There’s something happening here… Protests quickly turned to riots in Minneapolis over the weekend, and those riots have spread to multiple major US cities. What started as minor protests over the murder of George Floyd by Minneapolis Police have spiraled into riots and looting on a scale not seen since the late 1960s.
Make no mistake; the powers that be are scared and they should be.
Property Rights vs. Human Rights
Our political establishment and corporate media have been recycling a lot of negative analyses over the protests and riots. We hear phrases like “outside agitators” being thrown around a bit. They have been spending a lot of time delegitimizing this movement for justice in any way they can. One such ways is the debate over property damage.
Property “rights” is a cornerstone of our nation’s founding. Property rights have been elevated in our discourse to be just as important as human rights (probably even more so). You would think to our neoliberal establishment, burning down buildings or smashing windows is equal to choking a man to death. Nothing could be further from the truth.
Legitimate expressions of rage that many Americans feel against our murderous system have been attacked as a MAGA plot, hijacking by “anarchists”, or even worse, Russia. Yes, you read that right. Some in the corporate media are blaming the Russians.
The establishment needs to believe all of this is because of “outside” agitators. They can’t assume it’s because people (especially black Americans) are legitimately angry with the system. It’s obviously, in their view, someone else’s fault. This mindset accepts that our system is inherently just and sound. Yes, they might concede a few small “reforms” need to take place, but that need for reform can’t explain this rage we see in the streets.
Clearly people can’t be that mad, right? Clearly our system works for the elite, therefore it must work for everyone, and this anger isn’t truly organic… Soak in how smug and detached that mindset is. It represents a kind of lord/peasant mentality. The peasants can’t be that unhappy with their lordship? Well, we are, and Russia has nothing to with it.
That’s not to say there’s no infiltration or agitators within the protests and riots. The truth is any infiltration and agitation is likely coming from the police. They’re called agent provocateurs, undercover cops that pose as protesters to cause a ruckus. Causing said ruckus then gives police the excuse they need to use excessive force to clear the protests.
It is a common police tactic across the world. We are no exception. American police departments, even the FBI, are notorious for it. Read up on the murder of Fred Hampton and the infiltration of the Black Panthers in the 60s. Read about the Pinkertons of the 30s, or the saboteurs of Occupy Wall Street.
Is Non-Violence Really the Only Way Forward?
There’s another aspect of criticism against the riots. This criticism tends to come from fellow leftists; violence and destruction are ineffective and hurting the cause. I couldn’t disagree more. It might seem distasteful to support riots and looting or even the threat of them, but take a look at history.
History shows us that no massive societal change comes about by non-violent means alone. True systemic change only happens in a society with either direct acts of violence or the credible threat of violence. If you are skeptical, you might ask, “what about MLK and the Civil Rights Movement? What about Gandhi in India?” There’s a lot more nuance there than you might imagine.
Before going to college, I too believed that MLK and his movement of civil disobedience was what won the passage of the Civil Rights Act. Boy was I wrong. The Civil Rights scholars that I learned from tell a different story. MLK and his non-violent movement clearly had a large impact, but it alone wasn’t enough to push LBJ and Congress to pass the Civil Rights Act of 1964 and the Voting Rights Act of 1965. It was their fear of men like Malcolm X and black nationalism that truly scared them.
The idea was that if the government didn’t do something to solve the civil rights issue peacefully, that many black people, and the left in general, could turn to armed violence. This was a credible fear at the time for those in power. MLK himself even had a change of heart over non-violence. It wasn’t the fear of more sit-ins and marches that spooked the powers that be, it was fear of armed insurrection. Remember, the 60s also suffered from several race riots, which further enforced the fears of armed conflict.
What about Gandhi in India? Well, that too is more nuanced. The British didn’t leave India because of Gandhi’s movement. They left because their empire was bankrupt after World War II. India also had a rising Hindu nationalist movement, more than happy to spark violent action for India’s independence. There were also credible fears of armed Hindu/Muslim conflict, which the British had no resources to quash or control. Yes, Gandhi played an important role, but by no means was his movement the deciding factor for an independent India.
I’ll give another high profile example; The New Deal. FDR didn’t pass the New Deal because he was such a charitable tree huger. He recognized that if the government didn’t do something to alleviate the economic pain of the poor and working class, violent alternatives might be chosen. Support for communist revolution in the 1930s was the highest it had ever been, or ever would be, in American history.
