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Politics & Policy

Five Thoughts on the George Floyd Story

People gather at the Minneapolis Police Department’s Third Precinct station to protest after the death of George Floyd in Minneapolis, Minn., May 27, 2020. (Eric Miller/Reuters)

After a night of riots, looting, and arson in Minneapolis to protest the police killing of George Floyd, five thoughts spring to mind:

One: It is always hazardous to draw sweeping conclusions about society from individual criminal cases. Every individual case involves individual facts, and those facts often turn out to be quite different from the initial media narrative, as happened in the Trayvon Martin and Michael Brown cases. Far too many people jumping on this case, or the case of Ahmaud Arbery in Georgia, did so without bothering to look into the facts. Sometimes the facts are what they seem: the Arbery case by now looks like a clear case of murder, and I have no reason at this point to believe that the Floyd case will turn out to be much different. But even though experience should counsel some caution, the same people jump to the same conclusions every time.

Two: Overdrawing conclusions from individual cases can mislead us about how common things are. This is a nation of 330 million people. Any event that happens, say, a dozen times a year or even a hundred times a year can be made into a national epidemic if you report each instance with wall-to-wall coverage; any event that happens tens of thousands of times a year can seem uncommon if individual incidents are thrown into the statistics pile. We see this with school shootings, or in the abortion and death-penalty debates, in which hundreds of thousands of abortions are placed on an equal footing with fewer than fifty executions a year.

Liberals were enormously indignant when the wall-to-wall coverage thing was done with the Willie Horton case or the Kate Steinle case. It is, in fact, a practice I find both distasteful and misleading when some segments of right-wing media publicize every violent crime allegedly committed by an illegal immigrant, sometimes with the same jump-first-check-facts-later modus operandi. Yes, it is necessary to put a human face on problems in society, but when you choose to make one category of violent deaths matter more than any other, recognize that this is what you are doing. The excessive use of deadly force by police is a legitimate concern, and so is the question of whether unjust uses of force are more common against African-American men. But painting this as a runaway national epidemic that dwarfs other sources of violent death in our society is just innumerate.

Relatedly, there’s a meme going around that contrasts Colin Kaepernick kneeling in protest and one of the cops kneeling on George Floyd, saying something to the effect of, “If you’re more upset about Kaepernick than Floyd, you’re the problem.” As with so many memes, however, this is a substitute for thought that doesn’t stand up well to scrutiny. It compares an individual, local act of violence to a national, public argument. These are two different categories of thing. Objectively, as a matter of principle, any individual act of violence is worse than any idea or argument. I loathe both of them, but in different ways and for different reasons, and they call for different responses. As a matter of priority, does every individual have an obligation to dwell at length on every single act of violence before being permitted to argue about any idea? The Kaepernick protests were a legitimate matter of public debate because other people praised and followed him. Anyone praising the cops in the Floyd case and arguing for imitating them is worthy of being argued with, and denounced, too, because their ideas are bad.

Three: I agree with Jim Geraghty that there is no justification for looting, rioting, or destroying the homes and businesses of innocent people. Peaceful protest is one thing; public protest can be ugly and uncomfortable, and it can be done for bad causes as well as good ones, but it is an essential part of America. Protests are like criminal-defense lawyers, guns, negative ads, or investigative journalists: You don’t have to like them, but they are necessary to keep the system honest.

Riots, arson, and looting, however, are not, especially when they are just an excuse for heisting a television. As I wrote about the Ferguson riots in 2014, the people who try to excuse them are typically unwilling or unable to say openly what they are advocating. Our country was founded on the idea that there’s a time and a place when armed revolution against the government is justified. But violent protest is legitimate only in that situation. There remains a vigorous debate about whether John Brown was justified in trying to start a revolution over slavery; there are still some extremists in the anti-abortion movement who see nearly a million deaths a year as a high enough bar to justify revolutionary violence. But those are the extreme cases, and I remain skeptical even in those examples that the violent destruction of civil order could be justified. A society ruled by law, with civil order and a democratic process for seeking change, is a valuable and fragile thing, and societies that throw it away often find it cannot be rebuilt.

Moreover, in terms of media coverage, we should insist on a clear distinction between peaceful protest and violence, and we should insist on that distinction no matter what side or faction the violence comes from. When right-wingers engage in violence, the media conflates the two in order to delegitimize protest; when there are race riots, the media conflates the two in order to legitimize rioting. Only when you have left-wing assassination attempts such as the congressional baseball shooting or the Family Research Council shooting, or violence by Islamist radicals, will the media really hermetically seal the two. Let us be consistent. Free speech, even angry, overheated, and misguided speech, is not violence and is not responsible for violence. Speech that calls directly for violence can be responsible, but it is still not violence. Violence is not speech, it is violence.

Four: Liberals have a habit of advocating the ever-increasing passage of laws, while being knee-jerk hostile to the enforcement of laws. But the two can never be separated. A War on Guns would look like the War on Drugs. Enforcement of cigarette laws is how you get Eric Garner. More laws inevitably mean one or both of two things: more enforcement, or more selectivity in enforcement. If you want fewer interactions between cops and non-violent citizens, stop passing so many laws against non-violent citizens.

Five: proposals to change the process by which we enforce the law — against individual citizens, cops, or other government officials — should always be considered in terms of evenhandedness: that is, making sure that people you like and people you dislike get the same justice. There is a systemic difficulty with asking killings by police officers to be investigated and prosecuted by local district attorneys. But asking federal authorities to automatically jump in is the wrong answer, as is setting up the feds as a do-over when state juries don’t get the answer we want. Federal investigations should be confined to either clear cases of violation of the federal civil-rights laws, or pervasive and systemic command problems with particular police departments. The right answer, which a number of states already do, is to hand off the first responsibility to state attorneys general, who can use the broad police powers of state law, are not tied to the local police, and are in many cases directly accountable to the voters of the entire state rather than the voters of a particular pro- or anti-cop local community.


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