I lived in a D.C. neighborhood that experienced a spontaneous civilian-assisted property-redistribution episode, a.k.a. a riot. In the fall of 1991, a black female cop shot a Hispanic male, an event that must have made the editorial writers get out their moral abacuses to decide exactly which identity trumped the other in the scale of power and privilege. The locals were not interested in balancing historical grievances while being mindful of the immigrant experience, and started breaking things.
For the participants, it was grand fun. You get to smash things and help yourself to various consumer goods. The cops won’t shoot you, because that would prove the protesters’ point, wouldn’t it? There will be plenty of people in the media the next day to put your actions in context, and once you learn that riots are not only understandable but almost an obligation in this horrible society, you feel cheated for not going back for that other television set. Sure, you have two now, but what if someone broke in your house intending to steal one? Good luck calling the cops when you hear the burglar downstairs. Damned cops would never get there in time.
If you’re not rioting, the experience is different. I was watching a police car on fire on TV while smelling the smoke through the window. It was two blocks away, and while everyone seemed content to demolish the stores in the main shopping area, you never knew when someone would conclude that social justice required some door-to-door canvassing. Since D.C. was literally the NRA bumper sticker about outlawed guns and gunned-up outlaws, I looked around for something to defend myself with. The only offensive weapons were a corkscrew and a copy of Madonna’s “Sex” book, neither of which could deter a mob for very long. Stop where you are or I’ll justify Madonna’s exhibitionism as post-feminist empowerment. RUN AWAY! HE’S USING SOCIOLOGY!
The next day the stores were boarded up. Scorch marks on the walls. Broken glass twinkling in the morning light. Didn’t seem like there was much left to trash, but people were willing to give it a try that evening. A curfew was declared. In the list of comparative difficulties faced by the residents of the nation’s capital, my inability to get Domino’s to deliver was rather far down the list, but it is bracing to be told they can’t bring a medium pepperoni because you’re under, like, martial law. This was the night they looted the supermarket salad bar. Really. No justice, no chickpeas!
Most people watching Ferguson from a distance were unimpressed. You see a burned-out tire store and you think: Now people can’t get tires, and the people who worked selling tires can’t get paid. On the other hand, this might deter any cop who wakes up and thinks, “I’ll shoot someone today. That’s the key to a stress-free workweek.” Since it is unlikely that the tire-store fire will break the back of the unjust system, they have to burn down a clothing boutique. Did that usher in an egalitarian society freed from the shackles of Wall Street? No? Well, let’s keep at it. Let’s go fundamentally transform a Taco Bell.
But it still doesn’t move the needle much. Not many people in Montana lay awake thinking, “The tragic events of an ordinary August day may speak to power disparities and a general narrative about race relations, but yet the sight of bandana-clad mobs burning small businesses is not a compelling argument for rebuilding society on a Bolshevik model.” Odd, that. It’s as if people who chanted “The only! Solution! Is a Communist revolution!” are more intent on displaying their own ideological correctness than on helping the people who are walking around a busted-up store with a broom.
The protesters soon realized that utopia would not result unless more people with no connection to the initial event were annoyed. In a mall in St. Louis, they interrupted a Christmas-tree-lighting ceremony and made the little kids cry. This is the sort of thing that makes parents who named their kids Saul Alinsky and Margaret Sanger belt a protester right in the chops. In San Diego, they shut down a highway. TV reports showed health-care workers begging for the right to continue and assist doctors in performing operations on sick people, which is just the sort of selfish me-me-me you get from people who don’t realize cops should be taught how to curl into a ball and accept a hail of blows until backup can arrive and calm the assailant with aromatherapy.
In short, inconveniencing people going about their daily lives did not instantaneously demolish the American power structure. Oh, they had great chants: “The People! United! Will Never Be Defeated! Or Criticized for Poor Rhymes!” And of course the ever-popular “What do we want? A vague agenda of collectivist concepts whose unlikelihood of implementation is matched only by our raw stridency! When do we want it? Now!” But they’ll have to do something more to keep the pressure on. Suggestions for upcoming events:
- Interrupt a state-fair sheep-shearing contest while screaming NO JUSTICE NO FLEECE
- Crash a blood-donor drive, ripping the tubes out of people’s arms, yelling that this is a metaphor for the transfer of wealth from the lower classes to the 1 percent
- Roll a few stink bombs into a hospice
Or just burn down Ferguson again after it’s rebuilt. It will be rebuilt, right? The shop owners will probably try to open again and sell things the residents want and need. The capitalists would do that, wouldn’t they? Parasites. They learned nothing.
– Mr. Lileks blogs at www.lileks.com.