The outrage that many Americans feel over the unpunished police killing of Eric Garner is understandable and genuinely felt.
Like the deaths of Michael Brown in Ferguson, Mo., and 12-year-old Tamir Rice, gunned down by police while playing with a pellet gun in a park in Cleveland, the videotaped death of the unarmed black man at the hands of white police officers on Staten Island was a tragedy and a sign that something in our law enforcement culture is profoundly broken.
This is why demonstrations have gone on since Thanksgiving from New York to Sacramento. It’s also why, in general, protesters have had no trouble peacefully getting their point across.
So what were Berkeley demonstrators thinking this weekend, as they let yet another Bay Area protest degenerate into yet another round of vandalism and looting?
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As downtown merchants swept broken glass from the college town’s sidewalk on Monday, at least two officers and one protester were nursing minor injuries from the ruckus, and five people had been arrested. To what end?
Exactly what message did it send to throw a skateboard through a Trader Joe’s window? Or to break into the Telegraph Avenue Whole Foods and start passing around champagne bottles?
One protester was beaten with a hammer when he tried to stop hooded comrades from ransacking a Radio Shack. Others scrawled anti-police slogans on, of all places, a wheelchair-supply store and a nursing home.
As with similar rampages in San Francisco and Oakland, the Berkeley mayhem did nothing but damage property and shore up stupid clichés about Bay Area leftists. Certainly it said nothing useful about police brutality or race or any other salient issue.
Contrast that with New York, where a “die-in” last week at Grand Central Terminal was so quietly moving that scores of bystanders fell to the ground with the protesters in wordless solidarity.
Maybe it’s distance, maybe it’s outside agitators, maybe it’s the lack (for the moment) of a more local excessive-force outrage, but the Bay Area demonstrations have felt vaguely phony, as if the players were following a script or overcompensating or forgetting why they were out there.
In this respect, they’re not so different from the police, who, in an era of record-low crime rates, worked themselves up to the point that they responded like occupying armies to situations in which their lives weren’t being threatened.
Just a note: When a situation genuinely calls for extreme behavior, that behavior usually doesn’t feel extreme to the rest of us.
What’s unfortunate is that these violent demonstrations are distracting from the real issue: We have a problem in this country at the intersection of law enforcement and poverty and race.
We need to address it. And when fools trivialize that by imagining the answer can be reduced to a Guy Fawkes mask, a couple of bricks and a fire in a trash can, well, that, too, is a kind of outrage.