What Was the Point?

A boarded up store on Broadway in SoHo after the 8 p.m. curfew in response to looting during the Black Lives Matter’s protests in the Manhattan borough of New York, June 6, 2020. (Andrew Kelly/Reuters)
Protest as performance art, with lethal long-term consequences

After the rager, the reflections. Bleary morning follows thrilling night. If the protests and riots fade away this week, next week we will all have to deal with the cleanup. The headaches. The nausea. The questions. Was it worth it? What was the point of it all anyway?

The immediate costs of what has happened are severe, and manifold. Hundreds of millions of dollars in property damage. At least 15 lives lost. Neighborhoods destroyed. The future effects are difficult to calculate: Mom-and-pop stores will be driven into bankruptcy. Urban cores will lose revenue as people and businesses leave. And the demonstrations could have catastrophic public-health consequences. As Dr. Anthony Fauci has noted, by gathering in tightly packed crowds and shouting, often without masks, protesters created the “perfect set-up for the spread of the virus.” Asymptomatic people will spread the contagion to other people who will turn out to be asymptomatic and spread it to still others, and the virus gets this rocket-fueled boost at precisely the moment when the country is opening up again. We don’t know how many innocent lives might be sacrificed on the altar of righteous rage. We do know that cities and black people have proved especially vulnerable to COVID-19.

And all of this, for what?

On May 25, George Floyd was killed. On May 26, four Minneapolis police officers were fired and local and federal criminal investigations began. On May 27, the rioting began in Minneapolis. On May 29, officer Derek Chauvin was charged with murder. The riots continued. On June 3, the charges against Chauvin were upgraded, and three other ex–police officers were charged with aiding and abetting murder. The riots continued.

The 1992 Rodney King riots did have a point: Protesters wanted punishment for the four officers acquitted in the beating of King, a motorist whom police clubbed with batons after a traffic stop. The riots seemed effective: The police were re-tried for the same incident, this time on federal charges, and two of them were convicted and sent to prison.

What was the point of the George Floyd riots, though? They seemed to have little relation to the criminal-justice system in Minneapolis, which worked relatively speedily to hold the officers to account. Since justice for George was well underway before the unrest began, protesters apparently had some more nebulous or unreachable goal. They were marching “against racism” or “against white supremacy” or “against police abuse” or to “build awareness.” But there is no conceivable future in which the protesters will grant that racism or white supremacy or police misbehavior has ended, or that awareness of racism has reached a satisfactory level. You might as well march “against bad things.”

The actual purpose of the mass demonstrations (or riots, or uprisings, or whatever you wish to call them) seemed to be simply the performance of rage; they didn’t need to have a point because they were good in themselves. As Democratic voters rose up against Democratic systems in Democratic cities, many Democrats seemed less than wholly opposed to what was happening. The Democratic attorney general of Massachusetts, Maura Healey, spoke for many when she said, “Yes, America is burning, but that’s how forests grow.” Public rage was recast as cleansing, refreshing, even nurturing. Yet a gas station doesn’t grow back as easily as a tree. Washington Post columnist Megan McArdle noted on Twitter that when she moved to Washington, D.C., in 2007, “the major retail corridors on 14th Street & H Street were just beginning to recover” from the effects of the 1968 riots.

After more than two months of frustration and boredom stemming from the lockdowns, the riots looked like a combination of outburst, festival, and religious observance. The new religion is anti-racism; displaying one’s devotion requires mass gatherings, incantation of approved liturgy, and displays of self-mortification.

In the past few days, some supporters of the unrest scrambled to back-justify it by floating actual policy proposals. The most loudly propagated idea turned out to be to “defund the police.” This doesn’t, we are usually told, actually mean “defund the police” but rather “reduce funding for the police.” So Democrats who marched against Democrats were sending their party leadership a suggestion about . . . budget priorities? Was burning down buildings really the best way they could pass along their Fiscal Year 2021 spending proposals? What percentage of the rioters could even tell you what their city’s budgets for police and social services are?

Since cities and states are dealing with the fiscal disaster of the lockdown and will presumably have to reduce funding for most everything, “reduce funding for the police” would at least seem to be an achievable goal. New York City, for instance, was as of mid-May already facing an estimated $9.5 billion budget gap over the next two years, according to an independent budget office, and will have to cut spending in many areas. But the protesters are adamant that reduced funding for the police should be accompanied by increased funding for social programs.

This is a strange request to make when you are defending a movement that is cleaning out Target and Apple and Macy’s, putting more people out of work and causing unknown damage to the urban revenue base — property taxes, sales taxes, income taxes. “We demand more government spending as we destroy the government’s sources of tax revenue” is not a particularly cogent argument. So we’re back to where we started: What was the point?


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