On May 25, George Floyd, 46, was killed when white Minneapolis police officer Derek Chauvin kneeled on his neck, pinning him to the ground. In one week since then, people across the country and around the world have mobilized to protest this latest example of fatal police violence against an African American person.
In some cities, the demonstrations have involved physical confrontations with police, destruction of property (including police cars) and looting of private businesses.
That all of this is happening months into a pandemic that shows no signs of ending — even as cities and states start reopening businesses — has so many of us deeply saddened and enraged. Some people are also confused, as they sympathize with the protestors and the righteousness of their cause, but recoil at the images of fires on their neighborhood streets and people looting stores in their communities.
In the past few days, UCLA faculty have been quoted in major news outlets around the world, offering their insights, expertise and perspectives to help people more clearly understand what is happening, the history of institutional racism that’s fueling the anger, why the words people choose to describe what’s happening matter so much and how the pandemic shapes our reactions.
This page will be updated periodically.
Brenda Stevenson, UCLA professor of African American studies and holder of the Nickoll Family Endowed Chair in History spoke to Spectrum News’ “Inside the Issues” program on June 2. She talked about corollaries between the unrest of 1992 in Los Angeles and today.
“What stands out during both of those episodes, and so many more, is the notion that black people do not receive justice in our society, particularly at the hands of those people who should be protecting us, the police,” she explained.
She continued, saying many black people want to know when and how law enforcement will be reformed “in such a way that we begin to feel that we are equal under the law and with the law.”
“I think overall people want to see a real investigation of policing in America.”
In this Los Angeles Times article from June 2, Terence Keel, professor of African American studies, discussed the some of the fundamental work that goes into being anti-racist.
Anti-racism “is fundamentally identifying the structures, policies and beliefs that create racism in society,” he said. “Anti-racism work involves education, it involves organizing, and it involves knowledge-sharing at its core.”
Taking on anti-racism work will look different depending on who you are, experts said. There is an inherent privilege to being born white, Keel said, and part of that privilege is the freedom of not having to think about how society is organized to benefit white people. Part of anti-racist work for people who are white is understanding the structures, laws and socially accepted beliefs that construct their privilege and white identity.
Tyrone Howard, professor of education and director of UCLA’s Black Male Institute, joined local ABC News live on June 3 for their coverage of peaceful protests in Hollywood that day. He talked to anchors about working with college students and young people, many of whom have been out in force over the past week. Howard holds the Pritzker Family Endowed Chair in Education to Strengthen Families.
“They are smart. They are savvy. They are innovative. They use technology to leverage their voice. They are able to mobilize in ways that we could never imagine,” said Howard.
He says young people are impatient and want to see immediate reaction, which he admires.
“This generation of young people, typically, is going to serve as a catalyst for the change that we want to see,” said Howard. “They want us to form a human coalition. To understand that oppression to any group affects folks everywhere.”
Howard also offered his thoughts on how to teach a young person that certain things require time.
“We have to find a happy medium,” said Howard. “We’re in a marathon, it’s not a sprint. And so we have to help the younger generation to meet us halfway.”
Safiya Noble, UCLA professor of information studies and African American studies and an expert on technological redlining and discrimination, shared insight with NBC news as to why some activists may have used police tip lines as a means of of protest, by flooding these lines with memes and K-pop videos or reports of witnessing police brutality.
She said that these efforts show a “lot more savvy among organizers responding to state violence” about the technologies used to surveil movements for social justice.
“The use of everyday, mundane technologies like tip reporting websites for reporting if you see someone doing something wrong is how repressive social control gets normalized,” she said. “It normalizes fascism, state control and undermines democratic rights to free speech and protests.”
Isaac Bryan, director of public policy at the UCLA Ralph J. Bunche Center for African American Studies, spoke to LAist on June 2 for a Q&A about the false dichotomy the media is drawing between peaceful protestors and looting as well as his own experiences, what protesters are really demanding and how to keep going.
“I can tell you that 3rd and Fairfax on Saturday, I was at that protest. I was on the frontlines. I got hit with a baton. I got hit with a baton several times. I saw loved ones get thrown to the ground as police, surrounded us, suppressed it and really escalated what was a peaceful demonstration. I think we need a little bit more ... we need the city, we need the country, to understand [that] this moment is catalytic. It is a broader, louder exclamation than we have ever seen before, and it requires the proper response in policy decisions in electoral leadership and in reallocation of resources.
“And then I would like to see people get organized. There are organizations that have been leading this work for decades. There are organizations on the ground here in Los Angeles that have been calling for equitable policing, that are really leading this work. And I would encourage the 20,000, 30,000 people that were out in the streets trying to be heard to align themselves with these organizations so they can really funnel that energy is a collective power.”
