Does property destruction help or harm the movement for Black lives? Bill K. offers questions and methods for socialists.
Recent opinion polls indicate that most people support the huge protests following the murder of George Floyd on May 25th. They also show that a significant number of those participating in and supporting the protests disapprove of the “rioting” and “looting” that have occurred in many cities. (It should be said that conventional meanings of “rioting” and “looting” can be misleading and need to be rethought.) The media has tended to blame such violence on “outside agitators” — left-wing anarchists, far-right “boogaloo boys,” white nationalist provocateurs.
But not all the violence can be attributed to such groups. In Philadelphia during the week-end after George Floyd’s death, two ShopRite stores that opened in 2013 specifically to serve and employ local black residents were damaged and robbed by people from the area. Incidents such as this have a different political significance from the militant tactics that enabled protesters in Minneapolis and Seattle to force local police to abandon their precinct headquarters. Yet another set of questions is posed by the recent destruction of Civil War monuments in cities around the country — and, from an opposite political perspective, by the damage done by protesters to the 54th Regiment Memorial in honor of black Union soldiers that stands across the street from the Massachusetts State House in Boston.
It’s understandable that committed protesters and their supporters sometimes criticize the physical violence and property damage, even when they recognize that such behavior is rooted in longstanding rage and despair. As Andre Perry writes in Know Your Price: Valuing Black Lives and Property in America’s Black Cities, “Nobody wants to see businesses burn, scorched, destroyed. No one. So the question is, ‘Why are people willing to burn something down?’”
In Boston and several other cities, the violence appears to have been initiated by relatively small, predominantly white groups operating at a distance from the main protest and intent on throwing water bottles and fireworks, burning police vehicles, breaking through shop windows to initiate what has been called “opportunistic looting.” It’s unclear how tactics such as these advance the main goals of the broader protest movement. In some instances, small minority-owned businesses and stores that working-class minorities depend on have been trashed and forced to shut down. Such attacks can discourage people from joining the protests. They can also encourage some protesters to turn towards the cops as the only force that can protect their neighborhoods and what property they have. What we need is a mass movement against racist police brutality that can democratically decide on and carry out its tactics in an accountable way, while also defending individual protesters against targeted police repression — whether we agree with their particular tactics or not.
The first thing to say in trying to think critically about protest violence is that, whatever its social and political status, it pales in comparison to the police violence that took the life of George Floyd and that has been on display on a national scale every day since the current wave of protests began. We’ve seen police violence grotesquely militarized at a national level–especially in Trump’s efforts to “dominate” protesters in Washington D.C. with dangerous helicopter flyovers, tear gas, “flash bangs,” and huge contingents of unidentifiable federal troops dressed for war and armed to the teeth. How much of the mainly low-tech and sporadic physical force directed at the cops has actually been a self-defensive response to the cops’ own arrogant aggression? And what about evidence from D.C., Philadelphia, and other cities that some cops have welcomed the menacing presence of armed far-right vigilante groups?
The second thing to say is that, historically, spontaneous social violence has always been part of the reaction in this country to racist armed oppression by the state. Even a summary look back at the past half-century–from the Watts Riots in 1965 through the militant anti-racist protests of 1967-68 and the LA Rebellion in 1992 to the civil unrest in New Orleans following Hurricane Katrina and the Occupy Oakland violence in 2011—offers instances in which a presumed boundary between angry but peaceful protest and destructive violence has been crossed. Trying to understand spontaneous violent resistance and property destruction in moments of intense social conflict doesn’t mean that you condone or advocate it in every instance.
Although Martin Luther King Jr. was an advocate of non-violent protest, he also spoke insightfully about the relationship between justified protest and social violence. In his 1963 Letter from Birmingham Jail, King pointed to the frustration and despair that lead to such violence by recognizing that “justice too long delayed is justice denied.” And as Jenée Osterheldt recently reminded us in a Boston Globe op-ed piece called “It’s bigger than buildings. America is burning,” although King condemned rioting, he also insisted that we think seriously about its social origin and cause: “I think America must see that riots do not develop out of thin air. Certain conditions continue to exist in our society which must be condemned as vigorously as we condemn riots. But in the final analysis, a riot is the language of the unheard.”
From the alternative traditions of Black Power militancy we need to remember the Black Panther Party’s motivations for legally arming themselves to defend their members and their communities against police violence. And we need to listen again to the unflinching voice of Malcolm X: “We are nonviolent with people who are nonviolent with us“ ; “Concerning nonviolence, it is criminal to teach a man not to defend himself when he is the constant victim of brutal attacks.”
Here are some basic questions worth asking about “rioting,” “looting,” and related kinds of violent protest:
- What’s being attacked and/or “looted”? The police themselves and their stations and equipment (as in Minneapolis and Seattle)? Upscale shops in upscale neighborhoods? Shops frequented by ordinary working people and people of color? Public property and monuments?
- Who’s doing the attacking and looting? Small groups that operate on the periphery of the main protest action? People from within the protest who get assaulted and/or insulted by the cops? People from working-class neighborhoods and neighborhoods of color who hear that shops have been broken into and seize the opportunity to take money or things they can’t afford to buy?
- What do the majority of black protesters think about physical attacks on the cops? Are all such attacks regarded as acts of self-defense, or only some of them? What do black protesters think about the looting of shops? Do they support or encourage these actions? Criticize or condemn them? Do they see them as advancing or as hurting the central focus and long-term objectives of the protest?
And here are some principles to consider in thinking through and debating the meaning of social violence in relation to organized political protest:
- Always begin by affirming solidarity with those who have been hurt by police brutality and are fighting back against it.
- Never equate the violence of the oppressed with the violence of the oppressor. Even if we feel that particular forms of violent protest are counterproductive and dangerous to a majority of protesters, we must understand that those forms of protest have their origin in and are provoked by police violence inherent in a racist capitalist system.
- Understand that militant, disruptive protest is not only most clearly justified but also most likely to be effective when it is democratically organized, debated, and carried through by a majority of those committed to the mass movement. We’ve already seen evidence in recent days that organized protesters are themselves taking steps to discourage or contain counterproductive violence — without depending on the cops.
“No justice, no peace!” This venerable chant is being given new life, new force, in the movement sparked by the murder of George Floyd. We need to think through what it means to insist, at this time in history, that “peace” and “justice” are inseparable — that you can’t have one without the other. We need to make clear to ourselves and to those who either oppose the protest movement or try to remain neutral that you can’t destroy a peace that doesn’t really exist for the exploited and the oppressed. Black protesters will take the lead in deciding together whether, when, and how to disrupt the dominant racist order that has for centuries deprived black people and other people of color of their right to live in peace. It was Frederick Douglass who said, three years before the beginning of the Civil War, “Power concedes nothing without a demand. It never did and it never will.”
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