Yesterday’s post, “When both sides are wrong: George Floyd’s death and the violent responses,” seems to have inspired a lot of discussion, which is good, though I disagree with a fair few of the comments. I’ll reiterate my main points:
1.) The death of George Floyd was, according to the tapes that show it, absolutely unconscionable. I felt the first time that I watched the video that the cop should be charged with murder, and the other cops, who did nothing to stop the strangulation posture, should be charged with whatever crimes are relevant.
2.) In light of Floyd’s death, and that of the shooting of other unarmed African-Americans, as well as apparent differential treatment of blacks and whites by police in many areas, protest is not only laudatory, but necessary.
3.) Those protests should be peaceful ones, lacking violence, looting, arson, or physical assault (the latter goes for cops, too, who in many cases have appeared to show unrestrained aggression).
4.) Civil disobedience is okay as well, as with the Chicago protestors who blocked Lake Shore Drive last evening. But the disobedience must be “civil”, involving peaceful breaking of the law, and the protestors must be prepared to take the consequences (arrest). Protests should obey curfews, which the Chicago protests did not.
5.) Insofar as the demonstrations involved violence, that was unconscionable. There is no excuse for arson, looting, vandalism, or torching of cars. Those who do that and those who instigate it should be punished.
6.) Violence in these protests plays into the hands of right-wingers and authoritarians like Trump, who could use it to tar the peaceful protestors and weaken the moral suasion of a mass, peaceful movement. See Isaac Chotiner’s interview of Omar Wasow (link below) to see evidence that violence on the part of protestors can push moderates into a law-and-order right wing stance.
7.) The mainstream and Leftist media, while covering the demonstrations, have been loath to condemn the violence associated with them. Indeed, some people have tried to justify the violence, saying that violence is the only recourse when oppression is sufficiently strong and persistent. I disagreed, saying that violence calls the wrong kind of attention to a cause, empowering those opposed to that cause, and that, at any rate, the problems faced by African-Americans in the South in the Sixties were far stronger and more oppressive than they face now. After all, it was a time when blacks were murdered with impunity, with the perpetrators not even being tried, or being let off easily when they were, and, especially, when segregation was structural—embodied in the law. Yet Dr. King stepped forward with a message, taken from Gandhi, that was powerful yet peaceful. We don’t have a Dr. King now, and are the poorer for it, but protestors should heed his message, which still resonates.
To me this seemed a reasonable take, but there was considerable opposition to it, which I want to discuss briefly.
First, to those who said that I didn’t emphasize Floyd’s death enough, and therefore my coverage was unbalanced. My response: Floyd’s death was widely covered in the media and condemned by everyone. I condemn it strongly—so strongly that I was one of the first calling for murder indictments. But, as always, my penchant is for saying what has been said less often: calling out the excesses of the Left.
To those who said that the media did amply highlight the demonstrations, I say that yes, I agree, and never said otherwise. Rather, I emphasized the lack of condemnation of the violence, not the lack of coverage. Why has Dr. King’s message suddenly been swept under the rug? Is it really justifiable to loot, burn, and attack others now when it wasn’t before?
To those who said that the violence is justifiable, I say that it is understandable in light of the tensions building in African-American communities, which are like a watch spring wound too tightly, ready to uncoil in an instant. And the pandemic has penned up, frustrated, and angered many. But, as far as I can see, none of this justifies violence. Some say that violence is better than nonviolence because it draws attention to the problem of racism more strongly. I respond that it draws the wrong kind of attention to the cause: more opposition than sympathy. Omar Wasow gives evidence for that below. But I cannot see how looting, for instance, which I saw on both local and national news last night, can help a cause.
Finally, to those who claim that marchers protesting the death of George Floyd were all peaceful people, and that the violence was instigated by “outsiders” like people from out of state or Antifa—people who want anarchy or a race war—I say, “I don’t agree.” Yes, there were right-wingers trying to incite or even kill protestors (one guy was shooting arrows at them!), but the videos I saw did not appear to show that all or even most of those who did the looting and vandalism were Antifa-ites or “outside agents”. Arrest records from Minneapolis, ground zero for the protests, show that most of those arrested for lawbreaking during demonstrations were from Minnesota, not out of state. I suspect this will be true for other places as well, except, perhaps, Washington, D.C., easily accessible from at least two states. Certainly some came to the demonstration simply to cause trouble, but I suspect others with righteous intentions got caught up in an atmosphere of violence.
