“Mom,” my daughter asked me the other night, “what’s looting?”
“Looting is stealing,” I said, “but it’s stealing during a riot.”
Maxine is 14 and knows all about George Floyd. Her Instagram and Snapchat are full of images and outrage. Plus, our own city of Long Beach has issued citywide curfews this week after a downtown protest turned violent on Sunday. Broken windows. Fires. Rubber bullets.
I was emptying the dishwasher when her questions started.
“Is rioting like protesting?” she asked.
I continued to pull pans from the washer, as though rioting in our streets during a global pandemic was perfectly normal.
“Protesting is gathering together to make your voice known,” I said. “A protest can be peaceful or violent. When it turns violent, it’s called a riot. Rioting can involve tagging buildings or setting fires or looting stores. Or it can involve hurting people. I heard that most of the protesters were peaceful. But at the end, some became violent.”
By now, I was leaning against the counter, anticipating the next question — which I knew would be harder to answer.
And then she asked it:
“Are we for or against the rioters?”
I moved to Los Angeles County five years after Rodney King and spent 10 years covering the courts in Long Beach. I've written many stories about in-custody deaths of black people — not generally, but specifically. Specific black people. Specific deaths.
The one I remember most vividly involved a mentally ill woman named Marcella Byrd. In January 2002, Marcella walked out of a grocery store with a cart full of food and kept walking. She had a knife. Police surrounded her. One officer pelted her with two beanbag rounds and then, when she raised the knife to throw it, multiple officers opened fire.
It was during this time I discovered:
Officers are trained to shoot suspects when they fear for their safety or the safety of the community. That’s the trigger, so to speak. Fear. I took this to mean: When an officer fears you, they can kill you. Period.
Police are trained to shoot at the torso. Yes, Marcella Byrd might have been stopped with a gunshot to her arms or legs. But when officers shoot, regardless of the target or situation, they always shoot at least two rounds, and they always shoot at the largest part of the body: the torso.
When one officer shoots, they all shoot. Although this wasn't policy-mandated, it was common practice. There was no way that Marcella Byrd was ever going to make it out alive. Her body was riddled with bullet holes.
Despite the variety of less-lethal weapons on the market — bean-bag rounds, Tasers, rubber bullets, tear gas, and the like — the police department didn’t use them regularly or stock them in all squad cars. Moreover, less-lethal weapons were fired primarily at unarmed people during protests rather than everyday criminal suspects. The fact that Marcella was shot even once with a bean bag gun was something of an anomaly at the time.
So what did all this add up to?
It added up to get-out-of-jail-free cards for any officers involved in excessive-force incidents. Because regardless of who was injured or hurt, the measure of whether to discipline officers hinged on this: Did the officers follow their training?
If the answer was yes, they got off scot free. The answer was almost always yes.
The reason it's almost always yes is not only because training is flawed, but because — even when protocol isn't followed on the streets — officers systematically fudge the truth on behalf of their comrades.
Too few young officers receive explicit direction about what to do when a fellow officer acts in an unsafe or unethical manner in the field. Few, if any, are implored to tell the truth about the cops who beat their wives, or get in off-duty fights, or just generally consider themselves above the law. Few are given a truly safe space to speak out against fellow cops, even if it makes themselves, or the entire department, look bad.
This institutionalized silence runs deep. It starts at the academy level, and runs up the ladder, through internal affairs (whose investigations into excessive force almost always back the officers), through the police unions (which oppose meaningful police reform as a matter of course), and through the civil service commissions (which can and often do reinstate bad cops after they’ve been suspended or fired for questionable behavior).
This institutionalized silence is a main reason that Minneapolis police officer Derek Chauvin might never have been reprimanded, much less fired, much less charged, if a video hadn’t literally shown him murdering a human being in broad daylight. And why it took protests occurring in all 50 states and all over the world before he and the cops who took part were eventually charged.
Last Saturday, after seeing video of Minneapolis protesters setting fire to a police station, I turned on the TV to find images of people stomping on police cars and writing “Black Lives Matter” on a historic building in one of my favorite places in LA — the Fairfax Farmer’s Market.
I texted my friend who lives nearby.
“I don’t blame them,” I said.
Remember when Black Lives Matter spurred outrage because some football players took a knee during the National Anthem? Nothing changed.
It was all too much to take in.
“I hate to say this,” I told my husband, “but this is the first time I’ve ever thought, ‘Burn it down.’”
When I was a journalist, the only time I ever cried on the job was during the funeral procession for a police officer named Daryl Black, who was killed in the line of duty. The way those officers — officers from across California — came together to honor their fallen comrade (who was also, incidentally, black) was so heavy and touching.
