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As Officials Condemn Violence During Protests, This Professor Says Some Is Warranted


MARTIN LUTHER KING JR: I think we've got to see that 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 economic plight of the Negro poor has worsened over the last few years.


That's Martin Luther King speaking with Mike Wallace of CBS News in 1966. This weekend, 54 years later, more than two dozen American cities declared curfews as police and the National Guard confronted citizens in the streets, this time in reaction to another death of another black man, George Floyd in police custody. Steven Thrasher is a journalist who's covered police violence and community reaction, including riots, for many years. He's now a professor at Northwestern University, and he joins us now.

Good morning.

STEVEN THRASHER: Thank you so much for having me.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: This is a moment. We've seen a dramatic 24 hours of anger erupting, of military on the streets, of police confrontations. As someone who is an expert in this, please put this moment into context for us.

THRASHER: The first thing that stood out to me is that this is a very proportionate response to what's happening. When George Floyd was killed by the police, the reaction was very focused at them. And I've noticed over the years in my reporting that there's often reaction directed at businesses that will be criticized. People who don't agree with it will say it's a terrible thing that a business has been burned, as if property is more important than life.

But the first big shift happened, I think, when protesters went at the 3rd Precinct in Minneapolis. And there's been a really different response to it because I think people are starting to understand that the over-policing of American life means addressing, confronting, defending against and defunding the police themselves.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: We have heard elsewhere in the show Representative Joyce Beatty of Ohio saying violence is not the answer. You are sort of making a distinction between burning down a police station and other types of violence. Elaborate a little bit on that.

THRASHER: Well, the violence is being done by the police themselves. In many registers, as we certainly see from last night, it's the police themselves who are rioting and attacking people and attacking property. The rebellion against the police station itself, as I read in Slate, made sense because the police are the ones that are enforcing an extremely unfair social order. They lynched George Floyd in broad daylight on video. But also, as tens of millions of Americans are without work and running out of money for food and rent, it's becoming apparent that it's the police who are going to be enforcing starvation, eviction, homelessness.

And so standing up against that and fighting back against that is not anything that is unethical or problematic. It's actually very ethical to say that there should be a different order in society, especially when we look at the fact that in cities like Minneapolis, 1 in every $3 are going to the police. In Chicago, 4 out of every $10 go to the police. So city budgets really - if they're going to keep going to policing in this way, it's going to create the chaos that we're seeing.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: What about the argument that protesters are destroying their own communities? - because many of the businesses that were attacked - and we heard today on this program - were not those of big corporations. They were family-run restaurants, a library, a day care center.

THRASHER: Well, we've also been seeing in the news - which is qualitatively different from when I was covering Ferguson and Baltimore in 2014, 2015 - stories from the owner of the restaurant Gandhi in Minneapolis whose restaurant was harmed but also who said he still stood with the protesters. He understood that his building could be rebuilt, and George Floyd's life could not be.

It's kind of a false dichotomy to say that it's either/or and that things are happening to businesses and neighborhoods. People are using and protesting with the only tools that they have available. And the complete lack of politics doing anything effective and not having an opposition party and the Democrats - people are responding and - with the only tools that they have available. And so there is going to be damage, but the damage is happening because too much money is going to the police in the first place.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: In the few seconds we have left, I mean, what do you think is going to happen? I mean, we are seeing the military being possibly mobilized. Do you see this escalating further?

THRASHER: I think it's going to. I'm writing a book right now called "The Viral Underclass," which writes about - I'm writing about how racism and ableism are part of what's happening with the pandemic. But also what's happening in the pandemic is that capitalism is making it clear how many bodies are going to fall into the cracks in our crisis. And policing is not the way to address it. And I think that the American people are understanding that and asking for and demanding a better and healthier and more fair solution.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: Steven Thrasher teaches at Northwestern University.

Thank you very much.

THRASHER: Thank you. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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