The Morning Jolt

U.S.

Burning Cities

A man on a bike rides past a city truck on fire outside the Kenosha County Courthouse during riots following the police shooting of Jacob Blake, Kenosha, Wis., August 23, 2020. (Mike De Sisti/Milwaukee Journal Sentinel/USA TODAY/Reuters)

On the menu today, a deep dive in one big topic: our long, painful, violent summer of burning cities.

Campaigning While American Cities Burn

The second night of the Republican National Convention was . . . fine, probably not as strong as the first night, although we did get the surprises of President Trump signing a pardon and presiding over a White House naturalization ceremony. The use of the White House for convention programming runs afoul of the spirit of the Hatch Act, if not the law, and while the president and vice president are exempt, the secretary of Homeland Security is not. Lawyers will be arguing about this one for a while.

Beyond that, I get where Robert VerBruggen is coming from when he finds watching party conventions insufferable, as they are indeed infomercials: “Given our rising polarization, the political exhaustion of the past four outrage-soaked years, and the state of the country right now — with a pandemic ravaging both our health and the economy, and cities quite literally on fire — I can’t help but think that we’d be better off getting our information about the election some other way, or maybe just playing video games instead.”

Regarding those “cities literally on fire,” Kenosha, Wis., has less than 100,000 people and is on Lake Michigan, just above the Wisconsin–Illinois state line. The Census Bureau considers it part of the Chicago combined statistical area. And now it’s the site of a disturbing ongoing clash and standoff between rioters and armed volunteers.

So far, the year 2020 has seen riots in Atlanta, Saint Louis, Seattle, New York City, Minneapolis, Chicago, Oakland, Denver, Washington, D.C., Philadelphia, Trenton, Atlantic City, Boston, Louisville, Bakersfield, Columbus, Dallas, Des Moines, Detroit, Los Angeles, Sacramento, Phoenix, San Jose, and I’m sure I’ve missed lesser-covered violence. Residents of Portland have endured “87 straight nights of protest on the streets of Portland, 23 more arrested Sunday night, nearly 20 riots declared over the past 3 months.”

These are separate from mere protests; these are riots — looting, arson, and violence.

Insurance companies are already thinking about the need to raise rates for businesses in large cities. They can financially handle the current wave of claims for damages, but they’re also recognizing that rioting is no longer seen as a local or regional risk. Without warning, some racially or politically charged incident can suddenly set off unrest across the country — and only random chance and the whims of the mob can determine which businesses are left standing and which ones are thoroughly looted or burned to the ground.

Republicans accuse Democratic lawmakers of doing nothing, and that’s not quite the case. Just about every Democratic mayor, governor, and elected official has issued some statement in opposition. Wisconsin governor Tony Evers politely requested, “if you are going to protest, please do so peacefully and safely.” Representative Emanuel Cleaver of Missouri noted that Martin Luther King Jr. never led a demonstration at night.

If the Democrats want to argue that Donald Trump cannot stop additional rioting, because the current rioting is occurring on his watch, they can make that argument. But it is fair to wonder what, if anything, a President Biden would do differently.

I suspect that quite a few Democrats believe — or want to believe — that once Biden is in office, racial tensions will just naturally calm down, various police reform initiatives will go into effect, and American cities will stop being tinderboxes of rage.

One of the big problems with this theory is that those of us who remember history before January 20, 2017, can recall similarly racially charged riots spurred by controversial police actions in Ferguson, Baltimore, Saint Paul, the shooting of four cops in Dallas, and so on. There is little reason to think that Joe Biden’s approach to race relations and the methods of police will be dramatically different from that of Barack Obama. Obama did not lack for good intentions, or empathy, or eloquence, or a yearning to see trust and goodwill between police and African Americans.