People have pointed out to me that some of the violence was committed by white people, not African-Americans. My response: I don’t care what color they were. After all, whites like me can sympathize with the cause, decry Floyd’s death, and demonstrate. I am decrying violence in general here, not violence committed by African-Americans. The tapes I’ve seen certainly show that people of both races were involved in both the demonstrations and the attendant violence and vandalism.
The assertion then becomes “the demonstrators were not involved, but just people who wanted to steal things and just let go with pent-up anger.” My response is, let those who adhere to the cause of opposing police racism help curb those who are violent, and certainly themselves refrain from participating in the violence.” There’s no doubt that in some cases, though, those who came to demonstrate then participated in looting or vandalism. In response, people argued “they were instigated by outsiders to commit violence.” My response is to say, “Well, we shall see, but even those instigated to commit violence, looting, or vandalism were breaking the law and should be arrested. It does not mitigate your own robbery of, say, shoes and jewelry when you see others doing so.”
To those who say that “the police acted brutally”, my response is, “Yes, they did in quite a few cases. I’ve seen the videos.” The police need to behave in a restrained manner and not beat the hell out of people, tase then, knock them over for no reason, or use dangerous holds on them. The police are in a double bind in this one, as their charge is to stop the violence and robbery, but do so in a restrained manner. That’s not so easy, but I have seen videos of the cops going way overboard, pushing people to the ground who were simply in the way.
This is all by way of clarification, and I’m pretty much done. I still believe that violence cannot be justified in this situation, that it is counterproductive, and will ultimately redound to discrediting the cause. And I call for others to condemn violence to people and destruction of others’ property. That, of course, also goes for police officers who behave like they are thugs or even murderers.
I finish with a comment from reader Historian that appeared below my earlier post. I sometimes disagree with him/her on issues, but Historian is always thoughtful, and here’s a comment with which I agree.
Of course, protests against the murder of George Floyd were well warranted. Yet, within a short time these protests morphed into much more that, almost bordering on a nationwide insurrection. The murder illustrates that a single event can be a spark that sets off a conflagration. This situation reminds me of how the murder of Archduke Ferdinand in 1914 set off World War I. The protestors worked themselves into a frenzy over something more than police racism. It was over racism in general, overt and systemic, that has been a major characteristic of America since 1619, which to me, gives credence to the major arguments of the 1619 project (yes, I know, many disagree with me). I was heartened that the protestors were of many races, particularly the many young, white people in the crowd. It is premature to make any grand pronouncements, but perhaps we are seeing the centuries long overdue change in racial attitudes.
Still, we must consider the violence that accompanied the protests in many cities. Some of the violence was undoubtedly inspired by the frustration created by the incident, a pandemic, and economic collapse. The violence should not have been unexpected. It provided a golden opportunity for people with ideological agendas to create chaos as well as those who saw how easy it was to loot. There are rumors that the chaos was instigated by extreme right groups. It will be some time before we will know the role of outside agitators. The violence was sometimes anarchistic. I saw a news clip of a white guy, acting alone in Chicago, breaking the glass of a bus stop with his skateboard. What could possibly be the motive of doing that? Trump blames Antifa for the violence, so we can be almost certain that it was not involved.
Clearly, the violence must be suppressed. The police are in an untenable position. If they use force and protestors are killed, an even greater conflagration will be set off. Moreover, the violence is counterproductive. At the New Yorker site, Isaac Chotiner has interviewed a political scientist, who has studied the riots of 1968 – the year Bobby Kennedy and Martin Luther King were killed and where the Democratic Convention was held in Chicago. His conclusion is that the violence then hurt the Democratic chances. The situation may be the same now. I fear many voters on the fence may swing to Trump because of the violence. All in all, the country is in its most perilous moment since at least World War II.
And here’s a quote from the interviewed person, Omar Wasow, a professor of politics at Princeton (I recommend reading Chotiner’s interview):
The interesting thing to me that came out of this research was that civil-rights leaders were picking Birmingham and Selma specifically because they had police chiefs with hair-trigger tendencies toward violence. So there was this strategic use of violence by the civil-rights movement, but it was to be the object of violence, not the instigators of violence. At the same time, what was very hard about, with that strategy, is that you had images of people observing their kinfolk being brutalized on television, and that helped fire up a more militant wing of the civil-rights movement, which endorsed violence in self-defense and was much less committed to tactics of nonviolence. When we observed a wave of violent protests in the mid- to late sixties, those white moderates who supported the Democratic Party after the passage of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 defected to the Republican Party in 1968. So, when the state was employing violence and protesters were the targets of that violence, the strategy worked well, and when protesters engaged in violence—whether or not the state was—those voters moved to the law-and-order coalition.
That, too, is my fear. We cannot afford to have another four years of Trump.