Following the murder of George Floyd in Minnesota, protests against racist police violence flooded the streets of every borough in New York City, and continue to this day. Our photographers have been out documenting the historic moment, which is part of a larger national, youth-driven movement working to defund the police and end systemic racism. With hundreds of photos, we asked New York City teens to choose one that resonated with them, and write about it. Below is a piece from Rainier Harris, who attends Regis High School in Manhattan where he is currently a junior. You can follow him @harris_rainier.
Do you understand yet?!
“It’s wrong to do it in the streets, it’s wrong to do it in the tweets, you cannot do it in the field, you cannot do it if you’ve kneeled, and don’t do it if you’re rich, you ungrateful son of a bitch, because there is one thing that’s a fact, you cannot protest if you’re black." Comedian Trevor Noah said this on The Daily Show on Comedy Central two years ago, and the words still ring true as more questions arise over what is the “right” and “proper” way to protest police brutality.
In light of the rioting and looting following the murders of George Floyd and Breonna Taylor, many have tried to either justify or undermine the protests by invoking Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.’s words from his 1967 “The Other America” speech at Stanford University. “A riot is the language of the unheard,” King said, “[America] has failed to hear that the promises of freedom and justice have not been met...it has failed to hear that large segments of white society are more concerned with tranquility and the status quo than about justice, equality, and humanity.” But King also called riots “socially destructive and self-defeating.”
As a young Black man watching these events unfold, I looked to both Trevor Noah and Dr. King’s words to help make sense of it all. I have and never will be for rioting and looting. I believe burning and looting small businesses — some Black-owned and with an already precarious future exacerbated by the COVID-19 pandemic — in no way helps push forward the message against police brutality. Rioting and looting are destructive to neighborhoods and to people, especially during this time in the pandemic and severe economic downturn.
It is important to note, however, that much of the rioting and looting has been done by infiltrators with their own agenda, not by peaceful protestors. In addition, police officers have been instigating violence in clashes with protestors. The fundamental purpose of the protests against police brutality should not be lost in their methods, which is what I believe Dr. King was saying. He was consistently non-violent and did not endorse rioting but urged people to question not so much how they riot, by why.
It has been extremely disappointing seeing many in the media focus more on sensational pictures of a burning car than helping the public better understand this why; what the protestors are fighting for and what their agenda is. I believe that the media is partially responsible for the public’s perception of Black lives and scholars have said that these distorted representations of black lives lead to real-world negative consequences such as unfair treatment in the justice system, social policy that uses punitive instead of restorative measures, and worsens job prospects. I feel that showing a few sensational pictures of the rioting and looting without amplifying the protestors’ message largely distracts from the central message against police brutality that protestors are pushing forward. For example, when the protests were in its earlier stages, I observed that news channels like CNN, who recently has stopped broadcasting the protests as intensely as they did, tended to show the same few images throughout the day without much discussion of the demands protestors were making like “defund the police.”
Ultimately, I don’t think rioting and looting are justified. I also stand for the flag, but I do so with the full knowledge and appreciation of why many choose not to, I do not simply dismiss them as unpatriotic and ungrateful. For those who were critical of Colin Kaepernick and for those who are critical of the events unfolding now, such as the right-wing magazine the National Review, what is the right way for you to understand the plight the vast majority of Black Americans experience daily due to police brutality and an unfair justice system? Do you understand yet?!