Why was that police car on fire?

Torching a police SUV is not an acceptable form of protest. It is a violent and criminal act. But let’s understand how we got here.

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A Chicago Police SUV was set ablaze at State and Lake streets during Saturday’s protests downtown.

Ashlee Rezin Garcia/Sun-Times

Why was that police car on fire?

Readers of Sunday’s Chicago Sun-Times were met with a front page photo that was as startling as they come. It became an instant symbol of the violent unrest that is rocking our city and nation in the aftermath of the death of George Floyd under the knee of a Minneapolis police officer.

A Chicago police SUV is shown fully ablaze at the intersection of State and Lake streets in the heart of downtown. A man in the foreground is about to hurl a wooden box.

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Torching a police car is not an acceptable form of protest. It is mayhem. It is a criminal act. Nor should anybody condone or tolerate the widespread destruction of property and looting we witnessed this weekend — or try to defend those who physically attacked police officers.

We share Mayor Lori Lightfoot’s “total disgust” for anyone who engages in such violence. Arrest them.

George Floyd one of many

But let’s also understand how we got here — how it came to be that Chicago, Minneapolis and dozens of other American cities all saw furious and sometimes violent protests this weekend.

Let’s remember that not one of those protests was about the death of just one black man under the knee of just one white Minneapolis cop.

Let’s remember that before George Floyd there were Eric Garner and Philando Castile and Alton Sterling and Botham Jean and Walter Scott and Laquan McDonald. And in the days before cellphone video, there was a long line of other black men who wrongly died — can there be any doubt? — at the hands of the police, their victimization unrecorded and unacknowledged.

In Chicago, we also had Jon Burge, a police commander who allegedly tortured a couple of hundred criminal suspects — almost all of them African American men — over almost two decades in a police station basement.

While his fellow cops saw nothing.

Without reservation, we condemn the violence of this past weekend, which possibly was instigated by organized extremists on both the left and right.

But we cannot overlook, even in the heat of this moment, the righteous message of the thousands of other entirely peaceful demonstrators, whose own actions represented democracy at its best.

For them, too, the death of George Floyd lit a match.

Never finding peace

Our civil society cannot hold, and our cities will never find peace, until we confront the racism that weaves through the culture and practices of so many police departments.

Almost 1,100 people were killed by police last year, according to the Mapping Police Violence study. Black people, who compose 13 percent of the nation’s population, were 24 percent of those killed. In eight of the largest 100 departments, police killed black men at a pace higher than the U.S. murder rate.

But even in cases when a killing is transparently unjustified, officers almost never are charged with a crime, let alone convicted. The city of Chicago has spent more than a half billion dollars since 2011 settling police misconduct cases.

Chicago has made measurable progress in reforming its policing practices and training. Pushed and prodded by civil libertarians, community groups and others — including this editorial page — the police department entered a federal consent decree to reform its ways after the killing of the aforementioned McDonald in 2014. McDonald, 17, was shot 16 times by an officer who now, rightly and exceptionally, is in prison.

But the Chicago Police Department has a long ways to go on true reform, especially with respect to a union contract that throws up absurd barriers to bad officers being held accountable.

On the federal level, an honest effort to support policing reforms will remain hopeless until President Donald Trump is out of office.

While the Justice Department under President Barack Obama entered into consent decrees with more than a dozen police departments, including Chicago’s, the Trump administration has restricted the use of new decrees and attempted to back out of pre-existing ones.

The Trump administration’s view, always loud and belligerent, is that cops should be set loose to kick butt. You have to hunt high and low for a single expression of concern from the Trump crowd about civil liberties or police overreactions.

Turn ‘pain into purpose’

Lightfoot on Sunday, visibly shaken at a morning press conference, made three points in particular that bear stressing.

To begin with, protesters who get violent are not protesters. They are criminals. It is “critically important,” as the mayor said, “that we enforce the rule of law.”

Secondly, the “vast majority” of demonstrators were peaceful — yet also furious, and for good reason. The death of George Floyd was an outrage, like the deaths of so many other African American men at the hands of police.

Thirdly, the answer is not further violence. The answer is for Americans to unite and, again in Lightfoot’s words, turn “pain into purpose.”

The despair and desperation simmer year after year, decade after decade. Then there is another Eric Garner or Laquan McDonald or George Floyd, and it all boils over.

Until there is real change, the cycle will go on and on.

Send letters to letters@suntimes.com.

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