When I arrived at the Capitol the evening of June 1, a three-way standoff between Black Lives Matter protesters, counter demonstrators waving Confederate flags and police in riot gear seemed to be underway, and at the drop of a hat, it looked like the kind of violence in other cities we’ve all seen on TV could erupt in Boise.
In fact, the hat had already dropped: A counter demonstrator named Michael Wallace, 18, of Garden City, has been accused of discharging a firearm at the protest. He was promptly arrested and sent to the Ada County Jail on a misdemeanor charge. Nobody was hurt; the protest proceeded anxiously into the wee hours of the morning.
Since the police killing of George Floyd on May 25, protests have erupted around the country, and all I can say is that I’m disappointed. Faced with hundreds of examples of police brutality, killing and outright murder, this country has failed to take seriously the legitimate cries for justice from black Americans, and predictably, after yet another egregious example—this time of an officer using deadly force on a man accused of trying to spend a counterfeit $20 bill—people are righteously pissed.
It couldn’t have happened at a weirder time. Last I checked, America was still in the throes of a pandemic that has killed more than 100,000 people, disproportinately affecting people of color. Several community leaders, including activists, the Idaho Black History Museum and a sitting Boise City Council member, have discouraged attending protests for public health reasons, and that the organization of the actions so far has been opaque. I’d offer this insight—earlier protests of Gov. Brad Little’s stay home order during the pandemic pushed their agenda in spite of the danger posed by COVID-19; the anti-police brutality protests have taken place despite it.
Police brutality is an extremely old problem, but now that pretty much everyone has a smartphone, what was once invisible has been viral for several years. The evidence is undeniable that African Americans and people of color have a radically different American experience than white Americans. African Americans are 2.5 times more likely to die at the hands of a police officer. Since the beginnings of the Black Lives Matter movement in 2014, America’s 30 largest cities have made significant gains when it comes to reducing police violence, but undercutting that welcome news is that overall, police killings have increased, with smaller cities and rural areas making up the gap. In the aggregate, things have actually gotten worse.
Nobody should wonder why anger is at a fever pitch, and that some protests have escalated into riots. Nevertheless, wonder they do, at least out loud. There have always been critics of protests when extreme frustration crests into property damage and violence. In my previous experience, many of them have opened with “I don’t understand,” the consequences of police violence being so much more visible to some people than the violence itself; but lately, I’ve noticed a new trend: people showing up at these rallies armed, waiting for the police to tag them in if things got chaotic.
One of the counter demonstrators I spoke with June 1 said just that. Meanwhile, other armed people lurked nearby, notably from the patriot group III% of Idaho, which, along with the Idaho Second Amendment Alliance, has spread “credible intel” about “constitutional flashpoints,” Antifa (that’s short for “anti-fascist”) and possible rioting. I can tell you right now that I’m an anti-fascist. Fascism is a pernicious idea that appeals to the ugliest xenophobic and authoritarian impulses, and I fault no one for vigorously opposing it where they see it. More importantly is that coming to a protest loaded for bear and waiting for things to get rough is a bit like going to a boxing match just to see someone get killed in the ring, only much worse, because if armed vigilantes want to usurp the police’s prerogatives regarding the use of deadly force, it seems to me they’d be exhibiting the same bad behavior that gave birth to BLM and Antifa in the first place. Certainly nobody asked them to come.
There are a lot of things people shouldn’t do during a time of pandemic and acute social unrest. Let me side with the public health experts and say that if people can avoid mass gatherings, they should. As businesses and public services begin to reopen under the governor’s plan, Idaho has predictably experienced an increase in the number of cases of COVID-19. The hope is that there isn’t a spike in transmission, which would strain hospitals. I’ve been seeing a lot of face masks at the demonstrations I’ve attended, but the safest and best bet is to stay home.
There are also plenty of things people can, and should, do. Stay angry. Police violence has proven to be a sticky bugger, and only intense pressure and communication with policymakers will bring the desired results. Educate yourself on solutions that may be a good fit for your community. And listen to people of color.
Lately, when I end a phone call or bid someone adieu, my go-to line is “take care.” I’d chosen it because it seems genuine but innocuous—some serviceable sign-off pith—but lately I’ve come to say it with more feeling. If reporting on Boise and seeing the national news has taught me anything, it’s that people matter above all else. Please take care.