A quote attributed to FDR goes like this; “we either pass the New Deal and the rich lose some of their money, or we don’t pass it and they might lose everything.” This quote has never been verified, and its probably a myth he said it, but the sentiment is still correct.
If the government didn’t do something to help the working class, then the working class could support the communists. The communists had no qualms with armed revolution, which was their main goal.
What are the strands that connect these historic events? Threats of credible violence if peaceful approaches were not taken seriously.
Anger at the System is Diverse
I’ve heard some leftists argue that the movement is being “hijacked” by white leftists who don’t care about George Floyd or police brutality. Apparently, white leftists are “infiltrating” the movement for their “own agenda.” Apparently, social and economic justice are just “white” issues now?
I wasn’t aware that non-white Americans didn’t need healthcare, free college, debt relief, higher wages, better labor protections or paid sick and maternal leave. That’s a ridiculous assertion of course but based on some of the language I’ve heard, this appears to be a point of contention.
This mindset also assumes that poor and working-class white people in America can’t be angry at the police or the system. It assumes that the only role white people can play is to either be human shields, say nice words, or stay out of the way. That’s a self-defeating way of thinking. The assumption is that white people can’t be angry at the system because they’re privileged and therefore don’t feel any social or economic pain. Or, if they do, it’s not important enough to riot over. That’s ridiculous, of course.
Yes, many white Americans are also poor and disgusted with the system and can be angry in their own right. That’s not “hijacking” anything. That’s standing in solidarity, expressing rage that all the poor and disenfranchised feel in this country. Also, the system seems to be more fearful of the diversity of this anger. The establishment will always feared a multi-racial movement in solidarity with each other.
There’s also a thing called the snowball theory. It’s a concept that one issue can spiral into another and then another, until it’s too late and you have an avalanche on your hands. While this movement may have began because of the murder of George Floyd, it’s snowballed into something much bigger than that. This happens with protest movements across the world quite frequently. One issue may be the spark, but the fire is sustained by general social and economic grievances. Mohamed Bouazizi in Tunisia was a great example and that’s exactly what’s happening now. Collective rage at the entire system is fueling these protests and riots.
How Do We Achieve Justice?
The debate also centers on tactics. Many believe that non-violence is the only way for the movement to succeed. The problem with that sentiment is there is no evidence, in past or recent history, to justify that belief.
What justice did peaceful protests get for Michael Brown? What did it get for Eric Garner, Tamir Rice, Philando Castille? Absolutely nothing. All the families of these murdered men got was thoughts, prayers, and platitudes. That’s it. Peaceful protests were marginalized, or in the case of Ferguson, crushed by force.
The cops that murdered those men got away clean, with just a slap on the wrist and paid leave. That’s not justice. That’s a sick joke. We’ve gotten more justice for the murder of George Floyd through riots then he would have ever gotten with a peaceful protest. That’s just a hard fact at this point. There’s little evidence to the contrary.
While the cop that murdered Floyd wasn’t punished as well as he should have been, he was still brought up on charges far harsher than other killer cops before him for the same crime. Does any leftist really believe that he would’ve gotten third degree murder over a peaceful protest? That’s highly unlikely.
Then there’s the argument that black community leaders are urging restraint and non-violent action. I’m sorry to say, but I think they’re wrong. They continue to follow a failed strategy, peaceful though it might be. I know, what business does an impoverished knuckle-headed white leftist like myself have in criticizing black community leaders? I don’t care about the optics. It’s about the substance of change you strive for and the tactics you use. Yes, its okay to disagree on tactics. Mass movements do it all the time, and will continue to do so.
Call me privileged, call me anything you want. I don’t care, because this isn’t about me. This is about how we achieve societal change for the better. It’s about justice, both social and economic. This is bigger than me or any community leader.
The riots and protests breaking out across the country are a good thing. The political establishment hasn’t been this scared in a long time. This fear would never have come from non-violent protest alone. Sometimes, as undesirable as it is, you must smash a few windows and set a few buildings alight if you want the system to pay attention and take you seriously. It’s clear now the establishment is paying attention and they’re scared as hell.