“My progressive friends and I are united in wanting to see an end to police brutality, even though we may differ when it comes to the means to bring that about.”
am a middle-aged, divorced, conservative man, who has been using apps such as Bumble, along with other similar sites, to enhance my dating life. Moreover, I am someone who has been criticized on the Facebook page of my alma mater, Columbia University, for defending capitalism. I can say with absolute authority that in today’s political climate, it is very difficult to be in a relationship with or to be friends with an individual whose political beliefs differ from your own. This past January, I was dating a woman whom I met on a well-known dating website. Things were promising, and we were getting along well. However, on our fourth date, we got into that inevitable conversation about politics. The next day, she decided to break up with me. The reason she cited was that she has a rule that she never breaks: She does not date Republicans.
This notwithstanding, I firmly believe that liberals and conservatives can be friends, as evidenced, for example, by the decades-long friendship between the late Supreme Court Justice Antonin Scalia, a staunch conservative, and Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg, a committed liberal. Similarly, though our classroom days have ended, I enjoy corresponding with one of my Columbia University classmates, whose political views are vastly different than mine. This can only be possible, however, when both individuals seek to usher in change without starting a revolution or by destroying the best features of American life. I have always subscribed to the notion that there is common ground between all well-meaning people. When it comes to social issues that we collectively recognize as problems such as income inequality, disparities in access to healthcare, etc., it is easy to agree on the general principle that something must be done. On the other hand, it is not so easy to agree on what should be done, who should do it, how the efforts should be financed, and the like. As a conservative with liberal friends, I typically bristle at the suggestion that I must check my white privilege—or acknowledge the systemic racism that they allege has been part of the United States since its inception. With that said, the murder of George Floyd at the hands of a white police officer, Derek Chauvin, on May 25th has forever changed the way that I look at police brutality in the United States.
As protests have erupted in scores of cities in the United States and across the globe, I find myself in a familiar position among my progressive friends. Although we agree that something must be done to halt the trend of white police officers killing unarmed black men, we cannot seem to agree on exactly what the solution should be. For many of them, they view American society through the lens of Marxism and see the social system as a class hierarchy, in which one class holds most of the power and uses it to control the other classes. They believe that fairness is unattainable in our present system, and that true equity can be achieved only if our society restructures its existing institutions to redistribute wealth and power. As such, a friend approvingly posted the recent New York Times op-ed time calling for the defunding of police departments across the United States. This is an idea that has gained traction through the work of Alex Vitale, a sociology professor at Brooklyn College. In an October, 2017 interview with The Intercept, for example, journalist Rashmee Kumar asserted that Vitale’s 2017 book The End Of Policing “calls for an ideological reframing of policing as an inherently punitive practice that criminalizes the most vulnerable and marginalized people in the U.S. in order to maintain the status quo for white elites.” Another acquaintance, who is a college professor at a local community college, said that George Floyd’s death at the hands of the police made him want to listen to the 1992 anti-police song “Cop Killer,” which graphically describes killing police officers, in a since-deleted Facebook post.
To the Left, to be silent regarding white supremacy is to be complicit. Redirecting that allegation, I believe those on the Left who remain silent about the looting and destruction of private property must be held accountable for it.
While my friends and I both agree on an individual or group’s right to protest peacefully, many of my left-of-center friends are not willing to discuss the violence and destruction of personal property that has come in the wake of George Floyd’s death. When speaking about the protests on June 3rd, former President Barack Obama said that “Recent surveys have shown that despite some protests being marred by a tiny minority that engage in violence, a majority of Americans still think the protests were justified.” To the Left, to be silent regarding white supremacy is to be complicit. Redirecting that allegation, I believe those on the Left who remain silent about the looting and destruction of private property must be held accountable for it.
Furthermore, I am worried that the violence and destruction that has resulted because of protests gone awry will shift the focus away from what happened to George Floyd and the larger issue of police officers killing unarmed black men. It risks instead refocusing the entire conversation on something completely different: the government’s sworn duty to provide security for its citizens and protect private property. In his statement regarding the death of George Floyd and the riots on May 30th, U.S. Attorney General William P. Barr asserted that “the greatness of our nation comes from our commitment to the rule of law,” and that “we must have law and order on our streets and in our communities, and it is the responsibility of the local and state leadership, in the first instance, to halt this violence.”
