Whose riot is this anyway?

On May 30, 2020, during a Black Lives Matter protest of the murder of George Floyd while in Minneapolis police custody, individuals not associated with the BLM protest broke into Reno City Hall and attempted to set it on fire. Reno police formed a barricade around City Hall and dispersed crowds using pepper gas and concussion grenades - photo: Brian Bahouth/the Ally

Riots can begin with the smallest incident—an insult, a minor squabble, even an accident. It only takes a minute, or maybe nine minutes—for example, the time it took for George Lloyd to die.

Riots require more than a spark. They also need a fuel load, primed and ready for ignition. The fuel load can be an accumulation of grievances or, equally, a plethora of city police, county sheriffs, even the United States Park Police, who too often see themselves as warriors, not guardians.

The mix becomes truly volatile when you add the warehouses of riot gear—special costumes, clubs, shields, pepper spray, tear gas, rubber bullets—all waiting to have their purchase justified.

The term “police riot” comes from the National Commission on the Causes and Prevention of Violence, and their report on the Chicago Police Department’s behavior during the 1968 Democratic National Convention. The report was aptly entitled “The Anatomy of a Police Riot, Chicago, U.S.A.”

The events the Commission described were characterized by “unrestrained and indiscriminate police violence . . . made all the more shocking by the fact that it was often inflicted upon persons who had broken no law, disobeyed no order, made no threat.”

Their definition has stood the test of time. In 1968—the golden age of CBS, NBC, and ABC—millions of Americans settled in behind their TV trays and watched  “security” swarm and mug Dan Rather on national television, as he attempted to convey his report from the convention floor to Walter Cronkite.

Outside, the “unrestrained and indiscriminate” Chicago Police beat and teargassed demonstrators and anyone else unlucky enough to fall into their clutches—all to chants of “The whole world is watching!”

And now, again, the whole world is watching. The networks are still with us, treading water in a sea of cable news personalities, websites, and social media, while anyone with a cell phone can spread an event around the world in an instant.

What the world sees, from this amazing and arguably valid range of samples, is a remarkably consistent picture. It begins as demonstrators fill streets, parks, sidewalks, and other public places. Sometimes they march, or stand around or symbolically sit or lie down.

Then come the police, in rows and phalanxes, anonymous as Star Wars Storm Troopers under dark, obscuring gear, from the helmets on their heads to the steel toes of their boots—opaque sunglasses, gas masks, shields, and armor.

They push ahead, and in the ebb and flow—as tear gas billows and concussion grenades explode—they attack. They push against the demonstrators, knocking some down, even as others fall over themselves trying to get away. Some are singled out, pulled aside, and beaten to the ground. Some are sprayed with chemicals, shot with exploding pellets or rubber bullets, or scythed by swinging clubs.

Others, by accident or design, find themselves facing the police alone. The lucky ones are simply pushed to the ground, and left there, unconscious and bleeding.

“Who are the rioters?” we might reasonably ask. “Not us,” the police say, even as they admit to the excesses of a few bad apples. Except this time the “bad apples” theory is leaking like a sieve, as one uncannily similar video after another pokes yet another hole in the boat.

Where are the good apples? Certainly not among the three accomplices to George Floyd’s murder. Certainly not among the cadre of officers who walked by 75 year-old Martin Gugino, as he lay on the pavement, blood running out his ear. Certainly not among the Secret Service, National Guardsmen, and US Park Police who gassed and clubbed peaceful protestors in Lafayette Park to make way for President Trump’s photo op.

Where are the good apples when members of the news media are singled-out and assaulted by the police? They don’t seem to show up in the news footage, or reporters’ statements, or witness videos from across the country.

Their silence is deafening, or worse, when we delve into this most obvious symptom of a police riot.

You would assume, at first, that the purpose is to prevent the stories from being told—to stop the world from watching. But that makes no sense. The whole point of rioting is to show the world who you are, and that you’re not to be trifled with.

So we’re left to conclude the attacks on reporters are personal—not in the sense of animosity toward individual reporters, but personal on behalf of individual police officers who see the media as their antagonists.

The message is simple and direct—if you are a journalist you are my enemy and I will bully you, inflict pain upon you, injure you, gas you, shoot you, even blind or leave you permanently injured.

This is grounded, after all, in descriptions of the media from the highest levels of government as the “enemy of the people.” Or the outrage in the voice of a New York police union official who accused the press of treating police like “animals and thugs,” as if reporters were responsible for the behavior they happened to capture on video or in their reports.

The murder of George Floyd has brought all generations and all races and cultures together in the realization that there are villains among those whose job it is to protect us. More telling, the curtain has been pulled back on the social and political constructs which both produced this villainy and depend upon it for their survival.

It is no longer tenable to dismiss George Floyd, and countless other victims in even the last few years, as not representing who we are.

The good apples, in whatever barrel, police or otherwise, don’t get the benefit of the doubt anymore. We have to earn it.

We have to discover in ourselves the obvious truth that no one stands by and does nothing as the life gets choked out of another human being, or choked out of our country. And the police—they have to awaken from the nightmare, rejoin the world, and become real protectors, not just the ones they imagine themselves being.


Erich Obermayr is an opinion columnist for the Sierra Nevada Ally. His opinions are his own and do not necessarily reflect the editorial policy of the Sierra Nevada Ally. Support Erich’s work in the Ally here.