For all the smoke, tear gas and confusion clouding the streets of U.S. cities — including some in Washington state — it can be difficult to see a way toward confronting myriad issues that have festered for decades until legitimate and peaceful protests — following the death of George Floyd while in the custody of Minneapolis police officers a week ago — were overshadowed by counterproductive acts of vandalism and deadly violence.
Largely, protests and marches over the last several days have been peaceful, or started so, but too frequently attention to their message seeking progress on issues related to racism and the use of force by police has been diverted by those using vandalism and violence for the purposes of chaos and hate. And too often, those acts have been falsely attributed to those seeking necessary change.
The confusion over responsibility for violence and damage — particularly when it singles out protesters or police — will only delay reconciliation and resolution.
From news accounts, social media posts and personal observations, it’s not hard to count up anecdotes of either rioters setting police vehicles and buildings ablaze, looters destroying property or law enforcement officers severely injuring protesters, journalists and at least one child, pepper-sprayed in the face allegedly by a Seattle police officer. Throughout, protesters and police have been identified as both perpetrators and victims.
It’s a situation tailor-made for continued division and inaction. Anyone can avoid confronting the relevant issues — the unjustified and too often murderous use of force by law enforcement; racial, gender and class inequities; structural poverty; a lack of corporate investment in inner cities; poor public funding of education and basic infrastructure; skewed representation at all levels of government — because particular biases can be easily confirmed by the atrocities of one’s choosing.
There’s no motivation to work cooperatively on solutions when the other side is the problem.
It has been hard to hear at times, but the protests, while justifiably tinged with anger and frustration, have often made their points without threatening an exchange of violence. Protesters and members of law enforcement in some cities have engaged in sincere sidewalk dialogue or knelt together in the streets.
Importantly, we also have a prime and recent example in Washington state when disparate interests did sit down together and were able to adopt effective reforms regarding the use of force by police. In the end, those reforms were endorsed through support from 60 percent of the state’s voters.
Initiative 940, adopted by the voters in 2018, established standards and policies to address law enforcement officer-involved shootings by adding de-escalation and mental health training requirements for officers and rewriting the standard for the use of deadly force. Before its passage, Washington state law shielded officers from prosecution so long as they acted “without malice,” a nebulous standard that no other state in the nation used, and one that made it difficult to prosecute unjustified shootings by police.
Its path to adoption, it’s worth noting, was light on “Kumbaya” moments.
The initiative’s reforms required: three years of contentious debate among lawmakers, law enforcement representatives and advocates for equal rights and criminal justice reform; the early failure of those talks to provide consensus on reforms, which led to the drafting of the citizen’s initiative; a state Supreme Court detour; and its ballot win, before a final agreement.
As detailed by The Herald’s Jerry Cornfield in 2019, initial discussions in 2016 among a task force called by the Legislature, found little consensus on key proposals:
“When the day arrived to act on recommendations, members did a lot of talking at one another rather than with one another. The dialogue was sometimes impolite and emotional. There were insinuations of racism and cop-blaming. What resulted was a split decision in the panel’s final report, no revisions in law during the 2017 legislative session and, then, Initiative 940 last fall.”
The reforms’ passage was further tortured — thanks in part to some unconstitutional corner-cutting by the Legislature — but ultimately the effort brought together those on opposite sides of the original initiative to work with state lawmakers on changes deemed necessary after the initiative’s passage by voters.
At all levels — local, state and national — discussions and efforts on the reforms that will begin to address the societal and governmental failings that brought on the unrest of the last week will be as difficult if not more so than what resulted in I-940’s reforms. The destruction and injuries of the last week and coming days — and, sadly, continued belligerence and inflammatory rhetoric by President Trump — will have only compounded those difficulties.
But when the smoke and tear gas clear, when the broken glass is swept up and when the wounds heal, the way forward is marked for us.