Editorial: ‘Chaos or community?’ Dr. King asked. Trump is pushing us toward chaos

The Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., seen in Los Angeles in 1965, advocated that a racially divided America come together in community. President Trump stokes divisions.
(Los Angeles Times)

Los Angeles, like so many American cities, is on edge. Protests over the police killings of unarmed black civilians have been mostly peaceful, but they were marred Friday night by unfortunate acts of vandalism and looting that damaged downtown businesses, many of them owned by immigrants and people of color. The Los Angeles Police Department has acted with restraint, even as protesters destroyed some of its vehicles Saturday. Mayor Eric Garcetti, who ordered a curfew downtown Saturday, has been a voice of calm and reason.

Not so, alas, President Trump, whose depravity seemingly knows no bounds. In truth, we are tired of condemning him. Chronicling his lies is exhausting. We would rather focus on defeating him in November — an essential (though by no means sufficient) step toward restoring our democracy.

Yet condemn him again we must.

Trump’s threats Saturday to unleash “vicious dogs” and “ominous weapons” against protesters at the White House; his crude appeal to his “Make America Great Again” supporters to convene in Washington Saturday night; and his bizarre and offensive statement that “MAGA loves the black people” all threaten to throw fuel on a powder keg. This is no mere dog-whistling; it is an all but open invitation to far-right elements and white supremacists to engage in violence.


Furthermore, Trump continues to politicize law enforcement. Saturday, he threatened “liberal governors and mayors” that if they do not “get MUCH tougher,” “the Federal Government will step in and do what has to be done, and that includes using the unlimited power of our Military and many arrests.”

These are the words of an authoritarian. Threatening the use of military force against one’s own citizens is the last resort of despots and tyrants; such language has no place in a free and open society.

Across America, governors and mayors are working to keep the peace. This is not a matter of Democrats versus Republicans, blue states versus red states or black lives versus blue lives. This is a matter of what our democracy stands for. Simply throwing more force at the protesters would only make the situation more combustible and deepen the scars it leaves behind.

America may be at a tipping point. As a nation, we are mourning the deaths of 100,000 of our people from the COVID-19 pandemic. More than 20% of our work force may be unemployed, the highest rate since the Depression. Tensions are high, with so many Americans having been cooped up in their homes for close to three months. Layered onto that volatile mix is the enduring fact that many people in minority communities do not feel that the police enforce the laws equitably. The shocking death of a black man cruelly restrained by Minneapolis police officers Monday has only worsened the mistrust and anger that have been generations in the making, the bitter fruits of systemic racism.

The protests are being driven by young people — of all ethnic and racial backgrounds — who see a lack of hope and opportunity. They are angry and fearful about the more than four centuries of subjugation that people of African descent have endured in what is now the United States. They were not alive during the 1965 Watts riots or the 1992 disturbances triggered by the acquittal of the LAPD officers who beat Rodney King — and prompted reforms that are still works in progress. They may lack context and perspective, but what they have in abundance is a yearning for a more just and decent society, for a more humane and sustainable economy, and for urgent action to address the climate crisis that threatens all of humanity.

This is a time for America’s leaders to listen to these young people — with compassion, empathy and humility. We condemn violence, but we urge restraint by the authorities and we reject false equivalency. The actions of looters and vandals may grab the attention of TV news crews and embolden Trump, but the misdeeds of a small minority do not justify an excessive or brutal response by the police or the National Guard. Deployment of the active-duty military would be an extraordinary measure, one constrained by federal law; it should be considered only if regular law enforcement has utterly failed. If there are outsiders stoking the disturbances, as Trump and some other leaders have suggested, they should go home — regardless of their political persuasion — and stop exacerbating the situation.


America is on edge. In 1967, a year in which disturbances rocked cities from Detroit to Newark, the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. asked, in his fourth and final book: “Where do we go from here? Chaos or community?” His answer, of course, was community — a beloved community grounded in human dignity, nonviolent social change and the defeat of poverty, racism and militarism. We are called again today to answer his question. Trump has already done grievous injury to the idea of the beloved community; the least he can do is be silent, and not accelerate a slide toward chaos.