As my colleague Ed Kilgore recently noted, the term “police riot” gained popular purchase after the 1968 Democratic National Convention in Chicago, when a commission formed by President Lyndon B. Johnson to investigate the event’s unrest used it to describe how police dealt with protesters. “Wild club swinging,” “cries of hatred,” “gratuitous beating” that far exceeded the “requisite force for crowd dispersal and arrest” — all pointed, in the view of report author Daniel Walker, to a pattern of unchecked misrule, a “riot” in its own right. Jamelle Bouie, in the New York Times opinion section, applied the term to how police across the country have responded to the latest protests, citing officers’ widespread use of “indiscriminate violence.” This behavior has not abated, even as its geographic concentration shifts. Overall, where public backlash might reasonably be expected to encourage introspection among law-enforcement officials, it has frequently provoked violence and indignant revanchism instead.
The persistence of this behavior dovetails neatly with recent analyses that undermine two key claims made by police and their defenders. The Associated Press reported on Sunday that since late May, 20 individuals, aged 16 to 59, have sustained eye damage or been blinded by rubber bullets or other police projectiles not intended to kill. This adds an important caveat to such weapons being characterized as “less than lethal”; that they’re not designed expressly to kill anyone is, surely, not very consoling for the journalist who can’t see anymore because Minneapolis police shot her in the face with foam bullets. A recent University of Chicago study, meanwhile, has found American police to be in violation of basic international human rights’ standards, despite routine insistence among officials that their current severity is needed. The 193 member states of the United Nations, including the U.S., have agreed to a range of principles governing when lethal force is justified, aimed at fulfilling four criteria: “legality, necessity, proportionality, and accountability.” Not a single U.S. state complies, according to the report, further delegitimizing conceptions of the police as guardians of safety.
These findings are all the more stark for emerging at a time when the excesses of American law enforcement are on abundant display — and as policing institutions, by and large, continue to insist that nothing is wrong with them, but rather that the problem is the people they’re tasked with protecting, who can only be kept “safe” by using wanton brutality and murder with impunity.