Bryan also called out the L.A. city budget, which was voted on this week, as part of the problem.
“At the same time that 16,000 city workers are being furloughed and asked to take a 10% pay cut, the city of Los Angeles is considering giving $125 to $200 million, in addition to their previous budget, to the Los Angeles Police Department. That is counter to what the people are demanding. That is counter to what the movement is demanding. So going out and, quite frankly, making some noise and being heard might be the fire that some folks need to have to return back to really representing the ideals in the community that they ran for office on.”
Tananrive Due is an award-winning author and a lecturer in UCLA’s Department of African American Studies. She wrote a personal essay that appeared June 1 on Vanity Fair’s website (excerpted below) about how the killing of George Floyd and the reaction to it connects to her own childhood experiences and memories of police getting away with killing an African American man named Arthur McDuffie in Miami in 1980.
Every city’s new scream of pain sweeps my mind back to May 17, 1980 — the day my childhood ended. On that day the police officers charged with killing Arthur McDuffie were acquitted.
McDuffie was a 33-year-old black motorcyclist (an insurance salesman and former Marine M.P.) who had led police on a high-speed chase before he coasted to a stop at the freeway exchange. As many as 12 police officers swarmed him, full of rage. While McDuffie was handcuffed, they beat him so badly with heavy flashlights that the coroner said his skull looked like “a cracked egg.” The officers then damaged his motorcycle and crafted a lie, saying he had been injured in a crash. McDuffie died days later.
Arthur McDuffie might have died under the cloud of the police officers’ lie if not for Miami Herald reporter Edna Buchanan, who got a tip and investigated his death, exposing the conspiracy to hide his murder. After the exposé, several officers were tried for manslaughter—which, even as a child, didn’t seem like a powerful enough charge to me. Even so, an all-white jury in Tampa acquitted them. I felt stunned and shattered as I watched the news crawl silently across my television screen on a sleepy Saturday afternoon.
He didn’t matter to them, I thought. Our lives don’t matter.
It was almost too big for my mind to accept. My parents were civil rights activists, so I knew how bad things had been back in the 1960s from their stories of fire hoses and tear gas and jail cells and beatings. But 1980 was the first time I understood how Jim Crow was still hiding inside the criminal justice system. I was pledging allegiance to the same flag as my white classmates at school, but there was no such thing as “liberty and justice for all.” Although the Black Lives Matter movement would not be born until more than 30 years later, Arthur McDuffie was my first Black Lives Matter moment.
Kimberlé Crenshaw of UCLA School of Law was interviewed by KPFA about racism, intersectionality, COVID-19 and the protests around the killing of George Floyd. (Approx. 24:00 mark)
We are now in the moment in which many people are grieving, having seen an African American man being killed. Deliberately, it seems. His suffering not being heard, his pleas for his life being disregarded, officers seemingly taking this as just another day at the office, snuffing out another life. The inhumanity of it, I think, is shocking to so many people, and at the same time, I struggle to hold the unfathomable dimension of this man’s life being taken, along with the thousands of people who are dying every day from decisions that have been made to prioritize the economy, to prioritize the comfort, to prioritize the preferences and the privileges of some over the lives and the well-being of others.
Darnell Hunt, dean of the division of social sciences in the UCLA College, also offered insights for a BBC story that explored why some “protests turn violent,” discussing the government’s role in escalating the tensions through the deployment of the National Guard and noting parallels between current events and previous protests against racial injustice.
Darnell Hunt, dean of social sciences at UCLA, believes police in the U.S. “ramped up their aggressiveness” over the weekend.
“Deploying the National Guard, using rubber bullets, tear gas, and pepper spray — these are a range of police tactics that can exacerbate an already tense situation.”
Later in the article, Hunt provided historical context for what’s happening specifically in Los Angeles and more across the country.
Prof Hunt has studied the 1992 Los Angeles riots, which were sparked after four white police officers were acquitted over the videotaped beating of black motorist Rodney King.
He says there is “a long history of targeting, or selectivity,” in vandalism and looting. “In the L.A. uprisings, you’d often see ‘minority owned’ spray painted on minority businesses, so that people would bypass those.”
However, both Prof Stott and Prof Hunt caution that looting is complicated — especially as lots of people with different motivations take part, including people in poverty or organized criminals.
The idea that violent protests are targeted and meaningful events to those taking part can also explain why looting occurs in some protests, but not others.
Ultimately, however, riots can be a symptom of deep-seated tensions and complicated issues that don’t have an easy solution.
