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Politics & Policy

Obama: Don’t Rationalize Rioting, but Do Support Mass Protests in the Middle of a Pandemic

Former President Barack Obama speaks during an Obama Foundation event in Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia, December 13, 2019. (Lim Huey Teng/Reuters)

Former president Barack Obama writes today on the riots: “The small minority of folks who’ve resorted to violence in various forms, whether out of genuine anger or mere opportunism, are putting innocent people at risk, compounding the destruction of neighborhoods that are often already short on services and investment and detracting from the larger cause. I saw an elderly black woman being interviewed today in tears because the only grocery store in her neighborhood had been trashed. If history is any guide, that store may take years to come back. So let’s not excuse violence, or rationalize it, or participate in it.”

That video can be viewed here: 

The video is a good reminder that when keyboard warriors with comfortable homes and cushy jobs write “burn it all down” on social media, what they are really saying is “burn down other people’s grocery stores and other people’s workplaces and other people’s homes in other neighborhoods.”

Those “other people” in “other neighborhoods” are often poor and not white.

It’s good to see the former Democratic president urging his fellow progressives to not rationalize or excuse looting and arson. 

But Obama also writes: “The overwhelming majority of participants have been peaceful, courageous, responsible, and inspiring. They deserve our respect and support, not condemnation.”

An honest question: Should mass protests really be supported in the middle of a pandemic? Many of the protesters are not wearing masks, they’re chanting slogans, and they’re standing very close together. We have learned the coronavirus is less contagious outdoors, but isn’t there a very real risk that the protests are going to spread the virus and get a lot of people killed?

The country has just endured nearly three months of a shutdown where many people were not allowed to go to their jobs and most were not allowed to attend religious services in order to slow the spread of the virus. Some of those restrictions are still in place, to varying degrees, in many parts of the country. 

Over the weekend, Chief Justice John Roberts joined the Supreme Court’s four liberals to uphold an order in San Diego limiting church attendance to 100 people or 25 percent capacity, whichever is smaller.

In the middle of a pandemic, is the First Amendment right to protest somehow more important than the First Amendment right to practice religion? “Media and government experts who fail to consistently call out social distancing violations risk giving the impression that their commitment to zealous enforcement of public health measures wasn’t as absolute as they claimed,” Robby Soave writes at Reason.  “It turns out they are willing to make exceptions for their preferred causes.”


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