Law & the Courts

The Sole Justification Offered for the Riots Is a Fiction

An NYPD police car burns as protesters clash with police during a march against the death of George Floyd in Brooklyn, N.Y., May 30, 2020. (Jeenah Moon/Reuters)
Rioters and their enablers claim that the present disorder is justified by an epidemic of police shootings of unarmed black men. But no such epidemic exists.

There is a lot we don’t yet know about the interaction between Derek Chauvin and George Floyd — National Review’s Andy McCarthy has done yeoman’s work in sifting through the police report and highlighting some of the remaining uncertainties. We do have that video, though. And what that video depicts — the way that Floyd writhes in pain and gasps for his late mother with his final breaths — is enough to stir even the most callous viewer to outrage.

And stir it has — the anger has been nearly universal. The president, in his way, decried the killing. Conservative and liberal commentators alike have, in their way, condemned the officer’s actions. The system, in its way, is responding, too. All of the officers involved were fired. Derek Chauvin is sitting in a maximum-security prison awaiting trial on murder and manslaughter charges. Minnesota attorney general Keith Ellison is “moving as expeditiously, quickly, and effectively” as possible to arraign the other officers involved, as the facts allow. Chauvin will get his day in court. Floyd’s family will, too.

No one of prominence thinks that Chauvin should not face justice. No one of prominence has excused his behavior, or defended the indifference of his partners. No one of prominence feels anything but awful sympathy for George Floyd and his family. Most everyone agrees on these points, and most everyone is outraged.

It is in the context of this universal outrage that we are asked to consider the behavior of the looters and rioters, the vigilantes and anarchists, the masked delinquents defacing property, ransacking stores, and burning police cars in an orgy of disorder and destruction. We are asked to believe that the beatings and the violence are the only recourse available to beleaguered people who have time and again been denied justice by the civil authorities. Some say that this is the comeuppance due to a society that subjugates its people, that the immolated AutoZone and the burgled Target are monuments to our neglect. They say that society lit the match that toppled the convenience store, that society stole the PlayStations and television sets, that society brought this chaos and ruin upon itself.

It is true that there are injustices in the United States. It is true that there is tension and distrust between the police and racial minorities, and that this has terrible human costs, George Floyd’s death prominent among them. But the rioters and looters and their apologists are advancing a more specific claim still: that Floyd’s death is not just an individual tragedy worthy of particular outrage, but part of an epidemic of lethal violence perpetrated against unarmed black men by police officers. That such tragedies happen with startling frequency. That black men cannot leave the house without getting shot by racist cops. “It’s important to be here today because we’re dying,” one protester told the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel. “It’s an epidemic.”

This is not supported by the data. Last year, according to the Washington Post’s database of police-involved shootings, nine unarmed black people were shot and killed by the police, compared to 19 unarmed white people. Assuming that the use of lethal force was unjustified in each of those nine cases — not always a safe assumption — the resulting deaths are no less tragic for being so statistically improbable. We rightly fear the specter of Islamic terror, even as it has claimed relatively few domestic victims in the post-9/11 epoch. But this problem — the use of lethal force by police against unarmed black suspects — is not nearly of the scope that the rioters and their enablers would have us believe.

As Robert VerBruggen notes, the empirical literature is not decisive on questions of proportion — on the racial breakdown of victims of police violence. Harvard economist Roland Fryer conducted a now-famous systematic review of police violence, and found that cops were more likely to use low-level force against black suspects than against white suspects, but no more likely to use lethal force. The racial disparities in the use of low-level force shrank when Fryer accounted for differences in group behavior, but a gap remained between white and nonwhite suspects even after such controls. And the fact that the police are more likely to place their hands on a black suspect, push them into a wall, or shove them to the ground no doubt contributes to the sense of hostility between law enforcement and African Americans.

But the central claim advanced by those defending the riots is not that police are disproportionately likely to use low-level force against black suspects. The central claim advanced by those defending the riots is that “they are killing us,” that blacks are “hunted” by racist police departments and are in danger every time they leave their homes. The evidence simply doesn’t back that up. And as stores are burned and livelihoods destroyed, churches desecrated and precincts set ablaze, evidence is something we must insist on.

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