Violent protests are not the story. Police violence is.

Protests over the murder of George Floyd by a white police officer have spread all over the country from Minneapolis, revealing pent-up anger at institutional racism across the country.

In a way, this is nothing new. Throughout American history, black people have been subject to violence by the state, agents of the state, or members of the white majority. Mass demonstrations against state violence have also been a staple of American politics, from the civil rights movement to Ferguson, Missouri, to date. The scenes from Minneapolis, Atlanta and Brooklyn last night are just the last chapter in that story.

A demonstrator holds up a sign that reads “We Never Left Jim Crow” during a march in Minneapolis on May 29.
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And yet, the protesters’ legitimate grievances have already been repressed by political leaders and others who question whether they are properly registering their anger. This is also a pattern in these moments: the demonstrations, so visible and visceral in the reporting, become the story. The structural problems that are being protested are disappearing into the background.

You can hear this pivot in President Donald Trump’s comments that protesters who came to the White House on Friday night “had little to do with the memory of George Floyd.” He turned them down as paid organizers.

But that is not correct. Of course, the protests are about the death of George Floyd. Political leaders fear violence in the protests – and any destruction of property or personal injury is worrying, of course – but their concerns actually show the fundamental asymmetry opposed by protesters. The state has a monopoly on legitimate violence and often targets young black people like George Floyd, Breonna Taylor, Eric Garner, Michael Brown, Tamir Rice – the list goes on. Too often the responsible police officers do not receive repercussions because they are legally protected. If the men who killed George Floyd go to jail for their actions, it will be exceptions that prove that longstanding rule.

Protesters against police brutality gather in front of the White House on May 29.
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But when the rage and frustration of centuries of racial repression leads to a peaceful protest becoming “violent” – and most of the reported attacks are aimed at property, not people, even though one man has been tragically murdered in Detroit – suddenly that other violence becomes the dominant narrative for political leaders, a disturbance of the natural order that needs to be corrected. The systemic racism that has led to so many black lives being cut short becomes secondary.

But that is not allowed, because that is the real problem America has to struggle with. Otherwise this will all happen again sooner or later.

The racial biases of US criminal law are well documented

In almost every way you measure, the U.S. criminal justice system is biased against black Americans, and black people are much more likely to be subject to state-sanctioned violence in the U.S. compared to white Americans.

Researchers from Rutgers University, the University of Michigan and Washington University in St. Louis attempted to quantify the risk to black lives from law enforcement in a recent survey. Their findings were astounding: Black men, by far the most at risk, have 1 in 1,000 chances of being killed by the police over the course of their lives.

This graph summarizes the researchers’ findings on risk in different races and genders:


But that is only the most extreme form of discrimination. The criminal justice system is biased against black citizens on both a large and small scale. Radley Balko carries out much of the relevant research a 2018 column in the Washington Post. Here is just a selection of the findings in the studies he cited:

  • Black people are about twice as likely as whites to be arrested by the police for a traffic stop
  • Black and Latino drivers are searched much more often if they are arrested by the police
  • The murders of whites are solved sooner than the murders of blacks
  • White people make up less than half of U.S. murder victims, but 80 percent of convicted convicted murderers had killed a white person
  • Black Americans are much more often arrested and charged with drug-related crimes, despite the fact that there are no major differences in the extent to which that population uses drugs
  • Prospective black judges are much more likely to be fired by prosecutors than potential white judges
  • White defendants are much more likely to have their most serious charges dismissed than black defendants as part of a plea
  • Even when black men and white men are convicted of the same crime, black men can expect a prison sentence that is 20 percent longer

The list can continue. But the point has been made. Racial discrimination is widespread in U.S. criminal law and is reflected in every step from arrest to trial to conviction and imprisonment. The assassination of George Floyd is unfortunately only an extreme example of how the state exercises its power over black Americans. That is what the people who protest against his death want to change.

Protesters in Charlotte, North Carolina on May 29.
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And of course not only the American institutions are racist. This also applies to some of the white people, such as the vigilante of Ahmaud Arbery in Georgia. Black people deal with the kind of suspicion that led to Arbery’s death all the time: 65 percent of black people said a recent Pew poll that someone had been suspicious of them because of their race. Only 25 percent of white Americans said the same.

These figures suggest a deep level of persistent prejudice. It is difficult to quantify racist attitudes, because many people usually don’t want to admit that they hold them. But a 2017 Pew Research Center survey provides a useful proxy: 54 percent of white Americans said that black people who cannot move forward are largely responsible for their own condition, while only 35 percent blame racist discrimination. Among black Americans, the numbers turned around: 59 percent mentioned racial discrimination, while 31 percent said people were responsible for their own problems.

If you want to understand the different worldviews of the protesters and the people who criticize the demonstrations for getting out of hand, those data are a good start.

Mass protests are one of the few tools people have to object to police brutality

Among the other studies in Balko’s summary of the study of racism in the U.S. criminal justice system, several showed that black Americans were less likely to have complaints against law enforcement officers compared to complaints from whites. This was especially the case for complaints about excessive violence.

And there is a long record that shows how rarely police officers are arrested, let alone convicted, when they kill someone on duty. In 2014, amid anger at the murder of Michael Brown in Ferguson, I. reported for Talking Points Memo to new research that analyzed murders committed by law enforcement. The authors found that from 2006 to 2011, 41 police officers were arrested for murder or negligent murder while on duty, while more than 2,700 “justified” murders were committed by police officers during the same period.

So either U.S. law enforcement is almost always justified in the most extreme use of force, or there are systemic obstacles to holding police officers accountable for murdering one of their constituents.

Demonstrators marched in downtown Oakland, California on May 29.
Neal Waters / Anadolu Agency via Getty Images

Given that complaints of police brutality are rarely handled and prosecuted by the same criminal justice system that empowers these law enforcement officers, protests of the kind seen in Minneapolis and the United States are one of the few tools available to people who resist them against these institutional prejudices. It is a tradition that goes back years and peaked during the era of civil rights. The powerful displays of police brutality shown through mobile phone videos and social media have sparked a new era of civil action, starting with the Ferguson protests and continuing today.

Many, perhaps most, of these protests remain nonviolent, it should be noted. They work according to a philosophy developed by Mahatma Gandhi and adopted by Martin Luther King Jr. in the United States: register peacefully and publicly discontent with injustice and allow the state’s response, usually militant and sometimes violent, to speak for itself.

However, it can be difficult to maintain nonviolence in large groups, and it is not necessarily a surprise that massive demonstrations have led to some bad actors drawing attention. But before politicians consider those incidents representative of the whole movement against police brutality, it should be noted that the public does not yet know the full story. Officials from Minnesota emphasizes Saturday they believe that many of the violent protesters who have been caught on news cameras and led to comments like the president’s aren’t really locals.

That alone should be a warning to prevent protests from overshadowing the problem they are protesting. Sooner or later these demonstrations will end. But the problem of America’s racist past and present remains with us.