Magazine July 6, 2020, Issue

The Left’s Love Affair with Riots

(Aenne Bolze/Eyeem/Getty Images)
Leftist intellectuals are captivated by violence and looting

Acting collectively across their company’s Slack channel, New York Times employees were recently able to get their paper’s opinion editor, James Bennet, ousted for running an op-ed by Senator Tom Cotton (R., Ark.). Employees claimed it made them “unsafe,” which is HR-speak for “I’ll sue if you don’t fire him.” Bennet was made to endure a socially distanced virtual struggle session with Times employees before his career ended. Meanwhile, the very same week, the Pulitzer Prize–winning editor behind the 1619 Project, Nikole Hannah-Jones, was explaining that destroying property “is not violence.” Got it now? Op-eds are violence; acts of arson are op-eds.

Even as the riots that burst out onto the street after the death of George Floyd claimed over half a dozen lives, the Left is starting to romanticize riots again. There are consequences for even noticing that the majority of Americans don’t like arson, assault, and depraved murders.

David Shor was an up-and-coming political operator and data analyst. As a very young man, he worked on Barack Obama’s 2012 campaign. And he probably thought that he was helping progressives when he recently shared a research paper by Princeton’s Omar Wasow. What Wasow found was that the presence of riots reduced Democratic vote share in surrounding counties by 2 percent, and that this was enough to tip the 1968 election to Richard Nixon.

The logic of Wasow’s argument is intuitive. Disorder and violence that is associated with the Left leads more people to support reactionary or at least right-leaning law-and-order candidates. In the last year of his life, Martin Luther King Jr. spent a great deal of time making the same argument in the face of growing urban unrest. “Every time a riot develops, it helps George Wallace,” he said.

Young Shor was immediately set upon by other activists. Ari Trujillo Wesler (co-founder of OpenField, a Democratic canvassing app) said that sharing the Wasow paper “reeks of anti-blackness,” then tagged in David Shor’s boss, saying, “Come get your boy.” (You may have thought calling an adult man “boy” was disrespectful.) Shor’s fellow employees complained that his tweet made them “unsafe.” I wonder how safe Shor felt knowing that employees at other companies could publicly call on his boss to “get” him. Shor was not just fired from his job; he was expelled from email listservs. Being against riots was deemed “racist.”

Most well-adjusted people abhor violence, but left-wing intellectuals are often seduced by it. The historian Paul Johnson noted the way Jean-Paul Sartre burbled about the 1968 student riots in Paris: “Violence is the only thing remaining to the students who have not yet entered into their fathers’ system. . . . For the moment the only anti-Establishment force in our flabby Western countries is represented by the students. . . . It is up to the students to decide what form their fight should assume. We can’t even presume to advise them on this matter.”

When intellectuals justify riots this way, there is usually a retreat into vagueness. The violent acts of a riot — the arson, looting, and assault, and the occasional murder — are not referred to as discrete acts, but as a sum-total force or expression.

While acknowledging the many ways in which riots will devastate a community economically and socially, Adam Serwer describes them as “desperate acts of self-immolation.” The image calls to mind a Buddhist monk sitting in lotus position as he douses himself in gasoline. But the store windows on Fifth Avenue in Manhattan did not spontaneously combust. The retired African-American police officer David Dorn, who was shot while guarding a pawnshop, did not put the bullet in his own body. The young Rochester couple who came down from their apartment to confront young men who would loot a jewelry store did not beat themselves with two-by-fours. These are just more crimes committed at a time when law enforcement is preoccupied and moral judgments have become impaired.

But the retreat to euphemism is understandable. Referring in any way specifically to the willed acts that happen in a riot immediately ruins the effect. Consider Norman Mailer’s passage from his essay “The White Negro”:

It can of course be suggested that it takes little courage for two strong 18-year-old hoodlums, let us say, to beat in the brains of a candy-store keeper and indeed the act — even by the logic of the psychopath — is not likely to prove very therapeutic, for the victim is not an immediate equal. Still, courage of a sort is necessary, for one murders not only a weak 50-year-old man, but an institution as well, one violates private property, one enters into a new relation with the police and introduces a dangerous element into one’s life. The hoodlum is therefore daring the unknown. 

Unlike Sartre, one draws away in disgust.

There have been attempts at a less passionate and more specific defense of riots as a political act. Avia Pasternak, an associate professor in global ethics in the department of political science at University College London, has, in recent years, made what amounts to a just-war argument in favor of political rioters who “resort to violence in response to mere socioeconomic and political injustices: material deprivation, racial segregation, and political and cultural marginalization.” She attempts to justify political riots on the traditional Augustinian grounds of “success, necessity, and proportionality.”

