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Opinion: The language of the unheard 

click to enlarge People in Denver — and around the nation — have gathered to protest George Floyd’s killing by Minneapolis police. - JOSEPH ROUSE
  • Joseph Rouse
  • People in Denver — and around the nation — have gathered to protest George Floyd’s killing by Minneapolis police.
Let’s start with the obvious. People around the nation have gathered in protest of George Floyd’s killing by Minneapolis police — thousands were at the state Capitol on Saturday, many of them lying together on the lawn, chanting “I can’t breathe” — and the protests, mostly peaceful by day, have often gotten out of control by night.

Early on Saturday, Mayor Michael Hancock called for a strict 8 p.m. curfew. No one seems to be able to remember the last time Denver had a curfew. This is not Minneapolis. The city isn’t burning, but a dumpster fire was. And the cops were battling with protesters late into the night after a level of vandalism that shocked the city.

My view is from in front of the computer, on social media, and the view, even through the tear gas clouds, was devastating.

As the demonstrations began anew Saturday, no one knew how the curfew would be enforced or if it could be peacefully enforced. What we do know is that a little after 6 p.m., nearly two hours before the curfew, police were moving aggressively against those on the Capitol lawn with tear gas and pepper balls. The Colorado Sun reported that some protesters had been throwing rocks at the police.

Meanwhile, the National Guard had been called out, and Denver police report that three assault rifles were confiscated Friday, the same day that parts of the city were being inundated with clouds of tear gas. During a respiratory pandemic, is tear gas really the best way to go? That’s not the only question. I mean, who brings assault rifles to a protest? And here’s another: Doesn’t calling out the National Guard just risk escalating the situation?

It’s that bad. As one person told me, if you’re in the middle of this, you risk either being gassed, being shot or getting the coronavirus.

We know about the demonstrations. We know that the protests are, in a word, righteous. We know the long, terrible history of police violence against minorities, and we know the names — long before George Floyd’s — that marchers have chanted over the years.

When the protests began on Thursday, I thought the remarkable thing was that hundreds and hundreds came out to demonstrate in Denver against the police killing of a man hundreds and hundreds of miles away. With social media, boundaries shrink, and anger — in this case, completely understandable anger — spreads.

The video of Derek Chauvin, now finally arrested and charged with third-degree murder, pressing his knee into Floyd’s neck — even as Floyd called for his mother, even as he begged to be allowed to breathe, even as he eventually lay unresponsive and still with Chauvin’s knee pinning him — was too much for most of us to bear.

The protests are a demand for attention to be paid. That’s the clear message, but then as night comes, it gets muddled. The protests get angrier, police change over to riot gear, windows are broken, rocks are thrown, cars are vandalized, fires are set, some stores have been looted, tear gas fills the air and organizers worry that their message is being lost in the late-night violence. At least there have been no serious injuries, and give the police credit for this much, not that many arrests.

None of this is new. The mood always changes at night. It’s not unusual for there to be two very different crowds involved, and two very different police responses and, well, confusion. There are always people who are attracted to the idea of chaos. And there is always overreaction.

Denver police formed a line on Lincoln Street before launching tear gas canisters and pepper balls into the crowd of protesters on May 30, according to The Sun’s Eric Lubbers.

But it’s strange, too, that the Denver protest organizers, and some of the media on the scene, have noted that many of those involved in the late-night violence have been white. As 9News’ Kyle Clark put it: “The day protesters are mostly African American and it’s generally peaceful, and the evening is mighty white and they are looking to mix it up with police.”

I’m not sure what that means, or if it means anything. But it’s out there. And certainly there are many white protesters there by day.

What I know, from long-ago experience, is that getting gassed is no treat. Getting hit by pepper balls, as even some in the media have, apparently isn’t either. Gas doesn’t just disperse crowds, people get angry. Innocent people get hurt, and more people get angry. If you’re looking for chaos, shoot pepper balls indiscriminately into a crowd. Chaos.

And because there is chaos and because this is the time we live in, the protests become more than protests. It’s no surprise that they would also become politicized. You can certainly go back to the 1968 riots and Nixon for a test case of how to exploit the pain. But I’ll put 2020 up against any time. Go to Twitter and you’ll see all the right-blaming-left and left-blaming-right material you’ll ever need.

Let’s begin with Attorney General William Barr, who unhelpfully claims, citing no evidence whatsoever, that the violence “is planned, organized and driven by anarchic and far left extremist groups using Antifa-like tactics, many of whom travel from outside the state to promote the violence.”

Donald Trump — who on Thursday night had tweeted that the protesters were “THUGS,” that Minneapolis Mayor Jacob Frey was “Radical Left” and cited the words of the Miami police chief during a 1967 riot, “When the looting starts, the shooting starts” — has now also switched to Antifa-baiting.

But he doesn’t stop there, of course. The Unifier in Chief is also tweeting that it’s MAGA night at the White House, basically inviting his supporters to clash with those who have been protesting outside the White House gates. And all I can think of is the heavily armed militia members who went to state capitals to intimidate lawmakers. Weren’t many of them wearing MAGA hats?

One source told me Denver police on Friday stopped a car with a trunk full of weapons. Maybe in Colorado there’s always a car with a trunk full of weapons. We do know that people were arrested for weapons violations. But we still don’t know who fired the shots near the crowd of demonstrators at the Capitol Thursday night (or for that matter who tried to run over that protester). But we do know that it led to partisan bickering at the statehouse.

Democratic State Rep. Leslie Herod, who was at the Capitol, noted the gunfire by tweeting, “We just got shot at.” For some reason, this simple statement angered Colorado Springs Republican Rep. Dave Williams, who tweet-flamed, “Radical leftist & anti-Christian Legislator Leslie Herod is fanning the flames to incite continued rioting & lawlessness. Shameful. Democrats like Herod love criminals & deliberately endanger the public.”

In 1967, the famously nonviolent warrior Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. gave one of his great speeches, this one at Stanford University, about riots and their root cause and how they are “the language of the unheard.”

“In a real sense,” he said, “our nation’s summers of riots are caused by our nation’s winters of delay.”

George Floyd is dead. The unheard are demanding to be heard. I finish this as the curfew is ready to begin, and I’ll leave you with this extended excerpt from King’s speech:

“I think America must see that riots do not develop out of thin air. Certain conditions continue to exist in our society which must be condemned as vigorously as we condemn riots. But in the final analysis, a riot is the language of the unheard. And what is it that America has failed to hear? … It has failed to hear that the plight of the Negro poor has worsened over the last few years. It has failed to hear that the promises of freedom and justice have not been met. And it has failed to hear that large segments of white society are more concerned about tranquility and the status quo than about justice, equality, and humanity. And so in a real sense our nation’s summers of riots are caused by our nation’s winters of delay. And as long as America postpones justice, we stand in the position of having these recurrences of violence and riots over and over again. Social justice and progress are the absolute guarantors of riot prevention.”

That was more than 50 years ago. And here we are today.

Mike Littwin’s column was produced for The Colorado Sun, a reader-supported news organization committed to covering the people, places and policies of Colorado. Learn more at coloradosun.com.

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