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The Rioters Aren’t Here to Convince You

Cops and protesters clashed in several cities over the weekend. Photo: Getty Images

One of the criticisms leveled at people rioting in Minneapolis and other cities is that their behavior is strategically imprudent — that rather than persuading others of their cause’s merits, they’re expanding the ranks of their enemies and dashing hope for political change. To the people making this argument: Humbly consider that you are not the target audience. A riot is not a tactic to gain widespread sympathy. It’s an expression of how inadequate other efforts have been.

A characteristic example of this reasoning can be found in Ross Douthat’s latest New York Times opinion column, published on Saturday. In a piece titled “The Case Against Riots,” the author mines the historical record and political science to make the case that riots in response to racism are more likely to provoke white revanchism than gain white allies for progressive policies. This is not really news; white backlash has been a typical response to black dissent for centuries. But Douthat frames his argument in partisan and electoral terms: Whereas white “proximity to black-led nonviolent protests increased white Democratic vote-share” in 1968, for example, “proximity to black-led violent protests caused substantively important declines” that tipped that election in favor of Richard Nixon and his “social order” campaign. Donald Trump was successful at weaponizing a miniature version of this backlash in 2016, Douthat writes. This puts added pressure on liberal officials to “forestall and contain” the riots that have greeted George Floyd’s killing if they want to win white voters in November.

The author closes his column with a Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. quote: “Every time a riot develops, it helps George Wallace [the segregationist and 1968 presidential candidate].” It’s a fitting inclusion, though perhaps inadvertently. In the past five decades, King’s political efforts have gone from broadly reviled to the stuff of transpartisan lore, cited and praised by aspirants to his legacy as a model of what can be accomplished through nonviolent protest. But they’ve also become rhetorically useful for people more interested in “the absence of tension” than the “presence of justice,” to quote King again; these more often invoke his methods as a cudgel against modern-day dissidents. Hardly a protest for racial justice has passed since 2014 that wasn’t met by strident accusations that its participants were betraying King’s dream. There’s plenty to be said about how these critics misrepresent the civil-rights leader’s philosophy. But their starkest incongruity is that King’s most vaunted wins haven’t proved to be especially resilient.

It stands to reason that, if you’re going to choose a figure to shame demonstrators into emulating, you’d have a stronger case if both major political parties hadn’t spent decades fighting to dismantle his signature achievements. From the Reagan-era alignment of federal Republicanism against civil-rights enforcement to the retrenchment of school segregation and expansion of the carceral state — both of which were abetted and often spearheaded by Democrats — few civil-rights gains for black people have evaded a more or less sustained assault since they were first secured. Among the most severe manifestations has been the GOP’s war on the franchise. One of the two most significant legislative victories attributed to King’s movement, the Voting Rights Act of 1965, has been defanged by a reactionary Supreme Court majority, leading to the widespread disenfranchisement of mainly poor and black voters. It’s become a stated principle for contemporary Republicans to make it harder for unfavorable constituencies to cast ballots, meaning people who aren’t white and conservative. This reaction doesn’t negate King’s accomplishments, but it figures prominently in their retrospective assessment; the leader himself spent his last years in spiraling despair at American antipathy toward his vision. In April 1968, a bitter King planned to preach a sermon titled “America May Go to Hell.” He was unable to deliver it; a white supremacist shot him through the jaw and killed him on the Thursday before he was scheduled to do so.

This is crucial context for assessing Douthat’s most scathing point:

[Most] spasms of robbery or arson aren’t the revolution but often a ritual reaffirmation of the status quo — a period of misrule that doesn’t try to establish an alternative order or permanently change any hierarchies, as a true revolution would, but instead leaves the lower orders poorer and the well-insured upper classes more or less restored.

This is dubious. Even if rioting has yet to usher in a second American revolution, the previous wave of protests and riots were the vanguard for a range of political and cultural shifts. These include a leftward lurch in public opinion around inequality in the criminal-legal system and electoral successes for reform-minded prosecutors, many of whom have shrunk their local imprisoned populations by not-insignificant margins. These changes tend to happen at the outer edges of mainstream discourse and are far from guaranteed whenever riots happen. But they suggest that, while negative and possibly politically determinative backlash has greeted riots before, so, it appears, have shifts aimed at assuaging their partakers’ grievances. The causal relationship is often debatable. But the question is unsettled enough that, relatively speaking, to dismiss riots as a “ritual reaffirmation of the status quo” ignores how varied, contingent, and unpredictable their fallout typically is.

A more reductive but commonly expressed version of this claim holds that rioters are insincerely committed to their alleged grievances. They’re burning buildings; therefore, they don’t actually care about racist law enforcement — or so the reasoning goes. But the notion that even the most disruptive and lawless manifestations of unrest haven’t sought to establish an alternative social order seems easily refuted; the most politically significant example of property destruction last week was the siege and incineration of the Minneapolis Police’s 3rd Precinct. In almost every city where rioting has occurred, the consistent theme has been the targeting of police vehicles for wreckage and officers for pelting with projectiles. This is no more the behavior of people indifferent to upending the status quo than it is of people trying to make friends on Capitol Hill, or to endear themselves to the median white voter. Given decades of precedent and the immediate precipitating factors — a police officer kneeling fatally on the neck of a gasping black man, a pandemic that’s killed thousands of people and cost millions their jobs, an upswell of police violence against unarmed protesters — these riots are more likely an effort to upwardly redistribute the contempt that the current order and its guardians have shown towards them. Individual motives no doubt vary. But generally, the goal seems less positive attention from skeptics and undecided voters than negative attention from police and representatives of this order.

This isn’t to say that the unrest is defined by ideological, strategic, or even demographic uniformity. Despite the absence of precise statistics, it’s apparent from documentary evidence that the rioters aren’t all black or even all nonwhite; that a majority of demonstrators practicing principled nonviolence exists alongside a small minority of anarchist and other black-bloc rioters practicing principled destruction; that many of their less ideologically committed compatriots have turned to arson and looting after recalculating what the law’s demonstrations of illegitimacy mean for how much they’re required to respect it. Perhaps some of them are agents provocateurs. It seems almost certain that there’s a generational component, as well — an outcry from young people facing recent history’s most dismal economic prospects at the hands of their elders.

But in the main, the target is a governing order that continually demands their submission while reveling in their destruction — bodily, economic, and otherwise. Many have concluded that less extreme measures have failed to secure the justice they want and deserve. Even Dr. King, the American saint whom they’ve been relentlessly shamed for not emulating, has been thanked posthumously for his service with the steady erosion of his life’s work at the hands of the United States’ most powerful people. Lesson learned. In the reasoning of the disaffected, the time for pleading and seeking recourse through the established political channels has passed, at least for now. Their cries have gone unheeded; most of their skeptics have little to offer but appeals to process, to order, to deference toward the passions of skittish white people and the predation of avaricious billionaires. You might begrudge the rioters their insistence on seeing some of it burn for a few nights. But then again, you’d be missing their point.

The Rioters Aren’t Here to Convince You