The Politics of Protests 

Large demonstrations and acts of vandalism will not go away until moderates and liberals can get on the same page about the need for change.

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The disconnect between liberal activists and political moderates over the issues of police brutality and vandalism-plagued protests appears to be widening in Oakland and other cities. Both sides, in fact, are increasingly talking past each other and not listening, thereby further reducing the chances of ever solving the seemingly intractable problems we face.

On one side, peaceful activists who ignore and effectively condone the smashing of windows and other acts of vandalism — especially when committed by young white anarchists — must come to grips with the fact that they're losing the message war. During the past few days, after a group of demonstrators broke car windows and vandalized businesses on Broadway on Friday night, the public discussion in Oakland has not been about police violence; rather, it's been about whether OPD should have cracked down harder on demonstrators. San Francisco Chronicle columnist Chip Johnson even proposed on Tuesday that all nighttime protests in Oakland should be banned.

That's pure fantasy, of course. It would be impossible for OPD to prevent people from exercising their First Amendment rights after dark. Moreover, if OPD attempted to stop such protests, it would surely lead to even more violent unrest.

Still, that doesn't mean that peaceful protesters should just ignore the roving groups of masked vandals within their midst. It would be one thing if it were young Black men and women doing all the window-smashing. If anyone has the moral authority to be mad and to act on that anger, it's the folks who are being targeted by police. But in Oakland, at least, much of the vandalism in the past several years has been perpetrated by white so-called anarchists who are in no way victims of oppression.

Peaceful activists also must understand that the vandals can only thrive during large demonstrations at night. They need to be able to hide under the cover of darkness among big groups of peaceful people in order to avoid detection and arrest. And with that in mind, peaceful activists in Oakland should realize that they will never convince moderates of the righteousness of their cause unless they publicly denounce vandalism. Sometimes, it also would make sense to avoid large nighttime demonstrations, at least when protesting police brutality in other cities, as was the case in last Friday's march in solidarity with Baltimore.

At the same time, political moderates have to clue-in that the protests are not going away anytime soon — no matter how many cops Oakland has or calls in from other cities. Police violence, particularly against young Black men, is a national epidemic — and folks are fed up, as they should be. According to the best estimates, police kill 500 to 1,000 Americans a year. There isn't a more accurate figure, because US police agencies aren't required to report how many people they kill.

Moreover, moderates are never going to convince liberal activists to stop protesting until they exhibit some of the same outrage about police brutality as they do about protest vandalism. After all, we're talking about lives being lost versus some broken windows. It's not that liberal activists support vandalism. It's just that they don't think it's as important — or as much of a societal problem — as the killing of young people by the state.

In other words, moderates have to understand that the system has to change, dramatically. Today, tomorrow, or next week, some white cop somewhere in America is going to shoot another unarmed Black kid in the back, and demonstrators in that city — and in Oakland — are going to take to the streets.

As such, moderates should be pushing to address police misconduct, rather than acting as if cops are facing unfair criticism and that the real concern is vandalism. Mandatory police body cameras and independent investigations of killings by police are two much-needed reforms that are getting very little traction in Sacramento, even though they're reasonable and pragmatic. Why? Because moderate Democrats and conservatives still believe that despite overwhelming evidence to the contrary, police are not the problem.

Even some leaders in the law enforcement community seem to get it more than many moderates do. Richmond Police Chief Chris Magnus and Oakland Police Chief Sean Whent have both embraced reform (although OPD, in particular, still has a long way to go). For example, Magnus and Whent have been training officers to de-escalate situations rather than pulling their weapons or chasing after suspects alone. Officer-involved shootings, in turn, have been declining in both cities.

But this a national issue: Police in most communities are still being trained to shoot first. The New York Times reported earlier this week that the typical American police cadet "receives about 58 hours of training on how to use a gun" versus "just eight hours learning to calm situations before force is needed."

In cities like Oakland, police reforms also must include the elimination of racial profiling and unnecessary traffic stops of Black and low-income motorists (see "The High Cost of Driving While Poor"). Communities of color in America have long felt under siege, and it's now clear that they're going to keep rising up in protest until the system changes.

But that's never going to happen until people of different political beliefs get on the same page about the need for reform.

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