Last week’s commentary by John Berry of the Redlands Tea Party Patriots deserves a response. Mr. Berry set the tone by writing, “What started as a racial justice protest has devolved into violent mobs wantonly destroying public property as well as vandalizing statues of ... great American icons ...”
That statement is the premise underlying Mr. Berry’s whole argument, and it’s simply not true. Most of the looting and vandalism occurred during the first few days following the murder of George Floyd, and it was carried out by a tiny fraction of those protesting passionately but peacefully against police brutality and other forms of systemic racism experienced by people of color.
Hundreds of thousands, if not millions of Americans took to the streets over several weeks, and incidents of mistreatment of peaceful protesters by police equaled or surpassed incidents of looting and vandalism. We can quibble about those numbers, but the fact is that the Black Lives Matter movement is serious, and it doesn’t deserve to be characterized in the terms used by Mr. Berry. By the way, how much looting and vandalism happened at the protests in Redlands?
As a filmmaker I, like Mr. Berry, have experience in close quarters with police officers on the job. I’ve shot in jails, courtrooms and on the streets. I particularly recall doing a ride-along in the late 1980s with Rialto police (all white) doing a gang sweep, rounding up 15 or 20 young people (all black) who were just hanging out on the sidewalk because they had no place else to be.
There was no brutality and everything was done by the book as far as I could tell, but it made me think how ironic it would be to see a squad of black cops rounding up suburban white kids. It strains the imagination to picture that. How many unarmed white people have been killed by black police?
I’ve also shot films in minority communities, working in collaboration with people of color. I invite Mr. Berry to put himself in their shoes. Being black puts you at a big disadvantage in America from the day you’re born. Statistics in health, economics, education, criminal justice and employment bear this out. The legacy of slavery, Jim Crow and segregation is baked into every aspect of American culture, including ways that liberal, well meaning white people like me were only dimly aware of before the murder of George Floyd opened our eyes. How much did we learn in school about Juneteenth and the 1921 Tulsa massacre?
I’m frankly amazed that most black people carry on with good humor, good citizenship, hard work and hopefulness, given what they have to put up with on a daily basis: playing against a stacked deck. Comfortable white people react in horror to televised scenes of looting and vandalism, but now I understand what’s behind it — natural rage that anyone would feel. We can’t let that kind of lawlessness go unchecked, but it behooves us to understand where it’s coming from.
From a public relations perspective, “Defund the police” may be the worst slogan ever concocted for a social movement. It doesn’t express what its proponents are really campaigning for. We need to rethink how conventional policing fits into the broader goal of creating peaceful, stable, functional communities. Maybe we’re asking police to handle problems that could be better managed by professionals with different skill sets and institutional affiliations. Maybe police unions have too much power to protect bad cops and squelch investigations of police misconduct.
Right now we have a golden opportunity to work on those and many other issues relating to policing practices that oppress communities of color. We have to strike while the iron is hot.
Nowhere in Mr. Berry’s pro-police article does he acknowledge that the mass protests have a legitimate cause. Many police chiefs, including our own, have made this acknowledgement, along with pledges to advance the cause of fair, equal justice. We can’t let this moment pass. We’ve made gradual progress since the days of segregation, but we have far, far to go.
I’ll close with a question for Mr. Berry: How many people of color belong to the Redlands Tea Party Patriots?
Peter Coonradt of Redlands has been a filmmaker for about 50 years.