The phrase “law and order” might seem innocuous to some, but it immediately set off alarm bells for many observers, including David Gergen, a former advisor to President Richard Nixon. The use of the phrase was no accident, and it serves as a guide to the stance the Trump administration planned to take on the riots in Minnesota, and across the country. The phrase refers to the idea of a society coming apart at the seams due to violence and disorder. This is, then, paired with the view that the President of the United States should exert moral leadership from Washington. This is a longstanding idea, and it was forwarded by then-Arizona senator Barry Goldwater during his ill-fated run for president in 1964. In his 2005 book Law And Order, Michael Flamm, an associate professor of history at Ohio Wesleyan University, suggests that during the civil rights movement in the United States, the concept of law and order resonated both as a social ideal and a political slogan because it combined an understandable concern over the rising number of traditional crimes with implicit and explicit unease about civil rights, civil liberties, urban riots, moral values, and drug use. Moreover, Flamm contends that the concept of law and order identified a clear cast of villains (protesters, rioters, and criminals), explained the causes for their actions (the doctrine of civil disobedience and the paternalism of the welfare state), and implied a ready response (limited government, moral leadership, and judicial firmness).
During the long, hot summer of 1967, more than 150 American cities experienced riots. By 1968, the public’s demand for a society built upon law and order superseded the promise of the Great Society. Many Americans were tired of being penalized for staying home, minding their business, paying their bills and taxes, while others were more concerned with protesting and experimenting with illegal drugs. Thus, the idea of the silent majority was born. Similarly, the discourse surrounding George Floyd’s death has become more about anarchic and far -left extremist groups vandalizing private property than about the more important issue of police brutality in the United States, as well as the civil rights of black Americans.
On the other hand, though, I have grown weary of conservatives who try to explain away police brutality by pointing to suspects resisting arrest—or by dredging up the prior criminal history of its victims.
In regards to police reform—and how to prevent future tragedies—I have two ideas that might prove worthy of further exploration. The first involves a radical restructuring of the tests used to evaluate whether a police officer is mentally fit for the rigors of policing. Until 2012, prospective police officers in Minnesota were given as many as five separate tests to assess the mental fitness of officer candidates. Most states use at least two diagnostic tests; however, in the time since 2012, the State of Minnesota has reduced the number of tests it administers from five to only one. This is something to be looked into. My second idea is to continue a trend that has already been in place in some municipalities and to ensure that the demographics of a police force more closely mirror the community it serves. While I abhor identity politics—as well as I question the notion that a white police officer might not be as dedicated to the needs of a black citizen as a black officer—I do believe that a more diverse police force is something that needs to be implemented and evaluated, even if such a policy is more about facilitating trust than anything else. (With that said, however, there are plenty of instances of black police officers killing suspects that do not receive the same degree of media attention.) However, a more diverse police force may prove to be a useful step in addressing police brutality in the United States.
As I said at the outset, I firmly believe there is common ground to be found between all well-meaning people. My progressive friends and I are united in wanting to see an end to police brutality, even though we may differ when it comes to the means to bring that about. As Martin Luther King put it in his 1966 speech at Southern Methodist University, “…if one is working for a just society, he should use just methods in bringing about that society” and that “…in the long run of history, destructive means cannot bring about constructive ends.” Violence, the destruction of private property and churches, the defunding and dismantling of police departments, and the glorification of the murder of federal agents are things I obviously could never endorse. Similarly, the murder of an unarmed and handcuffed black man pleading for his life at the hands of a white police officer is also clearly in that category.
It is time for liberals to understand that protests that turn violent will never result in meaningful changes in political policy. In the words of the late John Lennon, “Well, you know/We all want to change the world/ But when you talk about destruction/ Don’t you know that you can count me out…” On the other hand, though, I have grown weary of conservatives who try to explain away police brutality by pointing to suspects resisting arrest—or by dredging up the prior criminal history of its victims. If we are going to solve the problem of police brutality in the United States, liberals and conservatives are going to have to do more listening and less monologuing. Most importantly, the violence needs to stop. Let’s remember Terrence’s Floyd’s wise advice: “[The violence] won’t bring my brother back…Let’s do this another way.”.
Tony D. Senatore graduated from Columbia University in 2017, at the age of 55. He is a well-known bassist and musician and can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.