NRPLUS MEMBER ARTICLE T he tragic death of George Floyd on May 25 in Minneapolis has set off massive protests in the city and elsewhere. The protesters point to a video in which a police officer uses his knee to restrain Floyd, applying pressure to his neck for several minutes, as Floyd protests that he can’t breathe. This will remind any politically aware person of the death of Eric Garner in New York City in 2014.
While New York City waited five years before firing the police officer in the Garner case, Minneapolis moved more swiftly, firing all four officers who were responsible for detaining Floyd the next day. Soon after the firings, protesters hit the streets, demanding justice for Floyd in the form of arresting the officers and charging them for their apparent misconduct. On May 29, one of those officers, Derek Chauvin, was taken into custody.
In a testament to the progress that movements for criminal-justice reform and police accountability have made in changing the public’s perception over the past decade, the initial response to the video of Floyd being so roughly treated by the police was broadly bipartisan. “There’s no justification for this,” right-wing radio host Rush Limbaugh declared. Former president Barack Obama agreed. President Trump called it “shocking.” The political spectrum was united in sympathy for George Floyd.
But then things took a turn. During the protests, a smaller group of individuals took the opportunity to engage in looting and rioting, with much of their actions presenting absolutely no relationship to police accountability or Floyd’s death. A 40-year-old Native youth organization housing historical materials and archives was destroyed. A Target store was ransacked, and an elderly woman within it was assaulted (although it’s not clear who started the fight). In St. Paul, at least 170 businesses were damaged, many of them operated by small-business owners and immigrants, people who were already living on the edge thanks to the pandemic.
At this point, the response to what was happening in Minneapolis began to polarize, with activists on the left either downplaying the rioting or outright romanticizing it, while the Right began to recoil from the violence. President Trump threw gasoline on the fire when he appeared to suggest that looters should be shot. Suddenly, Fox News wasn’t talking so much about George Floyd — initially, even staunch right-wingers like Sean Hannity had blasted the Minneapolis police for their use of excessive force — as it refocused on the massive amount of damage being inflicted by a relatively small group of rioters and looters.
This sequence of events is all too familiar from American history. A new paper by Princeton University political scientist Omar Wasow, a long-time researcher on civil rights and politics, sheds some light on why nonviolent protest tends to provoke sympathy while violent protests tend to polarize and even empower the protesters’ political opponents. Wasow’s father was a part of “Freedom Summer,” the bold activist venture to register black voters in Mississippi in 1964, and Wasow had long wondered how the momentum of civil-rights activism was blunted over the course of the decade.
Wasow looked at protests that took place between 1960 and 1972, measuring how they shifted public opinion. What he found is that the civil rights movement’s nonviolent protests in the early 1960s were remarkably effective in moving public opinion, pushing the general public toward support for civil rights; these protests also even increased the Democratic presidential vote share in counties proximate to nonviolent actions.
But things changed drastically when protests turned violent in the late ’60s. Wasow determines that white public opinion shifted so sharply in favor of social control that the violence may have tipped the election to Richard Nixon:
Critically, in the case of the 1960s black freedom struggle, these results suggest that nothing in the contest between the more egalitarian and order-maintenance political coalitions was inevitable. These findings suggest that the “transformative egalitarian” coalition . . . was fragile but, in the absence of violent protests, would likely have won the presidential election of 1968. In this counterfactual scenario, the United States would have elected Hubert Humphrey, lead author of the Civil Rights Act of 1964, rather than Richard Nixon. In the absence of white antipathy to black uprisings, the “law and order” coalition would not have carried the day and, possibly, not developed a durable campaigning and governing strategy for the next half century.
Wasow’s paper points to one large-scale political outcome of violent protesting and rioting. But it’s important to think about the economic and social outcomes as well.
In 2005 a pair of researchers looked at the urban riots of the 1960s. They found that the riots depressed the value of black-owned properties over the decade, with little recovery in the decade after. Meanwhile, they calculated that there was as much as a 10 percent loss in the value of black-owned residential property.
Their paper reminds me of a reporting project I did from Baltimore in 2018, where I covered a surge in homicides and the community efforts to reduce them. Following the death of a man named Freddie Gray in police custody in 2015, many thousands of people marched peacefully to petition their local officials for an investigation. But a much smaller group of people took advantage of the resulting turmoil to engage in rioting and looting; after a number of pharmacies were broken into, drugs flooded the underground market, helping fuel the city’s public-health problems and homicide numbers.
