Law & the Courts

Anger Is Justified, Riots Never Are

State patrol members in the aftermath of a protest against the death of George Floyd, Minneapolis, Minn., May 29, 2020 (Carlos Barria/Reuters)
Romanticizing disorganized violence is not just wrong in some factual way about how the world works; it’s depraved and vile.

Sometimes a responsibility falls to you that you never anticipated. Sometimes history just demands that someone should say it: Riots are bad. Riots are never a coherent or moral response to injustice, they just multiply injustices and the rioters themselves often suffer more in the long run.

Unfortunately it must be said, because absolute morons who would call the cops without hesitation if there were an unruly loudspeaker or birdwatcher in their nice neighborhoods are cheering on and excusing rioting — rioting that is destroying businesses, livelihoods, and even a community center for Native American youth. The apologists for rioting and arson accuse people who are appalled by these acts of not caring about injustices. It cannot be said emphatically enough: This is the precise opposite of the truth.

People who apologize for rioters say that rioting challenges the system. But of course it doesn’t. Robbing and shooting at Korean immigrants in Los Angeles, or nearly killing a random white truck driver, did not get anyone a tenth of an inch closer to justice for Rodney King or reform of the LAPD; these were just other barbarous crimes.

Indistinct blathering about “the system” is an attempt to smuggle away the reputation of revolutionaries and bequeath it to rioters. But revolutionaries join targeted violence to a political rationale. If the rioters are revolutionaries, they should tell us their grievances, describe their dreamed-of settlement, and show us they are burning down the right buildings and happy to shoot the right people. They haven’t done so, of course. But if revolution is unattractive in the absence of such a rationale, or inadvisable because it is futile, certainly a campaign of disorganized violence at whatever targets seem juicy in the moment is just mayhem for its own sake.

We must distinguish rioting and looting from protesting. People do not loot seeking justice for George Floyd, they loot for the loot. People don’t commit arson to make a political statement. What does burning an AutoZone even communicate if it could be translated into politics? People don’t assault those citizens standing in the way of looting and arson as a cry for help or to draw attention to social problems, they do so because looting and arson offer satisfactions to a reprobate will.

We’ve been told by people who live in safety or are perfectly able to retreat to it: “Riots are, at their core, a choice made by those in power, not people who participate in them.” But is this true? Misgovernance does have a price with regard to civil cohesion. But if riots are not a choice, then the people participating in them have no agency and can’t be said to be making a political statement. It would follow that there is no difference between a citizen destroying his neighborhood and another defending it.

Others belittle objections to riots as disingenuous demands for “civility” used to distract from injustice. This is projection: as if the plea not to commit robbery or set fire to your neighbor’s place of business was an attempt to make those angry doff their caps.

If you’re so morally insensate or well-educated that you can’t make a moral judgment without referencing a study or chart, look at the long-term studies done on rioting. Riots harm their communities. They don’t reform them. They often initiate a general spike in violent crime. Baltimore saw this spike in the past half-decade. Riots dissuade individuals, families, and businesses from staying in or joining a community. Who wants to raise their kids in the neighborhood where the police station had to be evacuated before it was set ablaze?

Romanticizing and indulging in rioting as a mere abstraction is not just wrong in some factual way about how the world works. It’s depraved and vile. George Floyd’s girlfriend said, “I am heartbroken. Waking up this morning to see Minneapolis on fire would be something that would devastate Floyd.” I wonder if the prestige magazines making elegant apologies for crime could print her view without describing it as reactionary and racist.

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