Editor’s note: The cause is righteous. The looting is self-defeating.
Anyone with common sense and an ounce of humanity knows what happened to George Floyd—a Minneapolis police officer’s knee on his neck for nearly nine minutes—was criminal.
But how does looting in Sacramento get justice for Floyd, or help the broader fight against systemic racism?
It doesn’t, of course. But the scattered violence in Sacramento and so many other cities across America threatens to distract from the righteous cause.
Sacramento has its own traumatic experiences with police killings of black men. But the level of violence now in the community’s response is far worse than even after Stephon Clark was shot to death in his grandmother’s backyard in Meadowview in March 2018, and after the two police officers were cleared of criminal charges a year later.
In response to Floyd’s death, the discord in Sacramento escalated day by day, even though the vast majority of protesters were peaceful.
There was a candlelight vigil on Wednesday night. On Friday evening, a march that started in Oak Park and ended at the Franklin Boulevard police station was largely uneventful until the very end, when nine officers were hurt by flying bricks and two protestors were arrested.
And on Saturday, there was a full day of protests, including a rally at the state Capitol. But the demonstrations became much more confrontational at the Main Jail downtown, where Sacramento sheriff’s deputies eventually fired rubber bullets. Some protestors wrote anti-police graffiti on buildings, burned couches and looted Macy’s and other national chains, but also locally owned small businesses on J Street already struggling to survive the pandemic.
Sunday morning—as crews cleaned up the broken glass and damage at about 100 businesses and police reported 18 arrests—Mayor Darrell Steinberg said there was “no excuse” for the “kind of crap” that had happened and said he expected more arrests based on videos.
Asked on CapRadio why law enforcement didn’t stop the vandalism and stealing, he said that police were in a difficult, if not impossible, situation and that if there had been mass arrests, there could have been even more violence. The mayor said he wasn’t going to “second guess” the strategy of Police Chief Daniel Hahn, and he said that while the damage was horrible, it was repairable, and there weren’t the fires or serious injuries that have happened elsewhere. One teen, however, was struck in the face by a rubber bullet and hospitalized.
Steinberg also said he planned to talk Sunday to Hahn and Gov. Gavin Newsom about calling in the National Guard or imposing a curfew, both of which have already happened in Los Angeles. But the mayor cautioned that’s he’s not convinced that either move is necessary or would be effective.
After an emergency City Council meeting Sunday afternoon, the mayor announced that the National Guard would not be requested and that there would not be a curfew. But he said he would reconsider based on what happened Sunday night.
Then, Sunday night was worse in some ways than a night earlier, even though, again, most of the protests went peacefully at the state Capitol and Cesar Chavez Park.
The Sacramento Fire Department reported several blazes downtown. While businesses in downtown and Midtown closed in case of unrest, many were vandalized and damaged. And after ordering the crowd to disperse, police fired tear gas and rubber bullets at protestors.
Sacramento police reported 22 arrests for looting and 3 for failure to disperse. Steinberg estimated the damage at $10 million.
After a third night that turned violent, the City Council declared a local state of emergency and announced a citywide curfew from 8 p.m. to 5 a.m., starting Monday night and continuing until further notice, and at least through the weekend. And 500 California National Guard troops were deployed to protect “critical” infrastructure, both public and private.
“We can’t allow people bent on destruction to harm our city and the message of so many who march in peace,” Steinberg tweeted. He cautioned, however, that a curfew isn’t foolproof and has had mixed results in other cities.
Monday night was calmer than the weekend. Though there were about 50 arrests for curfew violations, there wasn’t the damage to businesses. The curfew may have helped; organizers urged protestors to go home about 90 minutes after the curfew took effect.
But what may have mattered more is that Stevante Clark, brother of Stephon, played a key role, telling protestors that any violence would go against his brother’s legacy. The protests were also calmer Tuesday night and Wednesday night.
The city never imposed a curfew during the Stephon Clark protests in either 2018 or 2019. And several times during this crisis, Steinberg has noted the stark difference in the community reaction now and after Stephon Clark.
While there were 84 arrests during a march through East Sacramento in March 2019, the demonstrations were mostly peaceful and there was little damage to businesses. Since, there have been changes in use-of-force policies and other police reforms in Sacramento and statewide. Sacramento voters agreed to increase the sales tax by a half cent in response to calls for economic justice after Clark’s death.
Steinberg noted that he supported more restrictions on police using force and championed the inclusive economic development efforts. “Our work is not done,” he said Sunday.
So why the increased violence now, over an incident happened halfway across the country?
It seems obvious that the deadly COVID-19 pandemic and mass unemployment are stoking the anger. So are viral videos of what’s happening in other cities, including the excessive force by some police officers. Steinberg, Hahn and others also say they believe much of the damage is being done by organized outsiders, as officials in other cities have also claimed is happening.
Before Saturday night’s violence, Steinberg issued a video message decrying the violence Friday night but also saying he shared the outrage over Floyd’s death: “Let us protest this injustice peacefully and let us continue to change, to heal and to seek justice for Mr. Floyd, his family, his community and our entire nation.”
The mayor also noted the “enormous strain” that America is under from the pandemic and the stay-at-home orders and now the Floyd case.
And Steinberg quoted his State of the City speech in 2019, delivered while the city was waiting for any criminal charges in the Clark case. “To focus on peace without addressing justice would be a great mistake, to try to contain the community’s anger would be a worse mistake,” he said. “‘Nonviolence does not mean inaction.”
But will words like those be enough to calm the city this time?