The worst of a violent uprising – which saw urban America engulfed in flames earlier this month – has finally come under control. The most recent protests in response to police brutality and racism have been largely peaceful, providing welcome relief after a Hobbesian state of nature erupted in cities nationwide, with rioters setting fire to police stations, hurling Molotov cocktails, and assaulting business owners.
What has not abated, however, is the alarming sympathy among liberals towards the urban unrest. While conservatives cried anarchy and called for military-style crackdowns, liberals sidelined, excused, and even glorified the violence as principled and heroic. The media told us to “stop focusing on looting”, then romanticized the destruction of the Minneapolis Third Precinct house as “an unprecedented and beautiful moment in the annals of rebellion,” and reimagined the robberies as a family-friendly form of wealth redistribution.
Needless to say, the business owners of Minneapolis who have lost their livelihoods could not ignore the destruction, nor could the residents who rely on local businesses for nutritious food and medicine. Having the privilege to “stop focusing on the looting” is the height of elitism. “These people did this for no reason. It’s not going to bring George back here,” said Stephanie Wilford, a disabled African-American woman who broke down in tears over the destruction in Minneapolis. “Last night, I will be honest, I wished I was where George was because this is ridiculous. These people are tearing up our livelihood.” Ordinary people suffer for the abstractly-defined goals of the rioters, and liberals abet it.
Even Stanford glossed over the moral distinction between peaceful and violent protest. The most senior administrators dodged the issue entirely, while Dean of Students Mona Hicks quoted a “loving refrain” from Assata Shakur, a convicted murderer on the FBI’s most wanted terrorists list, in her email to students on June 1. These are the same leaders who react in hysterical fashion to offensive rhetoric and compared the recent racist “Zoom-bombing” incident to a hijacking. When there is real violence on our streets that could physically harm students and damage their communities, they are too intimidated to speak up.
What explains this worrisome shift in mainstream attitudes towards violent unrest? It seems that the mainstream liberal media has bought into a dangerous narrative – one usually peddled by left-wing radicals – that destruction is noble and beautiful. Before we can reform the law enforcement system, they argue, we must first dismantle the old one (as though a phoenix miraculously rises from the ashes of Minneapolis’s Third Precinct).
We should fear this destructive instinct within the Left – one that inspires the negativity behind their slogans, “abolish!” “dismantle!” and “defund!” – because it presupposes that society becomes more progressive with each violent overturning, when history shows otherwise. Leading social science research shows that the peaceful protests of the 1960s swayed elites, public opinion, and voting, while the violent riots of that period created a Nixonian law and order backlash and worsened the conditions of poverty and unemployment in the inner cities by decreasing the value of black-owned homes and scaring away capital. Looking back at the Russian Revolution and China’s Cultural Revolution, it is also clear how a doctrine of equality and social justice can easily become an instrument of tyranny in the hands of violent extremists.
The recent riots inflicted physical damage on poor neighborhoods, put black people in additional danger, and provoked unnecessary confrontations with the police. While they succeeded in calling world-wide attention to police brutality towards African-Americans, the media will move onto another story soon. Recent mass mobilizations – against the inauguration of Trump, the Muslim travel ban, and the Supreme Court nomination of Brett Kavanaugh – dominated our news cycles for a few weeks then disappeared. When the media cameras depart, real people are left in the wreckage.
If the goal is truly justice, then the protesters must go beyond achieving short-term publicity and instead work towards sensible reforms of the law enforcement system (for example, by ending qualified immunity, making body cams universal, and creating accountability through a national database on police shootings). Otherwise, their efforts could seriously backfire in the long-term as we witnessed in 1968.
However, I suspect that their goal is not justice (at least as I understand the word) but the creation of a society of collective guilt and collective victimhood. Since white “allies” began kneeling down in the streets and begging for the forgiveness of black people, everyone from corporations to celebrities and ordinary citizens have been engaging in overzealous attempts to repent for their white guilt. They post black squares on Instagram, Venmo their black friends reparations money, and confess to their former prejudices on Twitter.
The core ideology of protestors in the streets offers some explanation for this self-flagellating behavior (reminiscent of a religious cult or a Maoist-era struggle session). According to them, the United States began as a white supremacist project designed to perpetuate racial inequality. Life, liberty, and property was just a dupe to keep black people enslaved. In their version of history, all of the misfortunes of African-Americans date back to the country’s inception – a claim that has become orthodoxy, yet which robs the community of agency and accountability and externalizes all of their problems onto white people or nebulous power structures.
If rioters believe the system is fraudulent and corrupt from the core, no wonder they want to burn it down. But we should remember that the black American experience defies this conspiratorial thinking. As Andrew Sullivan writes, the United States has seen the historic growth of a black middle and upper class, elected a beloved black president along with many successful black mayors and governors, and flourished from the talents of black artists, musicians, and writers.
While the horror of watching George Floyd suffocating to death under the knee of a white police officer certainly ignited the urban unrest, it seems that quarantine-induced cabin fever and a massive economic downturn combined to create the conditions for a riot of epic proportions. Watch the videos of youths wrecking stores, toppling statues, and chanting at the top of their lungs. They are giddy with excitement, reveling in the rebellious thrill that comes from committing violence. I write this not to diminish the real despair that sparked the destructiveness, but to acknowledge human nature.
We must pursue police reform, but we cannot ignore the underlying factors behind the urban unrest. And that means rethinking lockdown, because there is no better way to hollow out black communities, destroy poor neighborhoods, and create the conditions for a riot than a prolonged economic lockdown. It was black Americans who were pushed into frontline industries and lost their jobs to mass layoffs, who live in crowded conditions, and who suffer from chronic health issues that made them more susceptible to COVID-19. All the while, liberal journalists working from the comfort of their homes glorified the violent uprisings and ignored the public health guidelines they had preached as gospel for three months.
It’s time to open our country up again. If we don’t, we risk further unrest with citizens erupting in uncontrolled and self-destructive violence, squandering what they and their communities have spent years building up for a brief moment of catharsis.
Image: A night of destruction in Minneapolis (Mark Vancleave/TNS/Newscom)