Protest Sunday (copy)

Protesters chant as the walk along South Elm Street in downtown Greensboro on May 31.

Shattered storefronts. Graffiti. Police tape.

Another nerve-rattling setback for businesses that already had been pushed to the brink by the coronavirus pandemic.

A protest that had been peaceful had taken a disturbing turn in downtown Greensboro Saturday night. And restaurants, galleries and other businesses that provide livings for local people were damaged and looted.

So, of all places, was the International Civil Rights Center & Museum, which lost a plate-glass window in the chaos.

The cause that sparked the protest and many like it in recent days is just. Throwing rocks and lashing out at establishments simply because they are there is not.

Police say they suspect outside agitators. One of the organizers of Saturday’s march told the News & Record he is disheartened by the lawlessness that had punctuated an otherwise peaceful protest.

“I really feel like it’s unnecessary,” Anthony Morgan said. “We protested for 10 hours peacefully. Nobody was hurt. Nobody was arrested. Then all hell broke loose.”

Even so, the focus should remain on why this nation has been roiled by such rage and frustration in the first place.

On Memorial Day weekend, a Minneapolis police officer wedged his knee against the neck of George Floyd for eight minutes and 46 seconds.

As Floyd, a 46-year-old black man, pleaded that he couldn’t breathe, the veteran officer, Derek Chauvin, neither budged nor responded. Even as frantic bystanders joined Floyd’s pleas to ease the pressure, the officer didn’t relent. And even though he knew his actions were being recorded on civilian cellphones, Chauvin didn’t seem to care. Floyd died. His alleged crime: passing a counterfeit $20 bill.

Chauvin and three other officers were fired. After repeated calls for his arrest, Chauvin was taken into custody Friday and charged with third-degree murder and second-degree manslaughter. But a fuse had been lit. Minneapolis erupted. Unrest spread to Atlanta, Los Angeles, New York, Washington, Raleigh, Charlotte ... and Greensboro.

Why the sense of rage and utter hopelessness? Because this keeps happening over and over. According to one study, African Americans are 2.5 times more likely to be killed by police than whites. Not to mention someone purporting to be a policeman.

A black man who was jogging in Glynn County, Ga., Ahmaud Arbery, was shot to death Feb. 23 by two white men — who were not arrested until 74 days later.

And after a black woman, Breonna Taylor, 26, an emergency room technician, was fatally shot by police in Louisville, Ky., who stormed into her apartment March 13 to execute a “no-knock” search warrant.

And after 26-year-old Botham Jean, a Dallas accountant, who was watching television when a police officer, who had mistaken his apartment for hers, fatally shot him in the chest.

And, of course, there was Eric Garner, who died from a choke hold by a New York police officer who was arresting him for selling single cigarettes in 2014 and gasped the same words George Floyd repeated, in vain, last week: “I can’t breathe.” And Philando Castille. And so on.

The value of black lives seems to be about a dime a dozen. And falling.

Meanwhile, the president offers few words of unity or reflection or comfort. Instead, even in the midst of the crisis, he picks fights and issues threats when calls for calm would be helpful.

Now, as Professor Carol Anderson of Emory University put it, we need to avoid focusing so much on the fire that we lose sight of what provided the kindling. And lit the spark.

Obama-era reforms had sought to increase accountability and help troubled police departments build greater trust with their communities through consent decrees. The Trump administration ended them.

In Greensboro on Sunday there were glimmers of hope. As a blues guitarist played in the vestibule of a storefront, volunteers helped businesses make repairs. Local restaurants donated food. On Sunday night, some protesters helped to clean up the damage.

Rebuilding began. But what about rebuilding greater trust and accountability in police?

“I think America must see that riots do not develop out of thin air,” Martin Luther King Jr. said in 1968. “Certain conditions continue to exist in our society which must be condemned as vigorously as we condemn riots.

“In the final analysis,” King said, “a riot is the language of the unheard.”

Fifty-two years later, will America finally listen?

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