Here's a little window into relations between community and police in my home neighborhood of West Philadelphia. One night earlier this week, a young black woman named Rickia Young borrowed her sister's car to take her two-year-old son and 16-year-old nephew home. On Chestnut Street (a one-way route), she inadvertently ran into a confrontation between a group of police and activists, who were protesting the death of Walter Wallace, Jr. at the hands of police days before.
A local filming on their phone captured what happened next. After telling Young to turn around, a mob of cops suddenly surrounded the car, broke all its windows with their batons, dragged her and her nephew out, bludgeoned them senseless, and violently threw them to the ground. Then they ripped her baby son out of his car seat, injuring his head in the process, and took him away.
Unbelievably, the nation's largest police union later posted a picture on social media of a female cop holding the kidnapped toddler with a caption lying that he "was lost during the violent riots in Philadelphia, wandering around barefoot in an area that was experiencing complete lawlessness … The only thing this Philadelphia police officer cared about in that moment was protecting this child."
The posts were quietly deleted after the truth came out. In reality, though Young was later released without any charges, her son's grandmother had to retrieve him from the police, who had put him back in a police cruiser in his car seat, still strewn with broken glass. The Washington Post reports that, as of Friday, the family still had no idea what happened to the car, which contained hearing aids for the baby.
That brings me to Joe Biden. After the killing of Wallace, Joe Biden and Kamala Harris issued a statement that lamented his death, but quickly pivoted to blaming the protesters for the disturbances. No "amount of anger at the very real injustices in our society excuses violence," they wrote. Biden later emphasized the latter sentiment in person, telling reporters that "there is no excuse for looting."
This line is both wrong, and politically blinkered.
It's not hard to understand why Philly folks were furious about the Wallace shooting. He reportedly was having some kind of mental health crisis, and was walking around holding a knife. A bystander called for an ambulance, but two cops showed up first. As another phone video shows, they immediately started shouting at him, weapons drawn, and when he moved towards them, they opened fire — long before he was in a position to actually threaten them. No apparent attempts to talk him down, no retreating to summon backup, not even a warning shot or aiming to wound. It was immediate death from a hail of bullets, 10 of which hit him.
This instant resort to lethal violence bears a marked contrast with how British police, for one example, behave around disturbed knife-wielding people. Here you can watch a group of bobbies contain such a person while armored backup arrives, after which they corner him with shields and get the knife away with no injuries to anyone. It's not even that risky.
American cops like to boast about how they put their lives on the line every day to protect the citizenry. In reality, being a cop is not even among the 15 most dangerous jobs in America — loggers are more than seven times more likely to die at work — and as we have seen over and over, police routinely risk the health and safety of ordinary Americans by instantly resorting to maximum violence the second they feel threatened or even annoyed.
It's also not hard to understand how unrest can quickly evolve into rioting or looting. When the social contract has been shattered by the armed agents of the state, rightly furious people may take vengeance on the nearest thing to hand — particularly if the police follow up with more vindictive atrocities against random innocent bystanders like Rickia Young and her son. Alternatively, opportunists, or the desperate, might start breaking things, or just join in to get some free stuff. Fascist agents provocateur have also been seen in other cities starting fires or shooting at buildings as a false flag attack.
If you want to put an end to riots or looting, therefore, it is incumbent to note that in this case — like practically every case of such unrest over this past year — the police are almost entirely to blame. The pattern of causality is clear: Police brutality broke the social contract, and disorder took hold. This is just what happens when the people who are supposed to protect the community instead commit violence against it.
What's more, on a practical level, the behavior of the police is, at least in theory, possible to control. Nobody is going to control looting by printing out a Biden statement or a hand-wringing Conor Friedersdorf column and waving it around at a bunch of activists/criminals/Nazis who are throwing a trash can through the window of a McDonald's. But you could reform the police so they don't touch off such an explosion of fury in the first place — as I have written, by scrapping the entire organization to root out the corrupt culture, and starting from scratch with something else. In other peer nations, the police are not nearly so violent.
I understand why Biden and Harris say the things they do. Ever since Richard Nixon did so well with war on crime politics in the 1960s, Democrats have been terrified they will be blamed for urban unrest. But the politics of crime have radically changed since that day. With the "Great Awokening," the mass of liberal whites has moved far to the left on questions of racial justice. We also know that liberal Democrats trust their leaders. It is therefore incumbent on Biden and Harris, if they actually take their racial justice rhetoric seriously, to emphasize that, if we want to stop urban unrest that happens after police shootings, we should stop the shootings.