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Mean Streets 

Taking a Gander: Rioting—the language of the unheard

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We just had a riot right here in our town. Peaceful protests turned into violence, protestors destroyed property and lives were put unnecessarily at risk. What happened in Salt Lake City on May 30 may have been a first. Utah activists previously have marched, demonstrated, and occupied spaces before, but burning police cars?

That cannot be said, nationally, of the events that led to this cumulative explosion of anger. Sadly, George Floyd's murder is just one more tragedy of many, the most recent in the shameful treatment of African Americans at the hands of law enforcement. And, it hasn't made any difference that activists have relentlessly screamed, "Enough is enough." Despite the ongoing, years-long din of "Black Lives Matter," few days go by when another black life hasn't been snuffed out senselessly.

While I was horrified to see a rally turn into a riot on Salt Lake City's streets, I was also strangely encouraged—jarred into the understanding that Utahns, despite their flocking instinct and respect for authority, actually mobilized outside of their comfort zone to push for sweeping changes in how law enforcement uses deadly force.

Unfortunately, Utah statistics are dismal: Utah's African American population is 1.06%, but black victims of police violence are a whopping 10% of the total.

I wish there were simple answers, but many factors are at play here. As a whole, people of color are overrepresented among America's poor, and poverty is part of the mix that puts them in harm's way. Poverty promotes crime, and that means that people of color will have a disproportionately high exposure to law enforcement. More exposure equates to more risk.

George Floyd shares a similar story with other people of color who are in and out of the criminal-justice system, trying to pull their lives back together, and who then face another arrest. It's scary for the person being arrested as well as for the cop making the arrest. Every unfriendly contact with the cops is another chance for violence to erupt, and for a racist, trigger-happy or heavy-kneed officer to forget that those being arrested are really our brothers.

The police, of course, are in the hot chair, and for good reason. But there's a flipside to their highly criticized rampant use of guns. Law enforcement officers face dangerous situations every day of their lives. They live with a fear of not responding quickly enough to a fatal threat and dying at the hands of a criminal. They face daily situations in which they're forced to make instantaneous decisions concerning the safety of others. It's reasonable to assume the majority of officer-involved shootings have arisen from a normal, defensive posture rather than wanton disregard for the lives of others.

But we might also consider that least some of the problem stems from those who seek careers as police officers. Most officers, no doubt, are well-balanced, caring individuals, but some are attracted to the field by a need to control others. Police departments have to be more careful in screening officer candidates. An essential part of the hiring process should include batteries of psychological tests to reveal tendencies toward violence and ferret out inclinations toward sadism as well as sociopathic personality disorders and their accompanying disrespect for both the rights and lives of others.

We should be asking the question: "Is it a necessary evil—that cops have an affinity for law enforcement, largely because they actually enjoy a certain level of both risk and violence in their lives?"

Let's face it; police aren't hired to be sugar and cream. They're hired because they have what it takes to be bad-asses and to face, in a single day, more despicable people than the average citizen meets up with in an entire lifetime. Sometimes, it's a very narrow line between being too milquetoast to function effectively and being so aggressive that others' lives are endangered—or lost—through the improper use of force.

Like the demonstrations in Salt Lake City have proven, the voices of Black Life Matters rallies will not be silenced. While it's clear that violence can only hurt the cause, the fervor of the demonstrations indicates our society's level of outrage. Demonstrations like these drove the passage of the 1964 Civil Rights Act and brought an end to the Vietnam War.

Despite the violence, looting and destruction of property, we must remember that what we're seeing is the rising voice of social conscience—a stunning acknowledgment of the seriousness of the situation, and a message to our communities that we're sick and tired of it. We're not going to take it anymore. For far too long, young African American men have been robbed of their most essential civil right—the unalienable right to stay alive.

As for violent, civil disobedience, Martin Luther King left us with these wise words: "A riot is the language of the unheard." As many times as Americans have sent the message, it doesn't seem that our law enforcement has been listening. But, while anger is justified, the violence is not. It interferes with the delivery of the message.

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More by Michael S. Robinson Sr.

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