The deadly virus pandemic and resulting economic troubles apparently aren't enough to deal with in 2020.

Now we have cops killing suspects unnecessarily and a resulting outrage where protesters are taking to the streets all across the nation, sometimes with violence exploding in the chaos.

It's enough to make one wonder if we've gone through a time-warp back to 1968, one of the worst years in modern American history. Assassinations, the Vietnam War, violence between police and protesters, urban rioting and looting and a controversial election all dominated 1968 in a way that feels familiar today.

Over the last week, cities all across the country have been rocked by protests over the police killing of George Floyd in Minneapolis. Floyd, a black man, was choked to death by four white police officers, one of whom had his knee on Floyd's neck during the arrest. (Floyd had been accused by a nearby store of passing a fake $20 bill. After being handcuffed, he didn't want to go into the police car; a struggle ensued where he was pulled out of the car and put face down on the street, where he died a few minutes later.)

The shocking incident was captured on video, evidence that clearly shows Floyd crying out multiple times that he can't breathe. Onlookers questioned the cops as Floyd stops moving and become silent, dying while the camera is filming the scene.

Four cops were fired and one has been charged with murder in the Floyd killing.

But that arrest wasn't enough to stop the backlash which ensued. Frustration over Floyd's unnecessary death — and many other similar incidents over recent years — exploded as people took to the streets, calling for an end to senseless deaths by those who are sworn to uphold the law.

•••

Many of those protests have been peaceful, but not all have been. In nearby Gainesville, there was reported looting and storefront damage to a couple of businesses; some police cars were also reportedly vandalized.

Several areas around Atlanta have been vandalized and looted. Some protesters attempted to break into CNN headquarters while the cameras rolled Friday night.

It was a similar story across the nation as protests mounted in city after city. Many have been peaceful, but more than a few became violent. Nightly curfews are common.

Whether the violence and looting came from real frustration and rage over the Floyd killing, or was just opportunistic behavior isn't clear. The scenes of looting and violence are clearly counterproductive to the protesters' cause of demanding accountability from law enforcement. It muddies the message by mingling images of looting and fires along with images of peaceful protesting.

Many of those watching the scenes play out on television won't bother to parse the difference between the peaceful protesters and the looters — they will all be lumped together as "troublemakers."

•••

The Floyd incident was very similar to the 2014 killing of Eric Garner in New York by an NYPD officer.

Garner, a black man, was chocked to death by a white cop after being accused of selling cigarettes on the street. Garner told cops he was tired of their harassment and pulled away when officers tried to arrest him. Garner was then put in a chock-hold and died on the street, also crying out that he couldn't breathe. That incident was also captured on video.

"I can't breathe" became a rallying cry around the nation after the Garner death, symbolic of something much deeper. It does, in a real way, reflect the frustrations of many black Americans who feel as if the nation's core institutions, including the criminal justice system, is strangling them.

A month after the Garner death in 2014, the events in Ferguson, Missouri, happened during which Michael Brown, a black man, was shot by a white officer during an altercation. The officer was eventually cleared of wrongdoing, but the Ferguson Police Department was found to have targeted local black citizens for petty crimes and to routinely have issued fines as a way to raise revenue for the department.

Despite the murkiness of the Ferguson incident, it led to a series of violent protests. Rumors (which turned out to not be true) that Brown had his hands up when he was shot led to another protest slogan, "Hands up."

It's an echo of the raised fist salute, a symbol of black power made famous by two American track stars in the 1968 Olympics.

•••

Will Floyd's death and the current protests make any difference?

Most Americans appear to hope things will change. Nobody can watch the video of Floyd's death and defend the cops who killed him. Many law enforcement agencies around the nation have issued statements condemning the death and the cops who caused it.

But the issue here isn't just the four cops who killed Floyd. The larger question is whether or not they represent deeper, systemic problems in law enforcement of too much aggression, especially when it involves black males.

One of the long-standing criticisms about these kinds of incidents is one of "cop culture" where colleagues and police unions rally around officers accused of using too much force.

Following the Garner killing in 2014, the NYPD mostly defended the officer involved. One NYPD union official said Garner's death was due to the "lack of the respect for law enforcement, resulting from the slanderous, insulting, and unjust manner in which police officers are being portrayed." In other words, blame the victim, not the bad cop.

Other law enforcement officials around the nation also rushed to defend the officer involved in Garner's death, including one cop in another state who produced a T-shirt which said, "Breathe easy, don't break the law."

"Back the Blue" became a popular slogan as a counter-punch to the group, "Black Lives Matter," which came to the forefront around the time of the Garner and Ferguson incidents.

To a large extent, the tensions between the black community and law enforcement have gotten worse in recent years. Both sides have gotten caught up in the larger culture war that is roiling the nation's political, social and economic systems. 

To a frightening degree, the landscape has become "black" vs. "blue" on the streets of America.

•••

Perhaps Floyd's death will become a turning point and will spark some real soul-searching in a lot of law enforcement agencies, especially those in large, urban cities where street confrontations seem to be more common.

But I'm not encouraged by what I've seen so far.

Despite being under a microscope right now, the weekend of protests showed more rogue cops doing stupid things to innocent people. That was true with some journalists covering the protests, too, journalists who became the target of aggressive cops:

• In Maryland, a college journalist who had been photographing protests was pepper-sprayed and chased by a cop as she walked back to her car.

• A CNN crew was arrested live on the air in Minneapolis during a protest.

• In Louisville, a TV crew was fired on with rubber bullets by a cop who clearly targeted the crew as he fired. It was all caught on video.

There were other incidents involving cops targeting journalists and of attacking peaceful protesters. One of the most infamous happened Monday when police fired tear gas and rubber bullets into a peaceful protest near the White House so the president could stroll down the street for a photo op at a nearby church.

Stupid, just plain stupid.

•••

Being a cop is hard. It doesn't pay nearly enough, the hours are bad, it's dangerous and you're exposed to the seedy underbelly of society on a daily basis. It's easy to understand how cynicism and frustration could lead to overreaction and too much counter-aggression on the streets. 

But that doesn't excuse the deaths caused by callous cops who overreact to relatively minor incidents. Nor does it excuse their attacks on journalists and peaceful protesters during the last week.

When the cops put their knee on George Floyd's neck, squeezing the life out of him as he lay in the street screaming for help, they also put their knee on the neck of the entire nation. 

Things have to change. Those sworn to uphold the law must not themselves be the instigators of violence. Institutions and their leaders have to be held accountable.

Until that happens, we as a nation can't breathe, either.

Mike Buffington is co-publisher of Mainstreet Newspapers. He can be reached at mike@mainstreetnews.com.

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