Late in Obama’s presidency, an interviewer contended Obama had dropped the ball on dealing with racial disparities and asked Valerie Jarrett, “there was an opportunity throughout this presidency to really deal passionately, vocally, and without putting a muffled hand in front of the face on the issue of race, and the president only did it halfway. He was always holding back on that . . . Is this going to be the passion of the final stretch?”

Valerie Jarrett is the former president’s best friend and most stalwart defender, but even taking that into account, she made the compelling point that most problems cannot be solved by the president alone: “Let’s [take] the burden off of him solely and let’s — because it is a collective responsibility. This is not something that the President can certainly — can say suddenly because the country elected him President that suddenly all of our history just evaporates. It doesn’t. This has to happen family by family. It has to happen at the water cooler.”

Sometimes it seems like some prominent voices are on autopilot when they confront ugly and thorny problems such as this one. CNN anchor Don Lemon now wants Joe Biden to go out and give a big unifying speech on race.

“I do think that what you said was happening in Kenosha is a rorschach test for the entire country, and I think this is a blind spot for Democrats,” Lemon said. “I think Democrats are ignoring this problem or hoping that it will go away, and it’s not going to go away.”

“So unless someone comes up with a solution over the next 73 days or 70 so, however many days — 68 days — so the problem is not going to be fixed by then, but what they can do — and I think maybe Joe Biden may be afraid to do it, I’m not sure, maybe he won’t, maybe he is,” Lemon continued. “He’s got to address it. He’s got to come out and talk about it. He’s got to do a speech like Barack Obama did about race.”

“He’s got to come out and tell people that he’s going to deal with the issue of police reform in this country and that’s what’s happening now is happening under Donald Trump’s watch, on Donald Trump’s watch,” Lemon continued. “And when he is the president, Kamala Harris is the vice president, then they will take care of this problem.” 

Lemon is calling for something to happen that isn’t all that different from what happened last Thursday night. Biden’s convention speech wasn’t specifically about race, but he did offer a lot of lines such as, “It’s time for us, for we, the people, to come together. And make no mistake. United we can and will overcome this season of darkness in America. . . . This campaign isn’t just about winning votes. It’s about winning the heart and, yes, the soul of America . . . Winning it for those communities who have known the injustice of a knee on the neck.” What would another Biden speech change?

I don’t think the rioters are listening, and I don’t think they care what Joe Biden says.

Presidents can only influence the actions and behavior of federal law-enforcement authorities, anyway. If a city is under siege, mayors and governors are a lot closer and have a lot more direct authority. But throughout the year, we’ve seen elected officials act like frustrated bystanders to what’s happening in their communities. Back in June, New Jersey governor Phil Murphy violated his own executive order banning gathering in large groups by walking an anti-police-brutality march in Hillside. Murphy knows that as governor, he has authority over the New Jersey State Police, right? Who is he protesting? What job does he think he has to have in order to change the way the state police operate?

I don’t think the core problem of the riots is presidential rhetoric. I don’t even think the problem is that Democratic lawmakers are too mealy mouthed in their denunciations or criticism. I think the core of the problem is that a lot of opportunistic malcontents are smashing store windows, stealing merchandise, assaulting people, and setting fires because they think they can escape any serious consequences.

There are simply not enough cops on the streets to catch every looter, protect every person and building, and ensure that no one starts a fire. Every looter and rioter out there is making a calculated gamble that they won’t be one of the perpetrators that the cops catch, prosecute, and incarcerate. For a lot of them, it turns out to be a winning bet.

Stopping the riots will, at least in the short term, require more policing, not less. That’s an uncomfortable message for a lot of elected officials, because it places additional trust in the police, at a time when the protesters are declaring they no longer trust the police.

But the alternative is to offer ineffective calls for calm and to simply hope for the best while American cities burn.

ADDENDUM: Speaking of Oregon, Project Veritas is suing the state of Oregon, contending that a state law against recording any conversation without consent violates the First Amendment. Did the state government of Oregon ever have an issue with all of those old 60 Minutes hidden-camera reports?

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