Former NAACP Head Cornell Brooks Blames Derek Chauvin For Violence At Protests

Protests have erupted across the nation in response to the death of George Floyd, and some of the demonstrations have turned violent, leading political leaders and activists to debate over who is responsible.

President Donald Trump said in a tweet on Saturday that the chaos was caused by "ANTIFA and the Radical Left." Attorney General William Barr echoed his sentiment, saying that violence has been "planned, organized, and driven by anarchistic and far left extremists, using Antifa-like tactics."

Minnesota Gov. Tim Walz has suggested that white supremacists could be involved.

But former NAACP President and CEO Cornell William Brooks, who is now a professor at the Harvard Kennedy School where he runs a civil rights clinic, told All Things Considered that Derek Chauvin — the police officer who knelt on Floyd's neck — should be blamed for the violent protests, too.

"In these marches and demonstrations, there are anarchists and white supremacists and others who show up to sow chaos, sow anarchy and plant the seeds of violence. That's real," Brooks said. "But be clear: There would be no protests, there would be no demonstrations, had Derek Chauvin not killed George Floyd. And so ... Mr. Chauvin has provided the matches for the arsons [and] the inspiration for the looting that we are all enduring at this moment."

Chauvin was arrested and charged with third-degree murder and manslaughter on Friday, but Brooks believes he "should also be charged with looting, with arson, and with sowing the seeds of chaos and dissension in our public. He is an accomplice, he is a co-conspirator [and] he is a co-participant in the destruction that we are experiencing as a country."

Brooks also pointed out that many of the protesters have been participating in nonviolent demonstrations throughout the past week.

There are "many demonstrations, many protests, [and] many prayer vigils that don't get a lot of news coverage, but where there are thousands, hundreds of thousands of people who have participated with no violence, no looting [and] no burning," Brooks said. "Let's not forget that most people pursue justice nonviolently, peacefully, vigorously, conscientiously and sincerely, with all due respect to the attorney general."

NPR's Janaya Williams and William Troop produced and edited the audio version of this interview.

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Cities across the country are once again bracing for more protests and possible violence tonight as anger over the death of George Floyd in Minneapolis persists. The protests have focused on accountability in the death of Floyd and others who have died in police custody or similar circumstances. But there has also been seemingly unfocused destruction as well as looting. In several cities, local officials are now imposing curfews. We'll have the latest information from several locations in just a few minutes.

But we're going to hear a variety of voices throughout this hour with perspectives on this painful moment where questions are being raised again about citizenship, about the value of human life and how we're coexisting as citizens in what seems like two Americas. We'll hear now from Cornell William Brooks. He is an attorney. He's currently a professor at the Harvard Kennedy School where he runs a Civil Rights Clinic. He's also a past president of the NAACP and an ordained minister. And he's with us now.

Mr. Brooks, thanks so much for joining us.

CORNELL WILLIAM BROOKS: Oh, it's good to be with you.

MARTIN: Well, first of all, how are you? I mean, I'm asking because the last few months have brought up a lot for African Americans, but in particular, I have to say, for African American men. I mean, first the awareness of the disparities in COVID-19 deaths, which are falling disproportionately on African Americans. And then what we're seeing now is - I just want to ask you, how are you doing? And what does this bring up for you?

BROOKS: Well, you know, as a black man and the father of two sons, married to a black woman and working in a multiracial, multiethnic community, these events are triggering and traumatizing. And what I mean by that is looking at George Floyd, I see my sons. I see my father, my uncles, the people in my community. His humanity pinned to the pavement is my humanity.

This is not something on my Twitter feed. It's not an interesting issue. It's literally watching your humanity be brutalized in real time in slow motion on video with a hashtag appended to it. So it's very traumatizing.

MARTIN: I do want to mention something on your - that you tweeted. You said, why is America actually encouraging riots with this immoral message? Black people's minor and imaginary crimes - zero tolerance. Police brutalizers - maximum tolerance. Attack white property - arrest immediately. Wear blue and kill black people - no arrest necessary. You're clearly saying something about kind of a dissonance there. Would you talk a little bit more about that? And is it your view that this dissonance is what encourages riots?

BROOKS: Oh, absolutely. America - or some authority figures, many authority figures and certainly police departments are sending a morally mixed message, which is to say, attack, brutalize black bodies, operate with impunity. Attack white property, and there will be arrest and accountability. When economic interests are threatened, we call out the National Guard.

When black bodies are brutalized and traumatized, we call, and we convene a commission - no deadline on injustice. The point being here is, we are sending the message that the only thing America understands is violence.

MARTIN: You said that - you also said that rioters may have burned Minneapolis and Atlanta, but matches were supplied by Derek Chauvin and Donald Trump - Derek Chauvin being the police officer in the videotape pinning Mr. Floyd to the street with his knee. What role do you think that President Trump plays in all this?

BROOKS: Well, when the president says we haven't been tough enough when it comes to dealing with our demonstrators and protesters - when he says, when the looting starts, the shooting starts - he is assuming the role of a presidential provocateur. He's providing the matches, the gasoline for potential arson and looting.

To be clear, this is a moment for measured, thoughtful discourse, not irresponsible rhetoric - not using your Twitter feed to make bad worse. The most and the best people have expected from him is for him to remain quiet so he doesn't make bad worse because whenever he does speak up, he speaks up in a way that literally, literally imperils people's lives.

And so when he talks about marshaling the resources of the U.S. military against protesters and demonstrators, this is dangerous. This is quite, quite dangerous. And so I hold him accountable. We all have to be thoughtful and responsible, including the president.

MARTIN: Cornell William Brooks is an attorney and a minister. He is the former president and CEO of the NAACP. He is now a professor at the Kennedy School at Harvard University.

Mr. Brooks, thank you so much for talking to us once again.

BROOKS: Always a delight to be with you, despite the times. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.