Doing evil in the service of a just cause does not change either side of the moral equation: Evil remains evil, and the just cause remains just — neither consideration cancels out the other or transmutes it. With riots and violence convulsing American cities after the horrifying death of George Floyd at the hands of Minneapolis police, that principle bears consideration.
Protests are a normal and healthy part of democracy. Looting and arson are not. What is particularly vexing here is that the looting and arson are taking place while the gears of justice are turning — the police officers in question were dismissed and the principal malefactor charged with third-degree murder. Things have not moved as quickly as many would have liked, but this has been a matter of days, not weeks or months, and it is good that matters of this gravity are not approached in a panic with excessive haste that is more likely to lead to injustice than to swift justice. Also, quite often snippets of video can be misleading, which is why it’s important to carefully review all the facts, even in a case that seems as clear-cut as this one.
The riots only layer another injustice on top of the one done to George Floyd. One police officer is dead, at least one looter is dead, and much property has been destroyed — including the property of many black-owned businesses at the heart of the very communities whose interests the protesters purport to represent.
The moment calls for calm and leadership, but President Trump, finding himself in possession of both rhetorical gasoline and a raging fire, apparently cannot help making things worse. He tweeted, “When the looting starts, the shooting starts,” a phrase associated with some of the worst figures of the 1960s, George Wallace prominent among them.
Restoring order should be the first priority. The dynamic of riots is always that if the police don’t show up, if they hold back, or worse, if they retreat, the disorder gets more intense and destructive. Violence must be met with overwhelming (and, obviously, lawful) force. Authorities in Minnesota evidently finally figured this out after a couple of nights of letting things spin out of control, and implausibly blaming outside agitators for the mayhem.
It’s certainly true that “Antifa” extremists have taken a hand in the destruction around the country (and sometimes been rebuked by black protesters opposed to their tactics), but there are plenty of others breaking things and looting who clearly are local residents and not members of any ideological splinter groups. Regardless of the argument over who is most responsible for the riots, state and municipal authorities must resolve to bring peace back to their streets, with the assistance of the National Guard as warranted.
As for the matter underlying all the protest and chaos, police work involves violence, and there is no getting around that. Americans have for a long time understood this and made allowances for it, which is why a questionable police shooting is investigated in a way that is different from that of a questionable private act of self-defense. But it is worth exploring the protections bad cops get from union rules, and the level of deference that prosecutors afford the police in questionable cases, among other things. It’s not true that the police are a racist, occupying force in American cities, but we have to be cognizant of the fact that they have lost the confidence of many of the communities they serve.
At the heart of the protests is the sense that the necessity of such reform is felt with an urgency in black America while white America thinks of it as a kind of desirable abstraction. But the burning and stealing will not only leave vulnerable communities worse off in material terms — they will leave these communities worse off in political terms, too, as well-intentioned Americans understandably recoil from the violence and disorder. Protests can be heard, but violence can only be suppressed.
It is notable that the police action leading to the death of George Floyd in Minneapolis has not in itself produced a polarizing national disagreement: In fact, there has been broad agreement — broadly shared horror — across the political spectrum, because Americans are a generally decent and fair-minded people who are perfectly capable of understanding what they see with their own eyes, in this case a fellow American who died an unjust death at the hands of American police. We see the injustice in this just as we see the injustice of a small-business owner being ruined by directionless malice and opportunism, because we understand ourselves as a single people and a single national community, an understanding that strengthens the cause of justice. American political rhetoric can be pretty high-flown at times, but here we might dwell on the imperfectly realized principle that we are all in this together, and must act like it.