Sunday, June 7, 2020

A Show Of Weakness

The presidentially endorsed “law and order” approach to peaceful political protest that we saw too many times over the past two weeks often flouts the law and it certainly doesn’t keep order. A militaristic “show of force” against peaceful demonstrators is antagonistic and counterproductive, and that’s been proven over and over again throughout American history. I wouldn’t expect President Trump to understand that, since he’s new to this and seems to govern by ego, but American police departments have known for decades that it’s a mistake to attack unarmed, law-abiding citizens. But since the killing of George Floyd, we have seen unprecedented displays of unprovoked violence by law enforcement officers against civilians peacefully exercising their First Amendment rights, including members of the media. And we’ve seen, time and again, how firing tear gas, pepper spray, pepper balls and “non-lethal bullets” at crowds of protesters only escalates conflict and leads to greater damage, more injuries and less trust and support of law enforcement.

In Oakland I was stunned to witness the police reaction to the protests. It’s one thing to go after looters and vandals. They can, and should, be identified and apprehended. But they’re a tiny minority. The vast majority of people protesting George Floyd’s death are just, well, protesting. There’s nothing illegal about that. To the contrary, protest is one of the foundational principles of our country. There’s simply no reason for riot cops to declare a peaceful gathering of Americans, no matter how large or how disruptive it may be to traffic, an “illegal assembly” and then break it up by force. It doesn’t work. It makes people madder. It doesn’t prevent violence, it causes it. It triggers the very thing the police presence is supposed to deter.

Here’s an example: In the summer of 1997, a monthly bike ride through San Francisco devolved into confrontational chaos. For five years, on the last Friday of the month, “Critical Mass” had been bringing hundreds of riders to The City’s downtown, both as a celebration of cycling and a protest of how hostile and dangerous the streets were for bikers. In 1996 and ’97, the events grew larger, with cyclists numbering in the thousands, often blocking major thoroughfares and snarling rush hour traffic. The mayor at the time, Willie Brown, was determined not to let these renegade riders hijack his City. So he ordered the SFPD to enforce the traffic laws and crack down on the bikers. Riot cops set up lines. Bikers were “kettled” on the streets and arrested by the dozens. Clogged intersections became battlegrounds. Some bikers brawled with cops, others with angry commuters tired of stewing in their stranded cars. Bikes were destroyed, their riders hauled away. The evening commute was a mess, downtown a war zone.

Over months of covering these protests, often broadcasting from a bicycle, I observed that left to their own devices, the Critical Massers would block an intersection briefly, whoop and holler, declare victory, get back on their bikes and move on. Only when the police arrived and created conflict by drawing battle lines and ordering the bikers to disperse did the protesters stand their ground and go to war with the cops. The monthly showdowns were increasingly destructive and, for the City, expensive. Why not, I wondered, just facilitate the rides, as the police had done in the past? Stop traffic when the bikes show up, let the cyclists have their way for a few minutes, then escort them on their way? Follow them through town, halt cross traffic so no one gets hurt, but let them make their point without trying to arrest them. Cops could even ride along with them.

Frustrated by the ineffectiveness of their militarized approach, Mayor Brown and the cops eventually returned to those very tactics. Nothing else was working and they came to their own conclusion that they had to try something different. Of course, it was a success. What had been a tense monthly clash became a peaceful celebration, a festival on wheels that eventually attracted families and children and became a mainstream cultural event. The City stopped spending a fortune on overtime, downtown businesses and motorists no longer had their windows smashed and their property destroyed, and over time, the cyclists, and the City at large, won. The bicycle advocates became a powerful political force, and today San Francisco is one of the most bike-friendly cities in America, with hundreds of miles of bike lanes and more in the works (although debate rages on within the cycling community about the effectiveness of Critical Mass, and over the pace of improvements to the City’s cycling infrastructure).

The notion that de-escalation would be more successful than applying force was not new. Countless studies and numerous government commissions had already reached that same conclusion over decades of research.

Yet here we are, a generation later, and America’s urban police departments still see traffic-stopping political protest as an excuse for armed conflict. It’s not. It just doesn’t work. Knocking down disabled people, gassing women and children, punching media in the face, just antagonizes and alienates Americans, and reinforces the message of the demonstrations. Using unjustifiable violence against nonviolent people who are protesting unjustified violence proves the protesters right: “Look, the cops are using violence again, even though it’s completely unnecessary.” Go after looters, sure. Target those who are ransacking Target. When police are attacked, they need to defend themselves. But gassing a peaceful crowd incites vandalism and looting, and galvanizes their allies. Disarmament, engagement and opening a dialogue with protesters defuses tension and prevents the very trouble the cops fear.

