Bird’s Eye View of a Burning Empire

Our hearts are on fire, our cities are on fire.

As mas­sive coast-to-coast protests con­tin­ue in the Unit­ed States in the wake of the killing of George Floyd and dis­plays of sol­i­dar­i­ty spring up around the globe, it’s safe to say this out­pour­ing of grief has firm­ly switched gears.

What began as an out­cry over insti­tu­tion­al­ized racism in polic­ing has, over the last few days, evolved into a wider move­ment encom­pass­ing the gen­er­al­ized pain of the tragedies of COVID-19, the inad­e­quate state of Amer­i­can polit­i­cal lead­er­ship, the decay of Amer­i­can insti­tu­tions, and the tox­ic lev­els of socioe­co­nom­ic inequal­i­ty that have col­lec­tive­ly led to esca­lat­ing polar­iza­tion and regres­sive stan­dards of liv­ing for so many cit­i­zens.

On the mat­ter of the protests them­selves, the excess­es of law enforce­ment, and the sys­tems that sup­port those excess­es, news vlog­ger Phil Defran­co put togeth­er a nice­ly bal­anced video sum­ma­riz­ing the sta­tus quo, so I want­ed to share that:

I’ll also point out that while he pro­vid­ed exam­ples of dis­turb­ing behav­iour from the protests, that con­tent was well placed for con­text, empha­sis, brevi­ty, and analy­sis. Less is more. That’s a huge part of why I often link his news shows when some­thing big hap­pens, rather than both­er­ing with the end­less stream of vio­lence porn com­ing out of the 24/7 cable net­works. Good report­ing dis­tills facts for time­ly dis­sem­i­na­tion and cre­ates an acces­si­ble dia­logue.

While these protests con­tin­ue and Don­ald Trump is open­ly mocked for hid­ing in a secu­ri­ty bunker after yes­ter­day’s DC demon­stra­tions, we should nonethe­less avoid the dis­trac­tions and shift to a more impor­tant ques­tion: what about all the polit­i­cal chess that’s going on below the sur­face? Because, real­ly, that’s what ulti­mate­ly ends up being the most con­se­quen­tial and endur­ing part of all this.

What sys­temic changes will be put into law, adopt­ed to rem­e­dy this bro­ken sys­tem of polic­ing, and ver­i­fied with strong inspec­tion and feed­back cycles? (Will there even be any?) How will the pub­lic remain engaged? (Will they be shut out again, just as they were in the past?)

It’s easy to for­get VUCA and SWOT in the midst of these con­stant adren­a­line spikes, just as it’s dif­fi­cult to cre­ate con­tin­gency plans and a func­tion­al frame­work going for­ward. Nev­er­the­less, if it does­n’t hap­pen now, this move­ment will all be for noth­ing. So decide — if you’re involved — what you want the endgame to look like and stick to it. If you don’t keep the out­come firm­ly under con­trol, some­one else will.

The protests are now being dilut­ed by scat­tered mes­sag­ing and hijacked by agi­ta­tors, with com­pet­ing inter­ests seek­ing to sow chaos and per­pe­trate vio­lence in order to de-legit­imize the move­ment.

Sim­i­lar­ly, some police depart­ments have learned they can mol­li­fy angry mobs by voic­ing sup­port or tak­ing a knee, no doubt leav­ing huge ques­tions as to the hon­esty of said ges­ture, but nonethe­less avert­ing a vio­lent con­fronta­tion for them­selves in the short term. So much the bet­ter if some­one’s livestream­ing the event on Face­book, or if a TV news team hap­pens to be around.

Even if some offi­cers are of good char­ac­ter and are gen­uine in want­i­ng to do good for the com­mu­ni­ty, the prob­lem remains that they exist with­in a sys­tem which is flawed to the point of urgent­ly need­ing a sig­nif­i­cant over­haul to stem the dam­age being caused by past mis­steps, igno­rance, and com­pla­cen­cy.

