demonstrators, while in other localities confrontations escalated into forceful encounters. In a few cities, opportunistic gangs looted and burned stores, and in several localities, armed white supremacists tried to disrupt the demonstrations.
The Black Lives Matter (BLM) social movement had emerged in 2014, after a large-scale uprising in Ferguson, Missouri. The uprising followed the military-style suppression of the nonviolent protests after the killing of Michael Brown, an 18-year old Black man. The BLM organization was founded then, becoming a wide network, led by local community members, some sharing a new vision. After each subsequent killing of an unarmed Black person by white police officers, protest demonstrations occurred in many localities, focusing on reforming police departments.
|The locality-based nature of the BLM social movement and its protest actions have begun to bring about significant reforms in local police departments|
Americans have long engaged in many conflicts relating to gaining equal justice for Blacks, at the local, state and national levels. They usually have been waged constructively and achieved broad and lasting benefits. Sometimes, however, conflicts escalated badly with widespread losses or only short-lived gains. In most cities, the BLM protests against murderous treatment of Blacks by police have been conducted within the traditional norms protecting the constitutional right of free speech and the right of the people to peaceably protest. Frequently, as a result, legislative and administrative actions have been taken to end improper police conduct. Often, this has followed conversations and negotiations between protesters and government officials. The locality-based nature of the BLM social movement and its protest actions have begun to bring about significant reforms in local police departments. Local BLM chapters and other community-based, Black-led organizations studied police reform efforts, how to organize protests, and how to get results. This included posting a Conflict Resolution Toolkit on the BLM website.
|The federal government can also play an important role in influencing how protests against unjust police actions are conducted. Their involvement can have constructive consequences--as happened in Ferguson in 2015.|
Of course, the federal government can play an important role in influencing how protests against unjust police actions are conducted and have constructive consequences. The 2014 violence in Fergusson drew President Barack Obama’s attention and he ordered a review of the actions and practices of the Fergusson Police Department (FPD). In March 2015, the DOJ announced its finding that the FPD had engaged in systemic misconduct against the citizenry of Ferguson, including discriminating against Black citizens. It then imposed a consent decree requiring non-discriminatory conduct and, indeed, the FPD’s conduct was and is greatly improved.
President Donald Trump, however, prefers waging conflicts coercively and has encouraged police to act roughly. When some of the BLM protests escalated to include violence, he made it clear that protesters should be dominated, and police could use military tools and tactics. This approach appealed to armed white supremacist groups who appeared at some demonstrations. The goal of this militant strategy is not clear. It expresses emotions, even if it is usually counterproductive. The official and civilian violence against the civil rights campaigners during their struggle in the South, in the 1950s and 1960s, was clearly destructive and ultimately self-defeating.
|Going forward, the BLM activists and their supporters may well need to expand their range of tactics. ...The present national situation opens up an opportunity for a very broad coalition, with electoral implications.|
Going forward, the BLM activists and their supporters may well need to expand their range of tactics. That is true in conducting negotiations and lobbying of local, school, state, and national officials, which can benefit by joining in unlikely coalitions for specific causes. More generally, the present national situation opens up an opportunity for a very broad coalition, with electoral implications. Many Americans, Republicans as well as Democrats, are concerned that the authoritarian conduct of President Trump and his appointed officials are undermining American democracy. It follows that BLM and other movements for justice should join together for an election result that repudiates Trump and Trumpism.
How Americans who are not part of the BLM movement respond to BLM is critical. Expressing recognition of the injustices African Americans experience in the criminal justice system is a step toward peace and justice. Particular groups have special opportunities to enhance both peace and justice. Some police unions have given too high priority to simply protect any members who acted badly, rather than maximizing the good standing of their members as a whole. Lawyers in the criminal justice system might provide more information about injustices and suggest ways to overcome them. Constructive public engagement in solving present-day problems is the essence of democracy.