As I write this, the worrisome images of riots in Minneapolis, New York, Los Angeles, Miami, Washington, DC, and 20 other US cities flash over cable news — replacing the reportage on COVID-19 that had been the standard preoccupation of news media for two months. A week has passed since white Minneapolis police officer Derek Chauvin was captured on a viral video pressing his knee onto the neck of George Floyd (who is black) for more than eight minutes. In the video, Floyd is heard saying “Please,” “I can’t breathe,” and “Don’t kill me.” Floyd reportedly died during the incident, and Chauvin, along with other police officers present, was fired. Chauvin was later on charged with third-degree murder and manslaughter in Floyd’s death.
The riots, which started out as a peaceful demonstration in Minneapolis seeking justice for Floyd’s death as well those of other African-Americans under police custody, have resulted in the burning of cars, business establishments, and even a police station. News reports have shown rampant looting of stores in many of the cities. Hundreds have been arrested during clashes with police. This wave of social unrest and outright anarchy couldn’t be happening at a worse time in the US, which has been reporting the highest number of COVID-19 cases in the world.
The Minneapolis police have been under a cloud of mistrust since Floyd’s death. The University of Minnesota has cut ties with the Minneapolis Police Department, and the Minneapolis School Board plans to do the same. The police in Minneapolis (and the other cities) are in a bind because their credibility has hit rock bottom even as they are expected to restore order and to save properties from further damage. In fact, news coverage in several of the cities shows scenes of continuing destruction of property and looting without any visible presence of law enforcers.
How can the police fulfill their role of maintaining order and apprehending law-breakers when their attempts to control crowds have resulted in further violent clashes? Steve Reicher, Professor of Social Psychology at the University of St Andrews, has analyzed the effective policing of riots and recommends key principles — Do’s and Don’ts — the police need to bear in mind.
The first Don’t is the most obvious since it applies to the incident that triggered the whole tragic situation we are seeing: The police should avoid indiscriminate use of force. Police brutality, particularly during crowd dispersal, is guaranteed to trigger even more public outrage, especially if experienced by traditionally marginalized groups such as African-Americans, who, in this case, consider themselves horribly aggrieved. Needless to say, in today’s smartphone era, bystanders often instinctively record police encounters that they witness — to be instantly shared via the Internet. This fans the flames of riots in the way gasoline works on real flames.
The second Don’t is less obvious but probably has the most powerful effect on prolonging riots. The biggest danger for police is to treat all members of a crowd in the same way and at the least, as potentially dangerous. The actions of the police should be subtle enough to differentiate between groups and individuals in the crowd. Omar Jimenez, a black CNN reporter, was arrested on live TV while covering the Minneapolis riot. It wasn’t helpful either for President Donald Trump to exclaim, “These THUGS are dishonoring the memory of George Floyd, and I won’t let that happen.” Although organized agitators were likely mixed in with the peaceful but indignant protesters, this kind of generalization sends the message to the latter that they are not worth listening to.
The first Do is Communication. The police should be capable of communicating their intentions to the members of the crowd in order to avoid escalation of conflicts. Naturally, how they communicate and with whom needs to be considered. The protesters use social media to communicate with each other. The police have to use these, too, among other channels.
The second Do is probably the most important to constructively managing riots, assuming that the earlier principles have been observed. The police should facilitate the things that the protesters legally want to do. The police need to understand the legitimate aims of members of a crowd in order to consider how to best organize policing so that the aims may be met. Police are, after all, public servants. Since the people have the right to express their anger in peaceful assemblies, the police should be seen as promoting the exercise of this right.
In summary, policing riots requires boldness in serving protesters with legitimate grievances while separating those with clearly criminal intent. This will save lives and communities.
Dr. Benito L. Teehankee is the Jose E. Cuisia Professor of Business Ethics and Head of the Business for Human Development Network at De La Salle University.