If you’re a law enforce­ment offi­cer, the best thing you can do right now is work behind the scenes to get a move­ment start­ed and effect a net pos­i­tive change. Don’t come in expect­ing cred­it for your work right off the bat, and don’t even think about claim­ing “woke cred­it” on TV until you’ve done the nec­es­sary leg­work of fix­ing any defi­cien­cies cit­ed in the past.

If you can’t come to the table with con­crete exam­ples of changes you’ve made to improve your com­mu­ni­ty polic­ing pro­gram and your pub­lic inter­ac­tions, if you can’t show fundrais­ers you’ve done to give the vul­ner­a­ble a hand up, if you can’t point to sweep­ing sys­temic changes you’ve made to improve your over­all char­ac­ter and capac­i­ty to best serve the spir­it of the law, then maybe you should­n’t be kneel­ing along­side those pro­test­ers for pub­lic­i­ty shots. Hol­low ges­tures send the wrong mes­sage.

Indeed, the vio­lent goon shows and numer­ous cas­es of jour­nal­ists being delib­er­ate­ly tar­get­ed by mis­be­hav­ing offi­cers only rein­forces the trope of police being cal­lous and dis­re­spect­ful toward oth­ers’ lives.

To any­one who sees them­selves as part of the Thin Blue Line, I ask you: is this the lega­cy you want to be remem­bered by?

If not, then this is the time to step for­ward and rein in the pow­er-trip­ping cowork­ers and real­i­ty-deny­ing union boss­es who are shit­ting all over your good name.

We’ll be watch­ing.

All right, now back to the issue of the infil­tra­tion of these protests by peo­ple who are try­ing to be a pain in the ass. The phe­nom­e­non itself is not new, it’s been around as long as there have been pub­lic gath­er­ings. It’s the shod­dy han­dling of this sit­u­a­tion by jour­nal­ists of all stripes that’s been such a shock to me.

Based on what I’ve seen, some reporters reveal too much infor­ma­tion by incau­tious­ly par­rot­ing man­i­festos / URLs / recruit­ing info / et cetera dur­ing unnec­es­sar­i­ly lurid news spots. Con­verse­ly, there are at least as many offer­ing infor­ma­tion that’s too sparse for use­ful dis­sem­i­na­tion, fail­ing to pro­vide any­thing approach­ing suf­fi­cient details for the pub­lic to reli­ably spot bad actors at a dis­tance and pre­vent risky inter­ac­tions.

Spe­cif­ic to the cur­rent sit­u­a­tion, such encoun­ters typ­i­cal­ly involve far-right mili­tias, booga­loo groups, and var­i­ous gener­ic antigov­ern­ment move­ments. Pay atten­tion and read up.

I’ve seen sev­er­al instances in which mem­bers of the media unfor­tu­nate­ly ampli­fied the mes­sag­ing of such groups by dis­sem­i­nat­ing videos of them pro­vid­ing food/medical aid or patrolling the streets while clad in AR-15s and body armour in large­ly neu­tral con­texts (or absent use­ful con­text entire­ly). In a hand­ful of cas­es, some jour­nal­ists also overt­ly or sug­ges­tive­ly framed such news spots as “cit­i­zens help­ing cit­i­zens” or “stand­ing in sol­i­dar­i­ty to pro­tect pro­test­ers from vio­lent police offi­cers.”

The real­i­ty, of course, is quite far from such lofty slo­gans.

All in all, if you’re plan­ning to attend one of these protests, it’s on you to research the var­i­ous ele­ments involved, decide how you’re going to con­duct your­self, and go in wear­ing prop­er PPE (includ­ing hel­mets and masks along with an escape plan if enter­ing a poten­tial riot zone). It’s absolute­ly dis­gust­ing and dis­heart­en­ing to see how many peo­ple have been injured or killed by stray debris, less-lethal ammo, or oth­er haz­ards once things turn ugly.

Don’t take your life or the lives of oth­ers for grant­ed.

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