A New Crisis Rages On Top of the Pandemic

Richard Rubin
Attorney Richard Rubin has taught at the University of San Francisco, Berkeley and Golden Gate University, is a regular columnist for the Marin Independent Journal and was Chair of the California Commonwealth Club Board of Governors, 2017-2019.

We are once again grappling with national outrage as well as lamentable and inexcusable violence ignited by the video-captured killing of a black man in Minneapolis over the passing of a $20 bad check. 

In Los Angeles, Santa Monica, San Jose, San Francisco, Oakland Sacramento and cities across the nation, black, brown, white people, young and old, are expressing their grievances with a criminal justice system that keeps coming up short. 

Curfews are now in force in many cities which are being ignored as protests continue. 

The sight of George Floyd’s throat with a knee pressed firmly upon it for nearly nine minutes is undeniable and the righteous anger it provoked across California and a hundred cities is real. 

Law enforcement when it is protecting us is a basic element of every orderly society. When the reckless actions of those entrusted with properly maintaining it leads to chaos and rioting, we get the images that have filled our screens. 

California is all too familiar with these problems dating back to the deadly Watts riots in 1965 which resulted in the usual investigations of the causes and the needs for sweeping reform. There have been some but apparently not enough. 

The ugly racism once again brought to the fore so painfully and dramatically is a stark reminder that we are always only minutes away from explosions that can wreak havoc and raises serious questions about our celebrated commitment to equal justice. 

Another blue ribbon report will not do the trick after this latest episode of police brutality runs its course unless changes are made. They were never going to be easy or very popular with the rank and file. 

Memories are still fresh involving the beating of Rodney King at the hands of four white policemen in April and May 1992 which precipitated widespread rioting and civil disturbances in the Los Angeles metropolitan area. It required the summoning of the California Army National Guard and the U.S. military before it was fully squelched. 

When peace was finally restored 63 people had been killed, 2,383 people had been injured, more than 12,000 had been arrested, and estimates of property damage were over $1 billion. 

Then as now much of the looting and property destruction was attributed to outside activists and anarchists of varying political stripes whose principal objective is massive civil unrest and the spreading of chaos. 

Then it was video footage by an observant civilian recording the incident unfold from a nearby apartment window that brought attention to the spectacle. 

This time it was a 17-year old pedestrian with a clear view capturing the brutal act that offered indisputable proof of what was occurring. 

While gaining national media attention The Los Angeles Times alone published 43 articles about the King episode.  Video footage of the arrest showed that each time King attempted to get up he was tasered, struck dozens of times with side-handled batons, kick stomped, and tackled to the ground before he was cuffed and his legs hogtied until he lay still before he was handcuffed. 

On the seventh day of jury deliberations, the jury acquitted all four officers of assault and acquitted three of the four of using excessive force.

The deep wounds inflicted on the Los Angeles community have never been fully redressed and remains a long smoldering powder keg bound to erupt again at some point. 

This time however amidst the smoke from burning police cars and ransacked stores mirroring the images from cities across the country could be seen numerous women, men and even children of every age and ethnic background marching peacefully in unison. 

Many held signs that said “Black Lives Matter” and “I can’t breathe” —some of the last words uttered by George Floyd as the life was draining out of him. 

A full five days elapsed before Floyd’s killer was accused of 3rd degree murder—not a severe enough charge in the minds of veteran prosecutors but more than long enough to arouse intense passions among millions stunned by the events and the seemingly anemic response by the authorities.    

Californian’s Gov. Gavin Newsom declared, “Our institutions are responsible and accountable for what is happening in our country now—not the black community—-but are we prepared to do something differently?” 

“People have lost patience with their leaders.”

“To those who want to exploit this moment rather than advancing the cause of justice, you are not serving the greater good and we need to call you out,” Newsom added. 

The president prefers to focus on the exploiters urging tougher crackdowns by the nation’s governors whom he accused of a “weak’ response.” On a phone call to them his message was “You have to dominate the streets.” 

In his first public appearance since the rioting began escalating addressing the nation from the White House Rose Garden surrounded outside the gates by a huge throng of earnest protestors, he threatened to employ the full force of the U.S. military with or without requests from governors. 

The former president, Barack Obamas, taking a strikingly different tone declared, “The majority of protestors are peaceful, courageous, responsible and inspiring,” adding “though we cannot condone the violence.”

“Someone throwing a rock is like shooting a gun. You have to show retribution,” thundered Trump. 

This is hardly healing language and can only serve to pour more fuel on the fire when tough talk may not be the antidote for a nation in revolt. It is not likely to make blacks feel safer, appease protestors or help communities come together. 

Every leader may not be equal to the moment. But to take stances that could be seen as potentially inciting further violence is morally reprehensible and a plain dereliction of duty. 

Throwing a blanket label on the overwhelming majority of law-abiding Californians and those elsewhere demonstrating against injustice as “thugs” shows a monumental lack of concern for the inescapable causes underlying this crisis. 

Californians have the same fears and anxieties as every other citizen simultaneously experiencing the ravages of a lethal pandemic which is inflicting untold physical and financial damage. 

Now we are overlaying it with yet another crisis of unmistakable gravity which the President does not seem able to comprehend. The call for unity at a time of rancorous division was not to be heard.

The agitators and extremists Left, Right and everywhere else on the ideological spectrum must be neutralized, contained and arrested when they perpetrate crimes.

But they cannot be made the scapegoats for the excesses and criminal acts of a few blatant trouble makers. They are bringing disrepute upon the many in law enforcement performing their jobs responsibly and putting their lives on the line every day.  

We must find ways to weed out the bad apples and get rid of them promptly so they cannot wreak such immense damage. 

Chokeholds and other egregious abuses of authority are unacceptable. Period! The three other officers who watched obsequiously as Floyd’s killing took place had yet to be arrested and charged as of this writing.

Insufficient punishment after the fact and meted out belatedly will do little to erase the stain left by Rodney King’s treatment and now that of George Floyd. The list of senseless killings of blacks has grown long. 

Racism and deep-lying prejudices are regrettably a part of our nation’s DNA. It must be confronted head-on or we are destined to see more tragedies in the future.

The nation’s nervous system can only stand so much strain before it may fray entirely. When that happens the breakdown of any semblance of law and order could overwhelm the best efforts to maintain it. 

It is difficult to urge restraint when the President of the United States is busy inveighing against lawful demonstrations. 

Freedom of speech and expression includes legitimate protests which most Californians and their fellow countrymen are determined to exercise. It is guaranteed by the 1st Amendment which is first for a reason. 

California’s congressional delegation—the nation’s largest—includes Kevin McCarthy (Bakersfield) the GOP Minority Leader who has the president’s ear. 

Observing what is transpiring in California and the nation he could ask House Speaker, Nancy Pelosi (San Francisco) to join him and key party leaders in both chambers calling for a bipartisan summit with the president to discuss measures that can calm tempers and curb the rioting. 

This would be an unprecedented intervention. But it may be necessary. And if it succeeds Californians might be hailed as genuine heroes. 

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