In recent days, America has been overrun by news of the killing of George Floyd and the subsequent response by governments, police officers, and American communities. Anybody who has watched these events unfold has to feel pain in their hearts as cities, communities, and families are torn apart by the destruction and intense language used to discuss these issues. It is an awful site to see a land you love torched as the nation shreds the unity we worked hard to feel during the COVID lockdowns.
Especially after protests turned into violent riots, two very distinct viewpoints have emerged, unfortunately once again along party lines. While no major voice supports the killing of Floyd, one side has overwhelmingly focused their attention on the motivations of the protestors and rioters, supporting the riots as righteous action against an overwhelmingly racist society. The other side looks at the same events and sees a self-serving group of criminals taking advantage of a national tragedy for their own personal gain. Or at least, that's what reading national news from either perspective would lead you to believe.
As with most issues, both viewpoints are considerably more nuanced and, if you look for opinions other than those pushed by inflammatory Twitter shock-jocks and the news media, more balanced. Most people on both sides of the issue see the violence as objectively bad [New York Post] [CNN]. There are those on both sides who see rioting as fundamentally counterproductive [New York Times] [National Review].
I think the key to making actual forward progress on this issue is first and foremost attempting to cut through the divisive rhetoric and trying to understand others' perspectives, especially those of the African-American community. Once we begin to see where the issue truly lies, we can begin to reach out and start to heal. So where then does the difference in perspective really divide us, and what steps can we personally take to help each other and our nation?
A Difference In Perspective
In my estimation, excluding polarizing factors such as Trump's response and opposing views on whether racism still exists in the US, the main difference between the conservative and liberal positions is what they consider to be the motivations of the rioters and how much those motivations deserve to be considered. Consider, first, Mitch Albom in an article from the Detroit Free Press:
George Floyd is not the first black man to die from a white cop’s indifference. He’s not even the first to die from a chokehold. When something unforgivable happens over and over again, what are people to do? Where does the grief and the anger go?
Similarly, Arwa Mahdawi writes in The Guardian:
When you are oppressed there is no acceptable way to fight against your oppression. You get branded “unpatriotic” for peacefully taking a knee to protest against police brutality. You get vilified for using boycotts as a non-violent tool of resistance. You get called “THUGS” when, after the murder of yet another unarmed black man by the police, you protest in the streets.
These statements reveal a fundamental attempt to understand why protests are so volatile and turn violent so quickly. To some, they may sound like endorsements or supportive of the violence, but as Mahdawi goes on to state,
Don’t get me wrong, I’m not glorifying violence – that’s what the president of the United States is doing. And I’m certainly not calling for violence. I’m simply saying we must interrogate what we call “violence” and what we call “policy.” Many of the people yelling “violence is not the answer” about the riots in Minneapolis are the same people who wholeheartedly support America’s endless wars.
These statements don't condone the violence — if anything, they question efficacy of violence as a concept. But they are saying that in the context of how they perceive modern America, the violence seems to be a natural reaction from a group of exasperated people pushed by society to act out.
To give a less political analogy, let's use a child or teen who starts to act disruptively. Oftentimes, if a child begins to lash out and become increasingly violent, it is indicative of a deeper problem. Scholastic published an article that suggests stress is one of the reasons children lash out. While we don't excuse the wrong behavior of the child, it's also our responsibility to look beyond the immediate negative effects and try to discover and potentially solve any underlying issues that are hurting the child.
Dr. Leon Seltzer writes in Psychology Today:
When in our gut we feel “assaulted” by
another—and it hardly matters whether such a felt attack is verbal or physical—our emotional distress derives from such feelings as being disregarded, devalued, distrusted, guilty, rejected, or unloved. But of all the possible reactions here, perhaps the deepest, most survival-related emotion is feeling powerless. For when someone says or does something hurtful to our feelings, at the most primal level it revivifies ancient fears of helplessness and hopelessness.
So our reacting with self-righteous anger (and what anger isn’t self-righteous?!) immediately sticks a band-aid over our hurt. And furthermore, the emotion has the effect of negating the other person’s “rightful” authority to judge us.
The basis for the liberal understanding of this issue lies in this idea, that rioters are expressing themselves in a fundamentally human way because of the situation they have found themselves in their entire lives. This does not imply that "human" means it's right, or that what we're seeing happen across America is a good thing. It is an attempt to understand the problem and to show the necessity of addressing the issue because, as a part of human nature, this sort of thing will continue until the underlying issue is addressed.
The conservative perspective (aside from their opinions on the liberal position) still sees the killing of George Floyd as a serious issue, but generally sees the issue of race as an inflammatory distraction from what would otherwise be an egregious killing by a police officer. Andrew McCarthy writes in the National Review:
Since race, regrettably, is the full-field explanation for all phenomena for many progressives, the controversy becomes a
black–white thing because the victim was black and the perp is white… Nevertheless, I don’t look at this as a racial issue, or a “cops against black men” issue. It is a matter of equal protection under the law. Any civilian, regardless of race, who did what Chauvin did would have been placed under arrest.
