The police can still choose nonviolence

When rioting breaks out, it’s common for the press and politicians to call on protesters to observe nonviolence, usually with rote reference to Martin Luther King. But in these cases, the community has been brutalized by the state in the first place, and so the police are the ones with the ability to break the cycle of violence.

Amid a lot of bleak scenes around the country, there have been occasional, more positive ones. In a few cases, the police have decided to give protesters a wide berth—or, even better, to join them. In Camden, New Jersey, the chief of police marched alongside protesters. That probably wasn’t a spontaneous choice: As James Surowiecki notes, the city has been in the midst of a years-long reconsideration of its policing strategies to focus on de-escalation. In another case, a widely shared video from Flint Township, Michigan, showed the local sheriff marching with protesters, having taken off a helmet and set down a baton as a gesture of good faith.

Even where officers aren’t personally getting involved, police can avoid escalation. Durham, North Carolina, where I live, has seen a string of cases of police violence over the past few years. Yesterday, police blocked off streets to make room for a march, and then kept their distance. No clashes were reported. It probably didn’t hurt that Durham’s activist community is experienced and highly self-disciplined, nor that the local chief of police, sheriff, and district attorney are all African American (though, as Baltimore shows, black leadership is no guarantee of positive police-community relationships).