Let’s get the equivocating bullshit out of the way: if you don’t stand with the rioting, you don’t stand with the protest.
Wait, what the fuck? Let me explain.
People take to the streets as a form of protest because it’s the first form of protest, probably the off-schedule way a shaman was deposed as head of a Bear tribe back in 80,000 B.C. Throughout history, under governments ranging from absolute autarchies through failed democracies to Communist dictatorships, when people have enough they take the streets. Sometimes literally, with barricades. Throughout history, this has preceded many teeth being kicked in, and throughout history, the authorities are much more often the kickers than the ones getting kicked.
It’s a painful route to take, and it’s how damn near every revolution that’s written down in history books gets started. The ones that are won by the protesters happen when the authorities are themselves met with overwhelming force—in some cases, external armies, and in others, internal moral suasion. Sometimes, the chief of police stands aside and says, “the palace is that way, go get ‘im.” It’s not that riots don’t work—history is replete with examples that they’re the only thing that did when other methods failed.
Ah, you say, but there’s a difference between violent and nonviolent protest, and looters have crossed that line. Have they? Dictionaries are interesting here, because they use protest to define violence:
Hello, circular reasoning.
The obvious flaw here is that for purposes of this discussion, we’re talking about the use of physical force against someone, not something. If someone steals your car when you’re not in it, that’s a nonviolent crime. If they then crash that car 20 miles away, it’s still nonviolent. Your car may feel differently, but that’s the whole point, your car doesn’t feel a goddamn thing. It’s an object. If they did it deliberately to hurt you, that’s something else—it could be an act of emotional violence against you, the part of this equation that feels things. Eye of the beholder stuff.
If you come out of that saying, “Okay, I support nonviolent protest so long as they’re also not damaging property,” now you’re setting limits on the kinds, types, and topics of protests you support, and hence you’re only in support of conditional speech. You have an absolute First Amendment right to burn down a Starbucks. What you don’t have a right to is to escape the consequences from the criminal act of burning down a store. But you can’t be held on different charges of burning down a Starbucks as opposed to a Dunkin’. Would you say that a mob that burned down a Wendy’s and left the Chick-fil-A untouched, or that salted the earth of the Hobby Lobby while protecting a Michaels, cannot possibly be engaging in political speech?
In other words, when you say you oppose the looting, you’re picturing this:
…a presumably uninvolved person taking advantage of chaos to engage in some theft. And yes, some of that goes on. I’ve never looted a store or been part of a mob that was, so I couldn’t tell you personally how much of that there is. But I can say that what you should be picturing is this:
To put it yet a third way: if you cheered when the Iraqis brought down the statue of Saddam Hussein, and you don’t stand with the neo-Nazis when they hold rallies at Confederate statue sites, then where are you with people trying to destroy the statue of Frank Rizzo, the eminently racist former mayor of Philadelphia who rose to power by being its eminently racist police commissioner? Would you say that’s not a valid part of a protest against police brutality?
It’s perfectly reasonable to say, “I cease to support nonviolent protest when property damage happens as part of or alongside it.” That’s your call. Just don’t give yourself the warm fuzzies of supporting the protest any longer. You’re now on the side of the authorities, the Man, and Law and Order. “They’ve” gone too far and now must be stopped—or channeled back to when you were comfortable with them. And now you have to understand that you’re ranking that comfort ahead of whatever the protest is about.
Don’t get me wrong. I’m terrified of what’s going on and want it to stop. I’m also literally going hungry this weekend because the curfews and store closures include food and I’m not prepared for that. I don’t live where the riots are happening, and I get to write this from a place of privilege. But tonight they could reach to outside my door.
So I have to ask myself: do I support what’s being protested enough to put up with that, to have skin in the game? Or do I oppose the protest?
If you don’t stand with the rioting, you don’t stand with the protest.
Postscript: I had notes on the obvious reply to this post, namely, “Gandhi and MLK, those are the protesters I support.” That is, let’s go only with the protests where they’re committed to the forms of nonviolence that are easy to be comfortable with.
I call that a “form” of nonviolence because it doesn’t actually reduce violence—it says that the protesters will absorb more violence from their opponents without violent opposition, and use that in their favor. Net amount of violence in the form of teeth being kicked in, in absolute numbers, remains about the same.
I’m with you on that—they’re the only kinds of protests I engage in, and I’ve left a few that started down a dark path. But what it also says is, “Let’s take the two most exceptional and preternaturally gifted protesters of the last century and make them the baseline minimum for agreement in this one.”
I’m proud of the protest groups I’ve worked with that have done everything they could to meet this standard, and I’ll stand with them again. But at its core, protest is a form of civil disobedience, with the noun being “disobedience” and the modifier being “civil.” If you prefer the protests of the disobediently civilized, that’s fine, so do I. But you can’t restrict protest to that standard, or else you’re limiting all protests to what are obviously ineffective methods in many cases.
Again, it comes down to: do you believe in free speech or conditional speech? This essay is only meant to be damning if you believe in the latter but pretend you’re for the former.