The bond between police officers, the thin blue line, is nothing less than sacred. Of course it is. You have to be able to trust the officer next to you like you trust yourself. He might die for you, and you might die for him. And you both might die together. And that means their empathy, their allegiance, naturally falls with each other. Sure, that officer patrolling with you may not be perfect; he may have done some shitty things. But he’s got your back. (And yes, the officer patrolling with you is almost certainly a “he,” as only 7.5% of sworn personnel in the LBPD, and 11.9% nationwide, are women.)
In 2002, I wrote a two-part series for the Press-Telegram headlined “Miracle at Memorial.” It was about two police officers who were shot during a traffic stop. One officer was hit in the neck, the other in the face. Both probably should have died, and almost did. But due to the smart, brave, life-saving tactics of two patrol officers and a team of talented surgeons at Long Beach Memorial Medical Center, they are alive today.
I know a lot of cops. I like a lot of cops. Hell, I wrote a book with one. I have incredible respect for the job they do.
I just wish all police officers the world over were trained to employ those same smart, brave, life-saving tactics to people of color. Because black and brown people need someone to have their backs, too. And no one does.
“Are we for or against the rioting?” Maxine asked that evening in the kitchen.
“You are your own person,” I said, punting in the name of critical thinking. “What do you think of the rioting?”
I really did want her to reach her own conclusions, rather than be indoctrinated into believing mine.
“Yeah,” she said, “but I usually believe what you believe.”
Indoctrination for the win.
“Well, if you want to know my personal opinion…”
“Yes,” she said.
Burn it down, I thought.
“Okay,” I said.
I took a deep breath and explained that I didn’t condone looting or violence; that the owners of the stores being damaged and looted have done nothing wrong; that violence doesn’t solve anything.
“But I also sympathize with the rioters,” I said. “I really, really sympathize with rioters.”
“Yeah,” she said, “That’s a good way to put it.”
A few minutes later, her dad, who is more direct and, frankly, a bit more woke than I am, went into Maxine’s room and talked for a while about his own feelings. He talked about how these protests are often peaceful until the police arrive in riot gear to “break them up.” About how the curfew being imposed in Long Beach means the police can arrest people for doing nothing but being outside. About how insurance will pay for most of the property damage. And about how, even if it doesn’t, property damage is less important than the black lives being lost at the hands of police.
In the days after our conversation in the kitchen, Maxine learned that many of the looters were opportunists of all races. At one point, she let me know that she didn’t think the looters were helping the cause of Black Lives Matter and that she didn’t personally support them. (Critical thinking retakes the lead!)
"Right," I said, adding that I just wished the authorities were spending more time addressing the root cause of the protests than they were the collateral damage.
The riots aren’t the real problem, I said. Racism is the real problem.
On that, we definitely agreed.
I haven’t worked in journalism for a number of years, and I’m no expert when it comes to police procedures. I can tell you that the Long Beach police chief who oversaw the Marcella Byrd investigation was incredibly responsive to the community’s outrage at the time. I know he implemented a number of positive police reforms.
But I also know the problems didn’t go away. In fact, judging by the cost of police-related litigation over the last six years, I’d say the Marcella Byrd changes didn’t go nearly far enough. My city has spent at least $30.3 million on litigation related to officer-involved shootings, police use of force and in-custody deaths in the last five years. A majority of the verdicts and settlement costs were accrued between January 2016 and August 2019. (A full $2.5 million involved litigation against a single officer, whose actions in two separate incidents were ever-so-predictably defended by the president of the police union.)
And then there’s this video, from 2013, depicting Long Beach police officers brutalizing a Hispanic man for refusing to roll over on his back and be arrested. Posing no visible threat to anyone, police reportedly knocked his teeth out and then shot him with a taser over and over again.
Right now, as I write this, peaceful protests continue across the country. Broken windows, for the most part, have been replaced by broken hearts. Our city’s mayor, Robert Garcia, spoke bluntly (and refreshingly) on Wednesday.
“I’m fucking tired,” Garcia told a group of protesters in front of City Hall. “I’m a person of color. I’m gay. Those experiences are unique, but they’re not the black experience. I want to apologize to every black person here for all the bullshit they have to go through.”
Now is the time to crack open the hoods of our vintage police systems and identify what’s really broken. What’s led our people to the streets in the first place. What’s in our power to fix.
And then, my friends, let’s burn it down.
Symbolically speaking, of course.
What I mean is: Let’s burn down the righteous indignation of bad cops who know they can get away with pretty much anything. Let’s burn down the secrecy and self-protection that keeps bad cops from being exposed by good cops. Let’s burn down the “old guard” that allows the police unions to prevent meaningful police reforms. Let’s burn down the status quo that keeps civil service commissions from holding bad cops accountable. Let’s burn down the training-deficient police academies and replace them with new, modern models.
Then let’s load those police unions and civil service commissions and police academies with more men and women of color, so that those in power finally reflect the communities they serve.
There are tens of thousands of extraordinary black people who are working passionately and tirelessly right now to change the world. They deserve our full attention.
Let’s stand together and burn it down.
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