top of page

On Riots

Those outraged by a system of unaccountable police abuse and mass incarceration, often racialized, have a tough question in front of them. How do we respond to the riots that broke out during the George Floyd protests? After all, the peaceful protests of black athletes aroused ire from enough people to seriously effect the viability of the NFL. Various forms of the meme below have been floating around, and one can hardly argue with the overall point. Just how is it okay for blacks to protest being murdered by police?

In another defense of the rioting and looting (or at the least, a condemnation of anyone condemning them) is a lifted line from MLK, Jr., in which he draws attention to the fact that having no voice and no power, oppressed groups become a powder-keg. Such reactions can only be a surprise to the oppressors if they really don't understand human nature at all. No Justice, No Peace.

That we should have considerable consternation with people who are outraged by looting but not by murder, or people who complain about property but not about leading the world in incarceration, is doubtless.

Perhaps, a friend suggested, we ought to be silent in critiquing the response of oppressed people to their own oppression, particularly when we've complained about every attempt they've made anyway.

I consider this an important challenge to my own claim that rioting and looting constitutes its own injustice. These actions cost the black community more than anyone else. I am listening to the agonized black voices of those who've scraped their way to ownership of a shop and are watching it burn. I'm listening to the black voice of George Floyd, whose girlfriend claims would be devastated by the riots. Floyd was a man of peace in his neighborhood who fought to push back gang violence and promote the Christian gospel. I'm listening to the black voices of those whose neighborhoods have been decimated by riots in the past, never to recover from the economic blow. I'm listening to MLK's whole statement, in which he condemns both riots and the injustice of the system, calling oppressed people to the greatness of soul required by non-violence. I'm listening to the shaking, crying voice of Killer Mike, as he begs his community to throw out aggressive prosecutors, mayors, and others, and to plot, plan, strategize, mobilize, and organize. He challenges his compatriots to do their duty, not to "burn down your own house down" when it's most needed as a "house of refuge." "If we lose Atlanta," he asks, "what else have we got?"

So how to solve this conundrum? Blacks are presented as having no choice but to riot in order to be heard, but that won't change the fact that the economic and political fallout is totally predictable (often, intense rioting is followed by a swing to "law and order" in politics). Here are a few things that come to mind as we think the problem through.

A) Is it possible to distinguish between the protesters and the rioters/looters? Yes, I think it is.

The prevalence of destructive behavior by young, well-off looking white college-aged kids, many wearing the all-black uniform of Antifa and throwing out the hammer and sickle, tells me that the anarchists have instigated the turn toward violence. I'm hearing from eyewitnesses that perfectly peaceful protests are suddenly turning into conflagrations as these people arrive. Of course, it requires a huge amount of discipline for any protest over such a devastating issue to stay peaceful, so it's no surprise that young, angry black kids are joining in. But we're seeing a whole lot of black protesters begging whites to stop being destructive, barring the way against looters, and praising peaceful protest.

If what we're seeing here is an Antifa corruption of the protests, I have two things to say.

One, if you're an anti-colonizer, you'd better as hell not let them do this to good faith black people all over America. Refuse to conflate these two groups. Draw attention to successful peaceful protests, to the huge gatherings of prayer, to solidarity with good police, and to the fight for real criminal justice reform. Surely, there are militant blacks. But I can assure you that the black community is not known for its penchant for anarchism. Supporting Antifa won't translate into meaningful support for blacks or for reform, I promise.

Two, we'll have to face the fact that we are reaping the whirlwind after years of indulging in a sloppy, irresponsible account of oppression as always arising somehow from an extremely loosely defined 'capitalism'. I invite anyone who thinks that living in an economy based on market exchange is what causes human groups to oppress one another to read The Gulag Archipelago, forthwith. If what you really mean is that colonialism is oppressive, or that cronyism is oppressive, then say it. Words have meaning - everything is not just another word for everything else. The destruction of property and business is a direct result of a philosophy that has failed utterly to grasp the fundamental importance of these institutions to any human flourishing.

B) Condemning looting and destruction of property is not "choosing buildings over lives."

I find myself having to explain the same concept of trade-offs here that I tried to bring attention to during the lockdown protests. As I posted on Facebook, "For the entrepreneur, one's business is an expression of one's creativity. It's something he or she built, and funneled into support for family, employment for others, and life for the neighborhood.... Historically, black Americans were systematically shut out of economic activity, their property rights crushed, and their business efforts constrained by targeted regulation. Economic destruction is also injustice." People's homes and businesses are not just buildings; they're livelihoods. The economy is not Wall Street; it's what my neighbors do every day to contribute, trade, and provide. Oppressed and suffering groups need more stability and economic investment, not more destruction! To borrow a leftist trope, it's just plain privilege to be able to brush off concerns about the economic well-being of the neighborhood. A successful corner store can make the difference between a community that builds up around it and a community that withers and dies. The poor cannot afford the luxury of shrugging about its demise.

C) Racism is a huge factor in criminal justice issues, but it simply is not the only factor. Oversimplifying this creates a kind of tunnel vision that brings about counterproductive results. We don't need one more racial bias training that doesn't work anyway, we need to end qualified immunity that makes it practically impossible to convict a police officer, and reform police unions that make it impossible to fire bad guys. We don't need to purify everyone's souls, we need to kick out aggressive prosecutors. We don't need to burn down our cities, we need to undermine the perverse incentives that drive high arrest and incarceration rates. I've got to agree with Killer Mike here. Plot, plan, strategize, mobilize, and organize.

D) This one's painful, but I'm going to say it. It's certainly worth having a deeper conversation, but I'm really concerned about the "soft racism of low expectations" that I'm seeing in this conversation. There's already good evidence that the left has a serious problem with this. Black people have, over and over again, put this whole country to shame with their faith, their noble deeds, their artistic triumphs, and their practical wisdom. I absolutely refuse to infantilize them or anyone else with the unspoken assumption that they are no longer capable of subtle moral distinctions. Black people, even traumatized black people, still have moral agency... and even imagination! Imagine organizing for the specific criminal justice reform goals of Campaign Zero, which are excellent. Imagine refusing to be distracted by those who demand your support in exchange for theirs. Imagine targeted and deeply meaningful acts of civil disobedience. Imagine a system to get out of the way for ambulances, as the Hong Kongers did. Oprah got roasted for saying that blacks needed to organize, and Killer Mike might get roasted too. But that doesn't mean they're wrong. As for white progressives, imagine listening to the voices of regular black folks and not just the ones from your grad-level Foucault seminar.

D) Finally, I'll just say that I think much of the confusion over this issue arises from this poisonous tribalism we're experiencing at the moment. The assumption seems to be that if you're concerned about property rights you've never cared about police abuse. Well, I have a lot of libertarian and classical liberal friends, and let me just report that there is a whole group of us who care very deeply about both. I might even go so far as to say that it's the terrible Koch-topus that's responsible for much of the excellent, bipartisan criminal justice reform we've seen so far, especially considering that evil Charles Koch was griping about mass incarceration 20 years before it was sexy to do so. On the other hand, there seems to be an assumption that if you're on the side of the oppressed, silence is the best reaction to unjust behavior. But how can that make sense? By being silent, we'd just be ignoring the plight of the black business-owners, home-owners, employees, and neighbors harmed by the riots. There is no way to consistently hold this position.

bottom of page