In college I took a course on national security policy from Lyman Kirkpatrick, a legendary former high-ranking CIA official. He was a fascinating but intimidating figure. We assumed, my classmates and I, that he not only knew where the bodies were buried, he had buried some of them himself. The course included a unit on the appropriate use of force, and when it was preferable to diplomacy. To our surprise, Kirkpatrick’s lesson was that force is almost never called for, and it should only be used as an absolute last resort. Force, he taught us, is destabilizing and destructive, rarely achieves the desired aim, and in almost every instance, a better result can be obtained through dialogue and diplomacy. Citing his own experiences during World War II and as one of the original officers of what became the CIA, and later leading U.S. intelligence efforts in Asia and Cuba, he taught us that history is littered with costly and avoidable military mistakes. There are exceptions, of course; fighting and defeating Hitler, rather than appeasing him, was inarguably necessary, for example. But a trigger-happy commander in chief might well have ignited a thermonuclear world war during the Cuban Missile Crisis, rather than effect a peaceful result through de-escalation. A show of force, he argued, is almost always a show of weakness, of fear, rather than strength.
Yes, the battles in our streets are on a much smaller scale, and don’t threaten humankind, but the same lessons apply. In the Bay Area, at least, none of the George Floyd protests turned into “riots” until the police lit the fuse. A few dozen opportunistic criminals stealing things from stores is not a riot. It’s a smash-and-grab crime spree. Thousands of panicking people fleeing clouds of toxic smoke, with some induced to turn and fight back, set fires, throw bottles and trash cans and debris at the cops, becomes a riot. And using gas during a respiratory pandemic, when numerous studies suggest it could help spread the coronavirus, is especially dangerous and foolish.

We ask a lot of our law enforcement officers. We expect them to be patient and tolerant, to know when their lives are really in potential jeopardy and when they’re not, to make life-or-death decisions in a split second and always get them right. It’s a really tough job, one most of us could not and are not willing to do. But it’s not too much to ask that they not show up at a picnic and turn it into a wildfire because someone in the crowd may have a pack of matches in his pocket. Especially when decades of experience and research have already shown that they, and we, are much better off when they just let the people have their say.

Monday, June 1, 2020

Under Attack

I got tear gassed Friday night while covering the George Floyd protest in downtown Oakland. It was the first time I’d been hit with gas by police since 2003 in San Francisco, during a demonstration against the second Persian Gulf War.

The police didn’t target me on Friday. I was in the middle of a crowd of demonstrators, doing my job, when officers fired gas canisters without warning. They’d been pelted with bottles and firecrackers and sworn at for more than an hour, and frankly, moments before, I had marveled at their restraint. But then came the flash bangs, and the gas, and I was unable to flee fast enough to escape the noxious cloud that overtook everyone, including quite a few members of the media. Elsewhere around the country, journalists have been targeted directly during this spasm of protest triggered by the police killing of Floyd after he was accused of passing a bogus $20 bill in Minneapolis. I have friends and colleagues who have been hit hard with rubber bullets, dragged to the ground and arrested, hauled off in handcuffs without explanation, despite displaying valid press credentials, carrying obvious equipment and cooperating with police officers who refuse to explain why they’re arresting journalists. Many are journalists of color, left to wonder whether it's their profession, or their skin, or some combination of the two, that drew fire.

We know we take chances out there. I’ve been doing this for more than 35 years. We calculate the risks and do whatever it takes to get the story/the shot/the sound, without putting our lives in too much danger. I’ve covered literally hundreds of demonstrations that turned chaotic and violent. During the Rodney King riots in Los Angeles in 1992, I was shot at by a looter and escaped by driving my rented subcompact through a gauntlet of burning buildings, the flames so intensely hot that I sped down the center stripe to keep the car from exploding. Once, a barricaded suspect fired at me while I covered a police standoff in the Bay Area, one bullet ricocheting off the pavement near my foot, another whistling past my ear. Covering countless demonstrations and wildfires, earthquakes and terrorist attacks, I’ve had too many close calls to count. Some would call me lucky. Others would be fair to call me a fool. Sometimes, as we check our VU meters to make sure we’re getting good audio of the whizzing bullets, or forget our surroundings while framing the shot of the cop with the riot gun, we somehow imagine we’re protected by an invisible force field, that as duly credentialed members of the Fourth Estate we are immune to the deadly forces cutting people down around us. Or maybe that’s just me.

