America in 2020: Buildings burn while a Black man shot by the police lies paralyzed

We are outraged by the destruction in Kenosha, Wisconsin, but also by the spark — another questionable police shooting — that set it off.

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The Wisconsin Department of Corrections’ Community Corrections Division at 1212 60th St. in Kenosha burns during the second night of unrest after police shot Jacob Blake, Monday night, Aug. 24, 2020.

The Wisconsin Department of Corrections’ Community Corrections Division at 1212 60th St. in Kenosha was one of several businesses to burn during the second night of unrest after police shot Jacob Blake, Monday night, Aug. 24, 2020.

Ashlee Rezin Garcia/Sun-Times

Two images are seared in our minds:

A Black man shot by the Kenosha Police lying on the edge of death or paralysis in a Milwaukee hospital.

Buildings in Kenosha burning in the night.

The two images are irrefutably linked, cause and effect impossible to deny, as much as we deplore the arson and violence. We are outraged by the conflagration, but every bit or more by the spark — another disturbingly questionable police shooting of a Black man — that set it off.

We say this because we woke up on Tuesday morning, scanned our Twitter feed and were struck by a disconnect. Dozens of people who expressed fury about the damage done to businesses and vehicles in Kenosha, sharing our own view, seemed to have little to say — certainly nothing approaching the same level of concern — about the shooting of Jacob Blake.

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This editorial page’s own response to the crisis in Kenosha must begin with the many questions surrounding that shooting.

What happened between Blake and the police before the brief part of the encounter that was caught on a cellphone video that’s since gone viral? What threats or warnings were made? Did Blake, who had been charged in July with third-degree sexual assault, have a knife, as some have claimed? If so, where is that knife?

Why were the Kenosha police not wearing body cameras, which might have recorded the full story of the encounter?

Clearly, a full and independent investigation into the shooting cannot happen soon enough, a point we wish Kenosha officials had stressed themselves at any point on Monday. Instead, they essentially went silent as their town burned again that night.

The video itself raises other questions, the most basic of which goes like this: Why did the police shoot a man in the back, seven or eight times, who was getting into his own car, where his three kids were in the back seat, whether or not there was a knife?

And then there’s this terrible question that must always be asked, whether the person injured or killed is Laquan McDonald, George Floyd or Jacob Blake:

Would the police have reacted in just the same way had the suspect been white?

Delusional thinking

It’s often said, most recently by speakers at the Republican National Convention this week, that racism is really not much of a problem in America anymore, and police officers who cross a line are the few bad apples.

How many more Black men must become victims of excessive police force — shot, kneed or choked to death — before that delusional thinking is put to rest?

The sad truth is that too many police officers in the United States — in big cities like Chicago and smaller towns like Kenosha — are not sufficiently screened, trained and monitored to guard against the kind of racial bias, often unrecognized, that leads to the discriminatory treatment of Black and Brown people.

The sad truth, as well, is that we ask the police to do too much. We asked them to handle unruly kids in school, mentally ill people sleeping under viaducts, emotionally distraught teens threatening suicide, hungry people who steal to eat and angry couples who could use a marriage counselor instead of a cop.

We send them into the streets with guns and body armor, but not with the body cameras that might protect them, as much as anybody else, from false and scurrilous narratives. Body cams, which Kenosha had balked at buying because of the price, should be standard equipment for every law enforcement officer in the United States, subsidized by the Justice Department.

No defending violence

There is no defending the violence and destruction we have witnessed in Kenosha this week, and we support Wisconsin Gov. Tony Evers’ decision to send in the National Guard. Those who set fires, destroy property and loot should be arrested, jailed and charged with felonies. Many of them, we suspect, don’t live in Kenosha — a town of just 100,000 residents, about 11% of whom are African American.

But nobody should confuse the provocateurs of violence with the many other protesters — undoubtedly the great majority — who are demonstrating peaceably, if in righteous and frightful anger, for greater racial justice. That is the American way.

After the shooting of Laquan McDonald, the center of national protests against police violence was Chicago. After the killing of George Floyd, it was Minneapolis. Now it’s Kenosha, Wisconsin.

Who’s next? Where next?

Peace and justice go hand in hand.

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