It’s one thing to sit in front of your TV and watch cities torn apart by protests and riots. It’s quite another matter when it’s your town in the middle of such a crisis.
Santa Maria isn’t exactly downtown Minneapolis, Los Angeles or New York, but it is our town, and the local protest dust-ups earlier this week in response to the death of a black man under the knee of a policeman were disturbing.
Last weekend’s protest of George Floyd’s death started out peacefully enough. But by nightfall the peaceful protest escalated as different people showed up, eventually invading the Town Center, breaking store and restaurant windows, stealing clothing and other items from a retail store.
It was sort of a replay of what has been happening in inner cities all week, only on a much smaller scale.
It is unsettling to know there are people in our midst whose intentions are not peaceful, bordering on anarchy. One bystander at last Sunday’s violence tried to get the miscreants to stop, telling them “This has nothing to do with George Floyd.”
Indeed, it does not, a point apparently lost on too many politicians, some of whom are howling for blood, with President Trump threatening to sic the U.S. military on cities with the biggest rioting problems.
Thankfully, and perhaps because we are a relatively small city, our local leaders were more circumspect about their response to the outburst of looting and window smashing. Santa Maria Mayor Alice Patino said this:
"I thank the community members who use their 1st Amendment rights to protest peacefully. … everyone has a voice. But the people who chose to destroy property distract from those trying to share their voice.”
Santa Maria police wisely chose to stand by during the brief episode of violence. It was definitely a matter of laws being broken and property being destroyed or stolen, but a full-on rush by police could have escalated the situation far beyond what eventually happened.
The mini-riot experienced here had the same characteristics as the much larger disruptions in major cities — more or less peaceful protests during the daylight hours shifting into a more violent, dangerously disruptive mode under the cover of darkness, a time when most acts of cowardice occur.
The big-city problems, in many cases, seem like both sides over-reacting. First, the thugs replace the peaceful protesters as the sun goes down, forcing the hand of law enforcement and National Guard soldiers standing by. Such situations tend to spiral out of control. Things get ugly and dangerous, fast.
This nation has been through far too many cycles of protest and subsequent violence. For many, the starting points were the race protests in the early 1960s, coupled with the Vietnam War protests later in the decade. The images of a student shot dead by National Guard members at Kent State still burn in a lot of American minds.
We are better than this, or at least we should be. And we have to keep that in mind as a contentious presidential campaign unfolds during a global pandemic, one in which the United States seems to be contributing the most deadly statistics. The main candidates are about as far apart ideologically as two people can get.
In the end, we must all do what we can to keep a lid on an incendiary situation.
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