I knew I was tempting fate a week ago when I said that the coming nomination of Joe Biden and the COVID-19 pandemic had put America’s politics on chill during this election year. Little did I know that days later we’d be making analogies to 1968. The killing of George Floyd by a Minneapolis policeman moved people across the political spectrum to outrage. Even President Trump, in his cynical galumphing way, was communicating his anger at the injustice of it.
Because authorities in Minneapolis were slow to arrest the officer who kept his knee on Floyd’s neck as he died, we can never know with perfect moral certainty whether the riotous behavior of the night before played a role in his arrest. But I doubt it did.
Are rioters across the United States a revolution? The case that some of our intellectuals make — that riots can inspire positive social change — is fantastically weak. Why? Because rioters don’t make coherent political claims and don’t justify and target their violence according to those claims. This explains why the only political accomplishments that riots usually can claim for themselves are pogroms. Riots don’t do much for reform, but they can drive entire peoples away in fear. Riots aren’t a tool for fighting oppression, they are an oppression. That is why so much rhetorical venom is exchanged between the democracy movement in Hong Kong, which maintains that it is at heart a peaceful demonstration movement, and the Chinese Communist Party, which insists on putting down a “riot.”
I’ve been accused of perhaps a double standard or lack of charity. I wrote a book last year that touched on the romance in the story of Ireland’s 1916 Dublin Rising, a one-week conflict between Irish nationalists and the government of the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Ireland during the heart of World War I.
And it’s true that the Rising turned into an awful event for Dublin, far more awful than anything happening in the United States today. Much of the center of the city burned down. It inflicted further hardships on the families of World War I soldiers. Hundreds of non-combatants and more than a score of children died in the resulting urban warfare, which featured a gunship firing into the city and a disastrous uncontrolled fire. These are the gravest moral costs, and all revolutionaries must judge between the evil likely to trail their actions. But, just as Hong Kongers make their efforts to distinguish themselves as protesters, not rioters, the leaders of the revolution worked hard to distinguish themselves as revolutionaries, not a rabble.
First they made a case for the justice of their actions against England in political terms. Even during the fighting, they pled with Dubliners to cease rioting in the resultant disorder, as it would disgrace the larger cause. They wore uniforms for battle. When they surrendered, they marched into the hands of their captors. The leaders accepted their death sentences as if they had won medals. They made efforts to pass on responsibility for carrying on the political cause. In doing this they not only impressed their British foes but won over their own countrymen.
We’ve seen protesters in America try to make the same distinction over the last few nights. Across social media there are many viral videos of protesters associated with Black Lives Matter remonstrating with rioters of all races, demanding they stop engaging in violent or criminal activity. Why? Because they fear it disgraces their cause. The girlfriend of George Floyd pleaded for a cessation of violence, as she believes it would grieve her beloved.
Misgovernance, like police brutality and indifference to justice, can and does lead to riots, because the breakdown of trust between authority and the citizenry creates an opportunity for evil and for unscrupulous people. And in extreme cases misgovernance can lead to revolution, because it creates an opportunity for a much rarer creature, one who is politically savvy and disciplined.
But there is an enormous gulf between protesters who demand that the police be subject to the same rule of law as the citizen and the rioters who detest police because they are criminals who profit and dominate the weak only when there is lawlessness.