Conservatives similarly don't dismiss the legitimacy of anger displayed over Floyd's murder. The New York Post sums up their estimation of the issue itself by saying, "Police use of such unnecessary force is a betrayal of every good cop and of the public itself. Outrage over it is entirely righteous." This, however is where the narrative turns.
Michael Dougherty writes in the National Review:
People do not loot seeking justice for George Floyd, they loot for the loot. People don’t commit arson to make a political statement. What does burning an AutoZone even communicate if it could be translated into politics? People don’t assault those citizens standing in the way of looting and arson as a cry for help or to draw attention to social problems, they do so because looting and arson offer satisfactions to a reprobate will.
Conservative articles focus on the damage that rioting has done to communities, showing how riots often lead to increased crime, lower property values, and turn new individuals off from revitalizing the area [source], as well as giving examples of rioters burning low-income housing that would've helped members of the same community. They say the motivations of the rioters are purely evil, and moreover are irrelevant to the discussion.
Now to be sure, there are radicals on both sides of the issue. There are those on the left making excuses for the rioters and encouraging violence, and there are those on the right calling the entire issue a fabrication and provocation by liberals, mocking attempts to be conciliatory and demanding even more violent efforts to quell the riots. This discussion is not about them and their vitriolic pot-stirring, but rather the motivations and perspectives of the majority of Americans concerned less with blatant party rhetoric and more with making America a better and safer place.
It is a fact nobody debates that George Floyd's murder was a heinous act committed by somebody who does not deserve to wear an officer's badge. It is a fact that according to scientific studies, riots are harmful and do not accomplish long-term social progress, as well as being unilaterally morally wrong and destructive. It is a fact that America still has race-relation issues simply by virtue of the fact minorities are rioting today across the nation. The question then is how we, the vast majority of Americans still at home under lock-down, respond to this awful situation?
How Then Shall We Live?
I have watched videos this week of rioters screaming into the faces of an elderly white couple trying to cross a street, and I've watched footage of police firing simunitions at citizens simply sitting on their front porch while yelling, "Light 'em up!" My heart has been grieved as I've seen cities burning while violent mobs clash with heavily-militarized police units.
But I've also watched as sheriffs and officers have laid down their arms and masks and knelt in pain alongside protestors in solidarity. I nearly wept as I listened to the words of Flint, Michigan Sheriff Chris Swanson: "We wanna be with y'all for real, so I took the helmet off, laid the batons down — I wanna make this a parade!"
To be sure, there are opportunists in this arena taking advantage of this situation for their own personal gain. Violence is not how this problem is going to be solved, and the looting and rioting is absolutely wrong. But we must be very careful not to group those individuals who are talking with those who are fighting. Most fundamentally, everyone is out on the streets because they do not feel understood, and they want to have a voice. Some choose words, some choose vile demonstrations, but the root cause is an ever-present sense of powerlessness that has been inflamed by the murder of an innocent man.
Therefore, I think the most powerful thing we can do is to listen. We must adopt a truly open mind to listening to the experiences and perspectives of those on the other side of the issue, and practice active listening by proactively asking questions and demonstrating genuine concern for those who have a different perspective. For how can we ever have a conversation if we're not willing to actually listen? And how are we to show love if we do not try to understand?
For those of us who claim to be Christians, this is even more central. If we truly believe that Christ is the only true answer to the problems of the world, then we need to be out proactively demonstrating His love towards the people who need it most. We cannot stop by rattling off statements about how God is the only answer to today's problems and then moving on with our lives. We need to be out calling, writing, and talking to those who care about or are affected by these issues so that we can understand them better ourselves as well as demonstrating to them that we love them enough to listen and put effort into understanding them.
Community leaders have an even bigger potential because oftentimes they are the voices that give shape to others' views of their community's attitudes. If you are a community leader, consider that you might be the only voice a member of a different community or race hears on subjects such as these. We all need to be projecting love and care actively, letting it be known that you are open and willing to learn and to listen. Make yourself a safe person to talk to, demonstrating that you want to look beyond your perspective and truly understand how they feel and what they see.
We have the ability to make a serious difference. Every single one of us has the ability to be a vessel of peace to our neighbors by taking the time to learn and try to understand where they're coming from, even if you disagree with them. When you're showing love to someone, it's much more important that you communicate you care about them than communicating that you think you're right. If we truly listen and show love to those who are angered by their lack of voice, I think our nation might be able to start healing. There are many issues at play here, and to be sure they will not be solved in a day. But for right now, in the midst of all the chaos and hate, the best we all can do is show love and compassion to those who are hurting.