It’s been almost two weeks since the first peaceful protests in downtown Raleigh, followed by not-so-peaceful protests, vandalism, and looting. In our city and many others, people gathered in the streets in opposition to police killings of unarmed Black men. The crowds shouted in unison, Black lives matter! And No justice, no peace!
Late in the night, some of the demonstrators started throwing bricks through the big plate glass windows and grabbing the cash registers and goods from the shops. There were some small fires. It looked like our city could be in big trouble.
The protests were not far from where we lived. Our building’s management boarded up the ground-level windows the next day, and a lot of area merchants and residences did likewise. But it seems like the demonstrators had second thoughts about the destruction. The protests continued the next day, with marchers with signs, shouting, and drumming, but without the vandalism and looting.
There have been thousands of people here and around the world peacefully protesting police violence and other anti-Black discrimination. It’s not surprising that Black people are protesting. They’ve lived with these problems and related ones for a long time. It’s good that they’ve found the courage and purpose to organize, and good that non-Black people are joining in. The movement is helping white people to see the reality of our caste system that subordinates and oppresses Black people.
Our racist system, and the background folk ideology that sustains it, took a long time to construct, and it will take time to deconstruct. But it feels like we may be moving in the right direction, and with any luck we’ll keep moving that way.
What to say about vandalism and looting? Obviously, it’s not as bad as the police violence and killing of innocent Black people. Some of the vandalism likely comes out of anger, with inadequate legal outlets for that anger. In many places, Black voting has been suppressed, so ordinary political expression is not available, and other methods of communicating are too expensive. I can understand why anger and frustration make throwing a brick through a plate glass window seem like the only available way of getting attention. And breaking glass and lighting fires certainly does get the attention of the power structure and the media.
The problem is that property damage and theft also align with the traditional racist narrative that Black people are dangerous and must be controlled, with violence if necessary. Property destruction is an understandable emotional outlet, but it is ambiguous as communication. It creates a space for new police violence and disruption of lives by the criminal justice system. Also, looting may just be a way to get things without paying for them, which is nothing to be proud about.
So, my recommendation is to stop breaking glass and looting, but keep shouting for change. I really admire the courage of the protesters. I took on board the message that the Covid-19 virus is dangerous and requires that we not get too close together, and as far as I know that’s still true, so I haven’t been marching. Also, I’m fearful of getting tear gassed and clubbed by police. There have been a few stories of police expressing compassion, but a lot more about brutal police attacks on non-violent protesters.
That’s something else that needs to change. I feel concern for the police, who in the best of times have a tough, dangerous job. There are probably many police officers who resist and oppose anti-Black racism, but there are clearly some who don’t. Police violence against Black people is endemic. It has to stop.
There was a heartening essay in the Washington Post today by Patrick Skinner, a police officer in Savannah. He noted that police training fosters a mind set of being a warrior, with citizens as the enemy. He described his own experiment with a different approach to policing. The key idea was to approach the people in the community he served as neighbors, and try to help his neighbors. In his experience, it lowered the risk of violence and increased the possibilities for peaceful resolutions. It sounded like a great idea!
But as I say, this is a good time for non-Black people to learn more about the Black experience and our caste system. I was pleased to see that three books I found really helpful on this subject are near the top of the New York Times Best Seller list: White Fragility, by Robin DiAngelo, How to Be an Anti-Racist, by Ibram Kendi, and The New Jim Crow, by Michelle Alexander. I continue to recommend them.
I got to spend some time last week in eastern North Carolina at the Alligator River Wildlife Refuge and the Pocosin Lakes Refuge. I was there as part of a wildlife photography trip led by master photographer Mark Buckler. This area is said to have the largest concentration of black bears on the planet, and we were hoping to see bears.
There were a lot of them. We saw mothers with cubs, frolicking yearlings, and males courting females. We saw bears of various ages walking, running, eating, playing, and resting. A couple of the bears looked like they had been injured, but most seemed to be well fed and healthy. It was moving to be with these beautiful and resourceful creatures.
From what I learned, the popular myth that bears are normally fierce and apt to attack humans is way off the mark. They are normally wary of humans and busy with their own concerns. They are, of course, wild animals, wary and not entirely predictable, and they are definitely capable of attacking humans who threaten them.
But we saw no aggressive behavior. Some of the bears we saw were shy and kept a good distance, but a few let us get pretty close and stay for quite a while. Of course, we kept a sharp eye and ear out for signals of discontent, like grunting, growling, or slapping the ground, and frequently updated our possible exit strategies.
There were also some less beautiful creatures, including opossums and biting insects that left me with some extremely miserable itching wounds on my legs. Some of these seemed to be chiggers. But there were different looks to the wounds: some bites became blisters, some became hard, and other were oozy. Wonder if they bite bears?