Stop the violence, the vandalism, and the looting. Stop it now.
Yes, I understand the legitimate rage that’s driving it. I’ve seen the videotape that shows Derek Chauvin, an officer with the Minneapolis police department, killing George Floyd by pressing his knee against Floyd’s neck, pinning him to the ground for eight minutes and 46 seconds while Floyd pleads for his life and cries out for his momma.
It was awful to see. And it was only one in a string of police killings captured on video in recent years by cell phones and body cameras—horrifying evidence not that many police officers abruptly stopped recognizing the humanity of African Americans, but rather that many never acknowledged it in the first place.
But the strategic and morally defensible response to such injustice is peaceful protest, not urban destruction from coast to coast. That is, I know, a ludicrously obvious and impossibly square point, but apparently it needs to be stated.
The defenders of rioting are particularly fixated on the supposed rightness of protesters burning a police station in Minneapolis. In Slate, Stephen W. Thrasher, who teaches journalism at Northwestern, wrote this about the incident:
The destruction of a police precinct is not only a tactically reasonable response to the crisis of policing, it is a quintessentially American response, and a predictable one. The uprising we’ve seen this week is speaking to the American police state in its own language, up to and including the use of fireworks to mark a battle victory.
Tactically reasonable? Not unless you believe Minneapolis’s third precinct station can’t be rebuilt. As to whether “the American police state” will be intimidated by rioters “speaking … its own language,” well, first of all, America is not a police state. If it were, calling it one in the press would already have gotten Thrasher thrown in jail. If by “police state” Thrasher merely means “the police,” then let him cite a single previous instance in which an act of lawless vandalism prompted a police department to mend its ways. Given the multiplicity of far-right terror groups, would he even want this to become a plausible path to power?
The world in which George Floyd was killed, and in which Americans must figure out what to do about that, is not a counterfactual vengeance fantasy dreamed up by Quentin Tarantino. It’s real life. And in real life, you need certain tools to leverage the social change you want. Arson is not one of them. You might as well try persuading the Marines by burning down Camp Pendleton.
Harold Meyerson, a writer for whom I have great respect, compares the burning of the third precinct station to the storming of the Bastille. “America’s police forces are to African Americans and other racial minorities as Louis XVI’s armed legions, in some particulars, were to France’s workers and peasants and middle-class agitators.” But you don’t storm the Bastille unless you want to foment revolution. Would you, dear reader, like to overthrow the United States government? Not in some rhetorical sense. I mean, actually overtake it through violent means?
If so, you may be excused.
The rest of you will have to find another way. And even Thrasher and Myerson aren’t going to defend acts of physical violence or random destruction of other property, much of it in African American neighborhoods. As former President Barack Obama wrote today on Medium: “let’s not excuse violence, or rationalize it, or participate in it. If we want our criminal justice system, and American society at large, to operate on a higher ethical code, then we have to model that code ourselves.”
Many people—even some conservatives—have concluded that the presidency of Donald Trump poses an obstacle to racial progress, not to mention American democracy and the rule of law, and that he must as a consequence be voted out in November. Historical evidence strongly suggests that rioting threatens that goal (which is why the president is stoking the flames rather than trying to calm everybody down). Princeton political scientist Omar Wasow achieved overnight celebrity (and perhaps the least disputatious interview Isaac Chotiner ever performed) with his very well-timed paper demonstrating that American public opinion in the late 1960s and early 1970s was extremely sensitive to whether protesters were peaceful or violent. When social-justice protest turned violent, Republican candidates benefited.
Writing in Mother Jones and the New Republic, Rick Pearlstein and Walter Shapiro (two other writers I admire) argue that’s way too simplistic. Sure, they say, Richard Nixon won the presidency in 1968 in part by campaigning on the issue of law and order, but two years later Nixon failed in his attempt to turn the 1970 midterms into a referendum on that subject.
But the story doesn’t end there. In 1972 Nixon won in a landslide victory against George McGovern. Law and order did not perhaps loom that year as large as other issues, like Vietnam and busing, but the voting public’s rejection of McGovern marked the beginning of a sort of collective hangover from the 1960s that lasted well into the 1990s. Many working people felt that life was spinning out of control. That’s why the ludicrously unfair accusation by Nixon partisans that McGovern was the candidate of “acid, amnesty, and abortion” gained traction.
And yes, law and order did figure in that election. The pollster George Gallup identified it as “the hidden issue” in the 1972 race. “Blue collar workers feared that McGovern would encourage a permissive society that would fail to provide safe streets and cities,” Gallup wrote. A 46 percent plurality of this group, which “traditionally cast their ballots for Democratic presidential candidates” (that would of course change), held that view one month before the election, making public safety “perhaps the most important reason for their high rate of defection.”
The president, who turned 21 during the “long, hot summer” of riots in 1967, appears to harbor a nostalgia for urban unrest. In his inaugural speech he baffled his audience by speaking of an “American carnage” that was nowhere in evidence. Now the cities are burning again, and if it continues Trump just may win reelection. “You want to know what four more years of Trump could look like in America?,” John Judis wrote Saturday in Talking Points Memo:
Think of the protests in Minneapolis and elsewhere, on the one hand, and the armed militias in state capitols demanding that the states “open up.” Magnify their numbers and frequency. Think of America from 1854 to 1860 or during Nixon’s first term, when there were about four bombings a day. It’s not a pretty picture, and it’s one that I desperately hope that we can avoid.