Echoing the logic behind Wasow’s study and King’s predictions, Pasternak found that American rioters in the late 1960s brought about political backlash and conservative rule, and that the 2011 riots in Britain led to no change in government policy. But she trudges on, saying that at least the long summers of the late 1960s resulted in the publication of the 1968 Kerner Report, which identified an existing and growing gap between white and black America. But other studies show that the riots were absolutely disastrous for the people living near them, destroying the availability of amenities in their neighborhoods and devaluing their property for decades. The consequences are obvious to normal people. In his book Intellectuals and Society, Thomas Sowell cites a 1967 poll that found that 68 percent of blacks said they had more to lose than to gain from rioting. A similar poll conducted in 1992 found nearly 60 percent of black respondents condemning riots.

But, blinded by ideology or education, people still look for a justification. Pasternak’s attempt to use just-war theory to rescue political rioting almost entirely fails. The acts involved — committing deliberate arson against businesses and civic buildings and committing assault against noncombatants — fail every test. They are disproportionate and unlikely to achieve their end, and the acts themselves are unjust. Many are commonly considered war crimes, and the order to commit them would be illegal. Deliberately burning down a Native American youth center, as was done in Minneapolis recently, may send a message, but it’s not one for equality.

In order to justify the argument that at least riots successfully send a message, Pasternak takes at face value the quotes from 2005 rioters in the Parisian suburbs who explain that they burn cars “because the cameras like” flaming vehicles and “it’s the only way to make ourselves heard.”

But criminals know this is what journalists and intellectuals want and expect to hear. Consider Henry “Kiki” Watson, who became famous for his role in beating white truck driver Reginald Denny during the 1992 Los Angeles riots. Denny was pulled from his truck, stomped on by three men, and brained with cinder block. His skull was fractured in 91 places. Denny almost certainly would have died on the pavement had not four people who saw the attack on live television driven to the scene of the crime and rescued him.

Watson was sentenced for six months for a minor offense. The next year Watson and Denny were brought onto the Phil Donahue show for something of a staged reconciliation. Watson was morally pressured to repent of the attack, and Denny was pressured to forgive his assailant, before an appalled television audience.

But on May 4 of this year, Watson gave an interview to The Independent. “It’s so funny, people like yourself, journalists, every year they want to know what’s changed,” Watson said. “Ain’t nothing changed.” In the interview Watson said he had no regrets and would have done the exact same thing. “There’s no regrets. No remorse. No nothing,” he explained. “That was just an ass-whipping. Black people, they get beat up for years. We’ve been getting killed for years. So one ass-whipping? No.”

“Everything that happens to a black man, woman, or child upset to, to the utmost, I feel it all as though it was me myself,” Watson explained. This is understandable and tragic. But the problem comes when intellectuals arrive on the scene. The celebrated James Baldwin deplored violence, but when he tackled Watson’s problem of violence and identification, he supplied a motive for attacks like the one on Reginald Denny: “In every act of violence, particularly violence against white men, Negroes feel a certain thrill of identification, a wish they had done it themselves, a feeling that old scores are being settled at last.”

But this is not true. The four people who saved Reginald Denny were African Americans; they were not thrilled with the attack, nor did they see him as a target for a generalized revenge. They, along with most African Americans, are appalled by police brutality and rioting.

But I think, perhaps, we should credit riots for having a political point of a kind, at least in the way Paul Johnson might recognize. In riots, the strong and depraved dominate and terrorize the weak, the kind, and the conscientious. Progressives are attracted to riots because the forms that riots take — burning buildings, the manic switch between cowardly skulking and chest-beating claims of revenge, the general theater of violence against the defenseless — are an outer reflection of their own interior misery. Riots embody their rejection of any moral authority external to themselves and seem to make real the purposeless state of nature they believe the universe to be at its heart. This is the real “message” of a riot, though not one that rioters intend. Looters are in it for loot, and the opportunistic psychopaths assault people for the fun of making other people bleed.

The 50-year-old candy-store man in Mailer’s parable has what he does because he possesses virtues that the two hoodlums who kill him do not. This is the inequality that progressive intellectuals find truly intolerable. And it’s why they’re willing to cheer on arson and assault to correct it.

This article appears as “The Love Affair with Riots” in the July 6, 2020, print edition of National Review.

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