Of course, we’re not. We’re just committed journalists, passionate about what we do. We believe we are necessary to a free and informed democracy. Our nation’s founders thought so too, enshrining our rights in the Constitution of the United States, and the courts have recognized and upheld those rights, time after time after time. But now, in this most perilous time when we are needed to bear witness and amplify voices more than ever before, those rights are not only in jeopardy, they seem to have evaporated. The media are held in contempt, not respect. The President of the United States openly derides us, calling us “Fake News” and “The Enemy of the People.” On Sunday, he tweeted that the “Lamestream Media” are “truly bad people with a sick agenda.” So it’s no surprise that so many people, including law enforcement officers and looters who use legitimate protest as cover for their crimes, see us as adversaries and targets, ignore our press passes and pleas, and knock us to the ground, both figuratively and literally. We diligently avoid interfering with the performance of the cops’ jobs, but some of them keep us from doing ours.

Even so, as targeted as journalists may feel right now, we still have enormous privilege compared with many, if not most, Americans. In my case, I’m a white man. I have press credentials, issued by the San Francisco Police Department and the State of California. I have my employer’s corporate attorneys to bail me out. If I get busted or hurt, it will be a “mistake” that brings a public apology. George Floyd couldn’t say the same. Nor could Eric Garner. Nor Michael Brown.

Friday night in Oakland, I tried to climb an onramp to cover protesters who had blocked Interstate 880. The entrance was blocked by police cars and crawling with heavily armed riot cops. They shouted for me to stop. Told me to turn around and go back. Shined a bright light in my face. From 30 or 40 feet away, I yelled “Media!” I shouted “I’m with KCBS, just trying to see what’s happening on the highway!” They barked, “Move back! Now!” I kept advancing. They tensed and stepped toward me. Some raised their guns. I was holding a three-foot long black pipe, part of a microphone stand I cannibalized at the start of the coronavirus pandemic so I could conduct socially distant interviews in the field. It dawned on me that it could easily be mistaken for a weapon. That they couldn’t hear my shouts over the hovering helicopter, the M80s and flash bang grenades going off down the block. That in the swirl of smoke just after nightfall, there was no way they could make out the press passes around my neck, the KCBS Radio logo on my vest, or even the CBS News emblazoned on my baseball cap. I stopped. I showed them my hands, hoping they didn’t think the mic stand in one of them was the barrel of a rifle. They kept their lights and weapons pointed at me as I slowly backed away, waved submissively, and then turned and walked as quickly as I could away from them. And all I could think was: Thank God I am white. 

That’s the reality of life in America, 2020. Yes, we journalists have become targets too, and it’s not right. It’s not legal. It’s not good for the country. But when it was all over, when I had washed the teargas out of my eyes and filed my radio stories and tweeted my last video, I went home to my comfortable house and my wife and kids knowing that I could go out the next day, wearing my N95 mask, without feeling like a target simply because of the color of my skin. And thanks to my status as a journalist, I will continue to have a front row seat to history and a backstage pass to life. I may have to dodge a few more bullets, but only if I put myself in harm’s way to do my job. Not when I go to a store. Or for a jog. Or simply walk down the street. America has a responsibility to protect those of us who tell its stories, who reveal its truths, who keep its citizenry informed. We, in turn, have an awesome responsibility to speak the truth about that citizenry, about this nation. Our society endures these violent convulsions every few years and nothing ever changes. Buildings get torched, windows get smashed, people get hurt and angry and tired and sad. Eventually, emotions subside, broken glass gets swept up, and life returns to what we call normal. Which, for me, is a life of extraordinary privilege and opportunity, but for those who don’t look like me and have the protections and access that I do, is a daily stroll through fear and anxiety. Too often for them, an innocent outing or yes, sometimes, a petty crime, leads to an indefensible murder, an inexplicably horrible moment of inhumanity like the killing of George Floyd and too many more before him.

And the sad, brutal truth is: Nothing. Will. Change. It never does. The racism won’t ever go away. How can it? Too many Americans don’t want it to. They don’t even believe it’s real.

Once, maybe a dozen years ago, during a similarly chaotic night of protest in Oakland, a police officer approached me and said, “I’ve been watching you all night. You move really fast. You never stand still, and you’re really quick. You’d be really hard to kill.” I wasn’t sure whether to thank her for the compliment, or express how unnerved I was that she had actually contemplated the difficulty of gunning me down.

Yes, we journalists are targets now. We’re not used to it, and it’s wrong. But black and brown Americans are targets every day, and have been for centuries, and they are terribly used to it, and as we advocate for our own protection, let’s not get lost in our indignation and forget to tell the truth about that.