In the wake of the murder of George Floyd, a Black man, by the Minneapolis police officer Derek Chauvin, dozens of U.S. cities have be rocked with unrest, ranging from small protests to open rebellion and riots. In watching coverage of the protests over the last week, several predictable issues and themes have emerged in how these protests are being framed by city and state leaders, police, and mainstream media outlets. I think that those of us who are committed to anti-racist politics need to directly grapple with some of these frames if we are going to shift how our collective efforts to challenge racism and injustice are understood going forward, for the wider public and for ourselves:
1.) “Outside agitators”
Both the governments and the media are going all in on dividing the good vs bad, legitimate vs illegitimate protesters, in order to control the unrest by turning people’s sympathies against it. They will say they support the cause but not the methods, but these are crocodile tears. They will cite MLK as a weapon against black protest, but it was MLK who said that his biggest enemy was the white moderate who valued order over the struggle for justice. It is these same moderates who condemn rioters rather than blame those in power who make riots inevitable.
The city government leaders are just lying, point blank, saying that the people who are doing anything other than quietly praying in their Sunday best are outside agitators. They have no evidence of this at all, and there is actual evidence from arrest records that most people vigorously protesting enough to be arrested are locals. This is an old tactic, and is used around the world by those in power seeking to discredit energetic social and political movements.
MLK felt compelled to condemn this rhetorical tactic, since it is the same one that was used by Jim Crow mayors and sheriffs against him and other civil rights protesters. The most important of his numerous criticisms here is that *it does not matter* if someone comes from elsewhere to stand with those protesting injustice. Injustice anywhere threatens justice everywhere: the logic of domination and oppression breeds and spreads, and produces further domination and oppression, while insensitivity to injustice anywhere breeds insensitivity to other injustices. We are all woven into a single garment of destiny, and cannot pretend that any injustice could (or should) stay parochially contained.
2.) Violent vs peaceful protests
Those who condemn property damage during protests should reflect on a few specific points:
First, tactically, riots and the damage they cause raise the economic and political cost of continuing with the everyday violence of business as usual, and have been an integral part of successful struggles for democracy and equality throughout history. This increase in cost can force elites to make concessions, and shift what counts as an acceptable policy bargain to buy peace again. Polite tactics have not worked whatsoever to ease the systemic racial and class inequalities and violence of places like Minneapolis. What else is left, besides people of color opting to die without a fuss?
Second, the human costs of continuing business as usual, from the early deaths and sicknesses imposed by police violence, racism, poverty, lack of healthcare, environmental racism, stress, etc, are incomprehensibly massive. They are far higher than any costs from these riots, at a minimum producing hundreds of thousands of early deaths in the U.S. a year.
This means that if you are opposed to “violence”, then you must prioritize ending these systemic conditions over the flash in the pan of any riot damage. It also means that if you truly oppose violence, then you must consider what given tactics *do* about this systemic and state-enforced violence. If your “peaceful” tactics don’t pose a threat to the continuation of a violent status quo, and even help sustain it by institutionally channeling, containing, and de-fanging challenges to it, then those measures are *more violent* in what they produce than riotous street clashes or mass strikes that compel actual concessions and change.
3.) Property damage as “violence”
Conceptually, calling broken windows, burnt cars and looting “violence” is extremely dubious in it’s implications. It puts unexpected forms of damage to or destruction of things as such in the same moral continuum as human suffering, and conveniently only those things that pose a direct threat to the people who own the world. Legal material destruction, of course — such as through a manufacturer shuttering and offshoring a factory (and with it a community’s ability to thrive), or a developer destroying poor people’s housing to put up empty luxury condos for investment, or a company spilling pollutants into the environment and our bodies — is never really framed as “violent”, even though it is more widespread and destructive.
Calling property damage violence also ignores the violence entailed simply by the state-backed imposition of particular rules and distributions of property. Property isn’t just stuff, it is also the rules for deciding who will be denied the right to use that stuff, and how that denial will be legitimized. If you’re concerned about looting, consider it in light of this.
The current distribution of resources is the result of racist state violence, centuries of openly white supremacist policies, imperialism, and exploitation. No honest person can disagree. It cannot be considered just or moral. Even in market terms, it cannot be considered a result of consent or fair competition. The pitifully low wage exploitation perpetuated by retail outlets in these areas are a product of these violently imposed unjust conditions and systems, and is itself a looting of the time, sweat, and well-being of people who are not truly free to do otherwise.
What, then, justifies condemnation of people’s attempts to grab goods that alleviate conditions of violently imposed and flatly unjust conditions of inequality and poverty? If just distributions are blocked politically, then how can we condemn what essentially amounts to material self defense against illegitimately imposed conditions?
4.) On looting during protests
Charges that people looting are acting opportunistically, or without pure enough motives make the mistake of thinking that pursuing material enhancement amidst unjust conditions is at odds with, rather than a central component of the demand for dismantling systemic racism. This isn’t separate from the fight against police brutality, since policing as such, as well as police brutality in particular are historically and tightly connected to state efforts to maintain racial and class inequalities and property rules under American capitalism. Demanding saintly selflessness from rioters is a dehumanizing double standard, and itself undercuts the legitimacy of demands for material justice and restitution.
Insofar as looting contributes to raising the cost for elites to ignore an unjust status quo, we can consider looting to be a useful element in producing an actually status quo-threatening pressure for concessions and change. Depending on the target (or Target), we may even say that it is ethically obligatory, if we take the struggle against violence seriously.
Ultimately, whenever those in power attempt to distinguish between legitimate and illegitimate protesters during times of social unrest, this should be interpreted as nothing more than a classic divide and conquer tool designed to make the unrest more manageable and to divert a fraction of the less demanding participants towards the least costly (to those in power) concessions. It means they are scared. It also means we should investigate what it is that they are truly scared of losing — and what we stand to gain.