The Corner

Law & the Courts

We’re Going to Hear a Lot of Bad Arguments about Rioting and George Floyd

A protester adds wood to a fire barricade near the Minneapolis Police third precinct after a white police officer was caught on video pressing his knee into the neck of African-American man George Floyd, who later died at a hospital, in Minneapolis, Minnesota, U.S. May 27, 2020. (Nicholas Pfosi/Reuters)

In 2016, another Minnesota cop killed an African-American man and generated national headlines about police brutality and racism in police forces. Officer Jeronimo Yanez shot Philando Castile during a traffic stop, while Castile was following a police officer’s instructions. When the officer who killed Castile were found not guilty on manslaughter and other criminal charges, I thought back to the 1991 killing of Latasha Harlins, which was a key precursor to the Los Angeles riots of 1992.

Latasha Harlins was a 15-year-old African-American girl who got into a dispute with 51-year-old female Korean-American store owner Soon Ja Du. As seen on the store’s security tape, Du accused Harlins of shoplifting. Hu grabbed Harlins’s sleeve; Harlins punched Hu. They continue to exchange words, then Harlins turned away, and Du pulled out a gun and shot Harlins in the back of the head from a distance of three feet. The video can be seen here and is . . . grim viewing.

Between the videotape and the witnesses in the store contradicting Du’s claim it was an attempted holdup, this was an open-and-shut case. The jury found Du guilty of voluntary manslaughter, an offense that carries a maximum prison sentence of 16 years. But trial judge Joyce Karlin sentenced Du to five years of probation, 400 hours of community service, and a $500 fine. No jail time.

Shocked and enraged protesters scuffled with police outside the courthouse, a precursor to the riots that would arrive less than a year later. Rioting is wrong, but it’s not hard to understand the seething outrage of African Americans in Los Angeles at that moment. If a person casually executes someone who looks like you, and the system treats it like a minor crime, do you feel like your rights are being protected? Do you feel like the justice system cares about you? Do you feel like society at large believes your life matters?

The people who came out to riot in Minneapolis last night did something egregiously wrong, and should be prosecuted to the fullest extent of the law. There is no way to justify their violence against anyone, but especially not against people and institutions who had nothing to do with the Minneapolis police department or the killing of George Floyd. And last night was a horrifically violent one for the city:

Early Thursday, city and law enforcement officials were still tallying the full toll of the night, which saw at least five people struck by gunfire, one fatally when the owner of a pawn shop opened fire on a man he believed was burglarizing his business. Dozens of businesses were either looted or torched, or both, mostly in the area of Minnehaha Avenue and E. Lake Street, but also along business corridors on the city’s North and South sides.

Perhaps most dispiriting was the sight of those who took pleasure in seeing other people’s livelihoods destroyed:

Vandals broke into Chicago-Lake Liquor, and also shattered a few windows at the Midtown Market down the block. They also targeted businesses along W. Broadway Avenue, north Minneapolis’ main commercial drag, and in the Uptown area. Several pharmacies were reportedly burglarized, with suspects fleeing with handfuls of prescription pill bottles.

A Target and Cub Foods anchoring the corner of E. Lake Street and Hiawatha Avenue were looted, along with other small businesses, including Minnehaha Lake Wine & Spirits. Flames and smoke shot into the air when a nearby AutoZone auto parts store was set ablaze. As some protesters tried to put out the fire, others danced gleefully in front of it, snapping selfies.

In the coming days, a lot of people will seek to conflate the public anger at the Minneapolis police department with the rioters and vice versa. Those who want to excuse the inexcusable rioters will insist that their actions were an unavoidable natural reaction to outrageous police conduct. Those who wish to nullify the arguments of critics of the police — and perhaps, in their minds, partially defend the reputation of the officers, or just police forces in general — will paint the Minneapolis African-American community as inherently violent, enraged beyond reason, a group that requires particularly rough tactics in enforcing the law. Both of those arguments are nonsense. Don’t let one person’s wrong action justify another.

One last thought: Philando Castile was killed in Falcon Heights, a suburb of St. Paul, in 2016. In 2017, Justine Ruszczyk, an unarmed woman who had called 911 seeking help, was shot and killed by Minneapolis police officer Mohamed Noor. (Noor was sentenced to 12 and a half years in prison.)

Are the police forces in the Minneapolis-St. Paul area particularly troubled?

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