On December 4, 2014, a man named Eric Garner was put into a chokehold by an NYPD officer, and his dying gasps saying that he couldn’t breathe were videotaped by a bystander and provoked a great deal of unrest related to the troubled relationship between police officers and the African-American community around the United States. The police officers involved did not face any charges. A few days ago the same sort of scene took place in Minneapolis, Minnesota, where an unarmed black man named George Floyd pleaded that he couldn’t breathe while being choked out by a police officer in a scene involving four officers who apparently were unable or unwilling to properly detain him and arrest him in a way that would nevertheless preserve his life and health. Predictably, the officers involved have been let go from the force but have not been charged with any crime, and the protesting and rioting involved in protesting this act of videotaped police brutality has gotten violent and disrupted property and generally fed into several related dialectics, both of which further reduce the sort of trust that we feel for our fellow citizens in times where trust is lacking and it is easy to find things to disagree about.
How many of these dialectics are in operation? Let us consider a few. One set of dialectics at least involves the relationship between the law and black communities. Police officers, for whatever reason, use more violent force than is necessary in a given situation involving the arrest of a black young man, who may not even be armed in self-defense. The videotapes of the brutality spark public outcry of a destructive nature from a community that is predisposed by long and negative history not to trust or have positive relations with the police, but while the incident further lowers the trust of the law in the eyes of blacks, the police officers themselves are not charged criminally for their behavior. Other aspects of dialectics relate to the nature of these actions with regards to white communities and observers. A great many white people watching this footage or reading about the story or seeing it on their evening news will comment, as my friends have about the George Floyd situation, that the police were grossly in the wrong for killing an unarmed man they could have easily arrested via less fatal means. Yet at the same time these people are predisposed to be hostile to violent confrontations with police officers and the willful destruction of property of people who had no fault in the original offense except for being too close to people with too little respect for the property rights of others. Then add to this the dialectic that exists between the peaceful, if tense, disputes over the legitimacy of quarantine restrictions by well-armed but peaceable white protesters and the more hostile interactions between anti-police protesters and officers of the law, which demonstrate the way that certain crowd control techniques of allowing protesters to peacefully blow off steam are superior to ones that ratchet up tensions and hostility between protesters and officers.
There are all kinds of different and hostile comparisons that can be made regarding these situations by outside observers. People can contrast the violent treatment that blacks receive from police with more gentle treatment meted out to middle-class whites. They can contrast the peaceful nature of interactions between some sorts of protesters who carefully avoid crossing over red lines while letting off steam and the less than peaceful interactions between other sorts of protesters. They can contrast the general respect for property that is shown by some protesters and the total lack of respect for property shown by others that tends to alienate potential allies. In all of these cases invidious comparisons can be made between people involved that tends to pit one group of people against another and tends to alienate potential support for the causes of all involved. There are a great many people, at least potentially, who would support the opening up of states and worry about the violation of civil rights and freedoms for the dubious arguments of public health that have been bandied about who also value the right to life for minorities and who see police brutality as one aspect of state power whose exercise is problematic and should be curtailed. Theoretically any of us could have unpleasant interactions with officers of the state , and therefore we all have an interest in ensuring to the best of our ability that these interactions are not threatening to anyone but are conducted in an atmosphere that respects the humanity of everyone involved.
What would be necessary for people who share a mistrust of the state and its potential for abusing power it should not possess to join together in recognizing that right-wing concerns about personal freedoms and left-wing concerns about the use of police against minority communities are two sides of the same coin? Ultimately, the restraint of state behavior against the freedoms of some and the restraint of police behavior against the lives and freedoms of others are in fact aspects of the same concerns about the tyrannical and oppressive use of state power to support some people and some interests against other people and other interests. It would be easier for both sets of protesters to achieve the changes that they want in the behavior of the state if they recognized the justice in the complaints of the other side, and recognized that there was considerable overlap in the concerns that they and others have about the abuse of the powers of the state for selfish and unjust purposes. People do want to achieve power in order to restrict the behavior of others by making excuses involving public health, and some people delight in the power that having a badge and a gun gives them towards other people who have been habituated to feel hostile towards the state as making demands upon them but not in seeking their own best interests. There are plenty of people who serve in the police and who are concerned about their own freedoms to pursue their faith or seek their well-being who do not desire to infringe upon the rights of others, but who resent being lumped together as racists. People who share concerns about the way that state power is utilized against citizens are potential friends, and whether that potential friendship turns into an actual one depends on how mutual respect and trust can be built between such people individually and organizationally. Such work does not even seem to have been begun at present. Perhaps it is time for us to consider who the real enemies are, and the extent to which our own prejudices separate us from those who could be allies in a shared struggle to restrain government to its proper and limited sphere so that it is a threat to none of us.
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