The evidence seems clear: Nonviolent protests serve to unite people and build sympathy, while riots fuel division and distrust by destroying the economy, endangering people’s lives, and empowering authoritarian, law-and-order political forces. (In the current COVID-19 environment, rioting presents a particular danger.)
Yet there seems to be a tendency among some who are sympathetic to the cause — accountability for the actions that killed George Floyd — to downplay the cost of the riots or even to romanticize them. An op-ed at Essence is titled “Burn It All Down,” while Rolling Stone compares rioting to the Boston Tea Party. MSNBC’s Chris Hayes took the Boston Tea Party analogy further, seemingly comparing the violence to the series of events that led to the American Revolution.
On top of this romanticization, there is a strict racializing of the issue of police violence, a topic that is actually much more complex than it is often portrayed.
New York City mayor Bill de Blasio, like many liberal politicians, went so far as to say that Eric Garner would still be alive if he were white. But you cannot possibly make such a cut-and-dried declaration about an individual case: In 2019 twice as many unarmed white people were killed by the police as African Americans. CNN’s Don Lemon said America is battling two viruses: COVID-19 and racism. Filmmaker Michael Moore suggested a simple solution: just bulldoze the police headquarters and staff it with “decent kind ppl aka people of color.” But statistically, nonwhite police officers are no less likely to use lethal force against minorities than white officers — in fact, two of the officers fired as a result of Floyd’s death are Asian-American (not that it matters).
This combination — approving of rioting as a way to create positive social change and declaring that there is some kind of systematic war against African Americans by police or perhaps white people — risks increasing the frequency of violence in the streets and stoking racial resentments.
In 2018 a team of researchers found that they could predict acts of protest violence during Baltimore’s days of unrest by looking at the presence and timing of moralizing tweets. When you tell people their violence is righteous, you engage in what is called moral licensing. People start to think, not only does what I’m doing feel good, but it is even improving the world around me — even as it demonstrably does the opposite.
Another problem with the romanticizing of rioting is that those doing the romanticizing are projecting their political values on the actions of people who themselves aren’t likely to view what they are doing as political. As in Baltimore in 2015, the vast majority of people in Minneapolis who are protesting are doing so peacefully; the minority who are engaged in violence are often exploiting the situation for their own ends. Is burning down an affordable-housing complex a protest against police brutality? Of course it isn’t. Is destroying immigrant-owned businesses delivering justice for George Floyd? We know it isn’t.
You’ve probably seen a quote going around by the Reverend Martin Luther King Jr. calling riots the “language of the unheard.” But those sharing that quotation would do well to read the full text in which he made those remarks. “I’m absolutely convinced that a riot merely intensifies the fears of the white community while relieving the guilt,” he stated.
King worried that increased rioting would lead to a “right-wing takeover” and lamented that “every time a riot develops, it helps George Wallace.” In 1968 he warned,“They’ll throw us into concentration camps. The Wallaces and Birchites will take over. The sick people and the fascists will be strengthened. They’ll cordon off the ghetto and issue passes for us to get in and out.” Recalling the riots of 1967, he continued, “We cannot stand two more summers like last summer without leading inevitably to a right-wing takeover and a fascist state that will destroy the soul of the nation.”
To some extent, the romanticizing of rioting is harmful even to the rioters. Like many of those who are burning buildings and looting stores in Minneapolis and St. Paul, I was young once and full of energy. Sometimes I’d get up to no good, and I was punished for it. People held me accountable and gave me a sense of responsibility. I saw the errors of my ways, and I learned to think about the consequences of my actions. It may feel virtuous for a cable host to compare today’s rioters to American revolutionaries, but the actual consequences of rioting are the opposite of greater liberty and freedom — and the cost is borne not in the Manhattan offices of MSNBC but by the communities where the riots occur. The riots of the 1960s didn’t lead to glorious progress — they led to Richard Nixon and his punitive crime policies. The rioting in Baltimore in 2015 didn’t lead to a safer and freer city — it led to massive economic destruction and increased drug supply for gangs that prey on the community.
Stating this is not “blaming the victim.” Stating this is admitting the facts and respecting the humanity of the rioters enough to acknowledge that they are capable of reviewing the facts and altering their own behavior.
When some on the left conflate the protests with the riots, this bundling creates a situation in which the rest of the country — which is generally repelled by rioting and unjustified violence, both by the police and ordinary people — is forced to choose between supporting rioting or supporting a movement for police accountability. But if the left can stop conflating rioting with protesting, and stop pretending that a minority of people committing violence and theft represent the majority of people who want accountability and reform, there is a chance of depolarizing the issue once again.