This was originally published by National Review.
Four years ago, in the last week of my 20-year military career, a fellow officer pointed at the flat-screen television mounted on the wall of a classified Pentagon conference room and asked, “What do you think about that?”
I glanced up to see a cable news segment about Colin Kaepernick, a quarterback for the San Francisco 49ers at the time, kneeling during the national anthem, the closed-captioning sputtering out blocks of text with his rationale. The summer of 2016 had been filled with more than a hundred Black Lives Matter protests in several dozen cities following the police killings of Alton Sterling in Baton Rouge and Philando Castile in Minnesota. Kaepernick explained that his protest was designed to call attention to racial injustice, including the brutal policing of black people.
Not wanting to have this conversation at work just days before retirement, I shrugged, demurring with a question, “Freedom of speech, right?”
Thankfully, my colleague, a white airman from Colorado, pressed me, a black sailor from North Carolina, on the issue. “I’ve served with you, saluted alongside you — I know how you feel about the flag. But do you think the police treat black people differently?”
There was no shrugging off this question.
Just before the start of my career two decades earlier, I was out smoking cigars with friends, celebrating my imminent departure for military training. On my drive home in the wee hours of the morning on an isolated stretch of interstate, reflections of blue lights lit up the car’s interior. Within minutes, I stood handcuffed as one policeman ransacked my car and the other informed me that one of my headlights was out. And then, adding matter-of-factly the real reason for the stop, “Besides, we saw you smoking that blunt” — using slang popularized by rap artists for a cigar filled with marijuana.
By the end of the ordeal, I was stuffed into the backseat of a police cruiser on my way to jail, arrested — not for the headlight or the tobacco in the cigar butt wisping in the ashtray but because, as an absent-minded college student, I’d forgotten to renew my license after it expired several weeks earlier. Scared to death and waiting to be released to my parents, a black man with long dreadlocks and a massive hematoma on his forehead was tossed in my cell, trails of blood racing down his face and pooling onto the concrete floor where he lay.
These bookends to my military service feel fresh once more as the nation roils with peaceful protests and violent unrest following the vigilante murder of Ahmaud Arbery and the killings of George Floyd and Breonna Taylor by police. In the span of just a couple of weeks, investigative reporting and released videos brought the incidents into the public sphere and quickly displaced the coronavirus pandemic as the nation’s preoccupation.
Calls for justice rang from all corners, and many of them soon developed into demonstrations decrying the disparate treatment of black Americans by law enforcement. Some of these have broken into riots, devolved into looting, and spiraled into violent confrontations with heavily armed police forces. But the overwhelming majority have been civil exercises of the First Amendment rights to assemble peaceably and to speak freely about the effects of racism on our liberty and society.
Predictably, rather than take on the exceptionally difficult task of a national self-assessment, some politicians and media directed public attention to the most egregious actions during protest rather than to the aims of the protest. The brew of militarized police, enraged citizens, and criminal looters — bursting into scenes of chaos backlit by burning cars and flashbangs — is a powerful elixir. Sensational images and impassioned appeals to stop the violence flooded traditional and social-media outlets, broadcasting the destruction and airing competing ideas about how to restore order.
Political leaders at all levels of government took their cases to public, typically sorting into one of two ideological camps. Atlanta mayor Keisha Lance Bottoms characterizes one side, telling her city in an emotional speech that breaking windows and looting stores runs counter to the spirit of the protest and detracts from its purpose of calling attention to racial injustice. President Trump is a superlative characterization of the other side, which suggests that the unrest is not a symptom of a larger national problem but is the problem itself and requires a response of overwhelming force. He modeled his vision for quelling protest by sending federal agents with nonlethal munitions and smoke cannisters to surge against peaceful White House demonstrators so he could cross the street for a photo op in front a damaged historic church.
And, as usually happens when racial tensions reach fever pitch, Martin Luther King Jr. becomes the referential totem. In explaining the anger that boils over into destruction, we are reminded of his statement that “a riot is the language of the unheard.” Others note that the principal order of business should be to restore order, echoing another King quote from the same speech: “I will always continue to say that riots are socially destructive and self-defeating.”
As the protests continue across the United States, we risk finding ourselves lost in the same pattern of unproductive behaviors that have long plagued the country. An obsession with modes of racial protests rather than with the meaning of them belies an unwillingness to face the flaws they expose in the nation’s ability to live up to its ideals and fulfill its obligations to the citizenry. Public order and the rule of law are elemental to the well-being of liberal democracies, but the values on which our republic is founded are far more important than any material loss from protest. After all, nearly 250 years after Massachusetts colonists destroyed private property by dumping the contents of a British East India Company shipment into the Boston Harbor, no one gives a damn about the tea. However, the principle that inspired that protest — “no taxation without representation” — endures.
If we are to capitalize on the present crisis to strengthen America and make the Union a little more perfect, we are duty-bound to grapple with the abiding sense of injustice that is felt in black America and fuels civil unrest today, just as it has for centuries.