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What happens when the police lose all legitimacy


Minneapolis has witnessed serious unrest over the past few days, sparked by the police killing of a black man named George Floyd, who was accused of using a counterfeit 20 dollar bill. The official report of his death mysteriously omitted the fact that a white officer, Derek Chauvin, had kneeled on his neck for nine minutes while Floyd complained that he couldn't breathe and begged to be let up — which became clear in a video that later emerged. Three other officers stood by and did nothing while Floyd gradually strangled. (Floyd had no pulse when he was put in an ambulance and was pronounced dead at a local hospital; all four of the officers have been fired, and it was announced Friday that Chauvin had finally been arrested.)

The community exploded in rage. Several large protests took place around the city, demanding prosecution of Chauvin and police reform, some of which turned destructive. Several buildings, including the Minneapolis police's 3rd Precinct headquarters, were burned to the ground. (One should note that so far this has been small potatoes by historical riot standards.) Many conservatives, naturally, denounced the riots. On Twitter, President Trump demanded that looters be summarily executed. Democrats too were disturbed by the violence.

Nobody wants to see American cities on fire just for its own sake. But it's important to understand where this unrest comes from: namely, a profound collapse in the legitimacy of the Minneapolis criminal justice system.

Investigation of the Floyd killing found all the sadly typical hallmarks of a rotten American police department. It turns out that Chauvin and the other cops involved had been cited on numerous previous occasions for excessive force for which they were not seriously disciplined. Chauvin alone had 17 prior complaints, including one instance where he shot an unarmed man. (Chauvin claimed the man was reaching for an officer's gun, which the man denies.)

There is also the typical negligence the rest of the criminal justice system has shown towards police misconduct, coupled to merciless brutality directed at non-police offenders. Senator Amy Klobuchar (D-Minn.), who was the chief prosecutor for Hennepin County (in which Minneapolis is located) from 1999-2007, did not press charges in over two dozen cases of police killing someone. "At the same time, she aggressively prosecuted smaller offenses such as vandalism and routinely sought longer-than-recommended sentences, including for minors," reports The Washington Post.

Finally, when it comes to carrying out its most important duties, the Minneapolis police department itself is patently incompetent. As of late November 2019, they had solved just 56 percent of that year's homicides — down from 79 percent in 2006. In the 3rd precinct, which includes one of the city's biggest black neighborhoods, they had solved only a third.

Moreover, controlling disturbances like mass protests is supposed to be the police's job. Even the Army Field Manual emphasizes that non-confrontation, deescalation, and clear communication with protest leaders are key to keeping things from getting out of hand, in part because any large protest can easily outnumber police forces by a gigantic margin. Instead, area police have been spitefully instigating more fury by doing things like driving through a peaceful protest group spraying chemical weapons out the window, arresting a black CNN journalist who was reporting live on the air (and according to CNN, lied about it afterwards), and immediately opening fire with tear gas, stun grenades, and rubber bullets (one of the latter hit another journalist) at the slightest provocation.

It's also not like the Minneapolis black population has been showered with milk and honey outside of all the police abuse. The city's housing is quite segregated (though less than other cities like Milwaukee, Chicago, and New York), it has a huge discrepancy between black and white employment, and its schools have become dramatically more segregated since the turn of the century, largely because the state gutted its school integration policy in the late '90s. A thriving black neighborhood was obliterated by the I-94 freeway in the '50s and '60s. Similar realities hold in almost every American city — which is why, as David Dayen points out, the coronavirus pandemic has hit black Americans much worse than white ones, adding to the despair and anger.

All this is practically the dictionary definition of how to inflame a riot — constantly abuse the population, let egregious state violence go unpunished for year after year, fail to solve violent crime, let poverty and segregation fester, and react to any resulting discontent with enraged force. It also makes for a stark contrast with the recent behavior of Michigan police towards mostly white, heavily-armed, right-wing protesters, who were calmly allowed to shut down the state legislature with what amounted to terrorist threats.

In short, Minneapolis cops are more akin to a surly occupying militia than they are to a functional community police force. Indeed, about 90 percent of Minneapolis police reside outside the city. Perhaps it shouldn't be surprising that they tend to behave like imperial gendarmes. And when the police have well earned the utter contempt of the citizenry, disorder tends to follow.

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