Prof Hunt says this week’s U.S. riots are the most serious ones since 1968 — after Martin Luther King was assassinated.
“You can’t think about police brutality, and the profiling of certain communities, without thinking about the inequalities that exist in society and fuel those concerns,” he says.
“The George Floyd case was not the cause — it’s more like the straw that broke the camel’s back. You could argue even the police killings are symptoms — the underlying cause is white supremacy, racism and things the U.S. has not fundamentally dealt with.”
Hunt and Robin Kelley, Gary B. Nash Professor of American History, were interviewed by the Washington Post in a story published June 1. Retailers and restaurants across the U.S. close their doors amid protests
The theft of T-shirts, computers and food appears to run counter to the message from demonstrators who have filled streets in cities and towns from coast to coast following the death of George Floyd, some professors who study the topic said. The looting also can feel distinct from the unrest’s vandalism and property destruction.
But, said UCLA historian Robin Kelley, “every single rebellion and uprising has included it.”
Looting is often the result of normally law-abiding people taking advantage of a chaotic moment, especially when they are suffering economically, Kelley said.
It occurred often during the violent unrest in American cities of the late ’60s and early ’70s. It happened after Hurricane Katrina devastated New Orleans. It was a part of the 1917 East St. Louis riots, when white people killed and stormed the homes of black residents — stealing rugs and lamps, Kelley said.
Now, during the COVID-19 pandemic and with 40 million people having filed for unemployment, “I was shocked there wasn’t more looting,” Kelley said of the current protests. “We’re dealing with an economic crisis.”
In that same article, Hunt offered comparisons to the 1992 L.A. riots that was sparked by the acquittal of the police officers who beat Rodney King.
The weekend’s actions were reminiscent of the Los Angeles Rodney King protests in 1992, said Darnell Hunt, dean of social sciences at UCLA. In this case, though, the destruction did seem to take place in more affluent neighborhoods, he said. Some business owners put up signs noting it was a minority-owned store to try to be spared.
Not all of them were saved, according to reports on social media.
The protests are not just a critique of police brutality, Hunt said, though that is the main issue at play.
“It’s an explosion of frustrations and anger about a range of interconnected structures in our society that have disproportionately undermined the livelihoods of people of color, particularly African Americans,” he said.
A Vox article published May 30 cited a study by UCLA School of Law’s Joanna Schwartz that helped explain how governments are insulated from the consequences of police violence against people.
Even if a civil rights plaintiff overcomes qualified immunity, many jurisdictions have indemnity laws protecting police from civil suits. Under these laws, the government agrees to pay any damages awarded against an officer. Indeed, these indemnity laws are so common that a 2014 study by UCLA law professor Joanna Schwartz found that “during the study period, governments paid approximately 99.98% of the dollars that plaintiffs recovered in lawsuits alleging civil rights violations by law enforcement.”
Laura Abrams, professor of social welfare at the UCLA Luskin School of Public Affairs, offered key perspectives to LAist on how the economic downturn caused by the pandemic intersects with choices about what to cut in the city of Los Angeles’ budget.
The union representing the LAPD says uniformed police are expected to provide an ever-expanding array of services, especially during the COVID-19 pandemic.
“In addition to traditional policing, our officers are on the front line of providing services to our community during this pandemic, from helping to transport homeless residents to shelters to providing security at these shelters,” the LAPPL [Los Angeles Police Protective League] said in a statement. “We cannot shelter in place and we put ourselves in harm’s way daily.
But activists don’t agree that LAPD funding levels should be justified by pointing out the multiple roles that police officers fill when they encounter people on the street.
“Police officers, even when well-intentioned, are not social workers,” said Laura Abrams, chair of social welfare at UCLA’s Luskin School of Public Affairs.
On a conference call organized by the Stop LAPD Spying Coalition, Abrams described the special training involved in becoming a certified social worker — including adhering to a code of ethics and gaining the ability to appropriately advocate for vulnerable communities.
“These skills or training cannot be paralleled by any work in law enforcement,” Abrams added. “Social workers are also on the front lines right now. And they’re getting cuts and laid off.”
In a message to the campus community, 37 campus leaders, including Chancellor Gene Block and the presidents of the undergraduate and graduate student associations, joined together to send a message expressing their collective anger, sadness and solidarity.
We must never let that indifference to human suffering become our own. We must never deaden our hearts to the pain of others. Our fundamental values demand that we care.
At UCLA, we believe deeply that equity, respect and justice are central to the character of our institution, to the health of our democracy and to the well-being of our world. Still, we recognize that UCLA also can and must do better. As campus leaders, we recommit ourselves to ensuring that our policies and actions value the lives, safety and dignity of every Bruin.