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National Opinion

PECK: Loot and Riot

“Aren’t people just hurting their communities by rioting and looting? I don’t get it, how is this level of violence going to solve the problems of police brutality in America?” 

Two questions so frequently and ignorantly asked by American liberals who feign torment, when they merely serve to perpetuate the status quo. 

On May 25, 2020, the North Carolina-born basketball player, former hip-hop artist, and father of two small girls, George Floyd, was murdered in broad daylight. Killed because he was black. In the week following the crime, protests erupted in every major city in the United States. 

Minnesota Governor Tim Waltz denounced the violent aspect of the demonstrations, arguing that those protesting no longer care about the death of George Floyd. “The absolute chaos” he said, “this is not grieving, and this is not making a statement about an injustice that we fully acknowledge needs to be fixed—this is dangerous.” Hollow words that are as useless as they are wrong. The riots throughout the country are the most passionate embodiment of a “statement” America has seen for some time. If one thing has become clear after so many public lynchings, it is that grieving behind closed doors only leads to more grief. To stay quiet in the face of state sanctioned murder—to treat it like a natural death—only seeks to normalize it. 

Therefore, the protests this week are the most constructive grieving possible, for they accurately express the rage of citizens against their authorities and seek to change a system that allows the murder of black people in the first place. “Violence,” Jean Paul Sartre said, “like Achilles’ lance, can heal the wounds it has inflicted.” If looting a Target will ensure the life of men, then loot it—people may start to pay attention. This act is grieving at its most effective.

James Clark, whose African American son Jamar was killed in 2015 by the police (also in Minneapolis), spoke with a more personal and profound authority than the feeble governor when he said, “This has been building up for over 400 years and it just got to the point where it exploded.” Though even this analysis is not entirely right; this is not the point where American race relations just exploded. They keep fermenting and subsiding time and time again. Los Angeles lit up in the wake of the Rodney King beating nearly 30 years ago, and the status quo won. Just as was the case after Eric Garner, Tamir Rice, Freddie Gray, and Philando Castille, peaceful protest did not lead to concrete change. 

Karl Marx declared upon the ascension of Napoleon III that history repeats itself, first as tragedy, then as farce. The killing of black men in America has become so sadly repetitive that Eric Garner’s fateful words “I can’t breathe” were echoed by George Floyd shortly before he died. Michael Brown Jr.’s death in 2014 was similarly a tragedy, but now the protests in Minneapolis risk mimicking the protests in Ferguson—violent up to a point and then placated by the authority of the state. For the George Floyd protests to be more successful, they must portray people’s anger at injustice with exactly the “chaos” Tim Walz decries. When the metaphorical levee breaks and police suppression is no longer feasible, the government will have to respond by legal means in order to stop the unrest. The farce of American race relations will not come to an end any other way.

Hanah Arendt, in her book length essay “On Violence,” acknowledges the inherent power of aggressive tactics. Violent protest does not necessitate injury or death, and to maim or kill in the act of protest would debase the protestor to the level of the oppressor. Instead, the relative violence of looting and destruction is sometimes the most effective. Commenting on the May 1968 civil unrest in France, Arendt noted that “it did not take more than the relatively harmless, essentially nonviolent French students’ rebellion to reveal the vulnerability of the whole political system.” The students of the Sorbonne barricaded streets, destroyed property, and protested for over a month. Nobody died, but the government nearly fell and France was dragged into the modern world. It took this relative violence, where property was destroyed but people were not, to have the most constructive outcome. Exactly the same action might change civil rights laws in America today.

True, the largely peaceful Civil Rights Movement won enormous victories for black Americans, but those successes were limited. The endless killing of America’s black men and women shows that the mountain top is still a long way off; other means are necessary. Protests have already spread throughout the country, and many have understandably turned violent. If those protests then supersede the state’s capacity for suppression, then legal changes will naturally and necessarily come into force. If the ballot box alone was effective, if peaceful protest was effective, if even violent but contained protest (as in L.A. in 1992) was effective, then change would have come to America long ago. 

Looting, the destruction of property, and solidarity from the working class were three key elements that propelled the French students of 1968 to victory, as they had done with so many revolutions prior. This week, Harvard professor Cornel West blamed the unequal economic system for producing America’s current level of police brutality in the first place. He credits not only the “neo-fascist” Trump administration for failing to share wealth, power, and respect, but also the “neoliberal” moderate wing of the Democratic party—a wing that, it has to be acknowledged, was led for eight years by an African American president. 

When Arendt said “impotence breeds violence,” she was talking about the risk of a power vacuum in the state. But it remains equally true that when people themselves are impotent, rioting and looting are inevitable. Hence the violence in America and the change it will bring is not only a moral imperative but a material necessity. Only by giving people power now can the state avoid violence in the future. 

The beauty in the destruction of company stores is that it sends a message of support for economic equality at the same time as it endorses racial equality: two things that cannot exist without each other for long. As West knows, and as every historic revolution has shown, there can be no radical change without solidarity. The billowing flames spewing from the top of the Minneapolis police department’s 3rd Precinct building are beautiful not only in their aesthetic power, but carry the weight of centuries of revolutionary struggle. Watching buildings burn on America’s shores, one is reminded of the flames of Tunisia in 2011, Argentina in 2001, London in 1990, and of the revolutionary fervor that brought progressive change to the rest of the world. 

Those least vulnerable must carry the highest burden. White and non-black people are necessary for the success of civil rights and must take the lead in the necessary revolutionary action. Christopher Hitchens wrote that “the first real kick he gets from a cop is often a huge moment of truth to a young member of the middle class.” The poorest members of communities of color do not get to choose the fight they live. White people, particularly those in higher classes, do get to choose. They must prove themselves by leading the charge against such injustice. Only then will they realize who they truly are. In the words of Thomas Paine, “These are the times that try men’s souls.” 

Thomas Paine also said that “Tyranny, like hell, is not easily conquered; yet we have this consolation with us, that the harder the conflict, the more glorious the triumph.” The obscene repetition of police aggression against black Americans has continued for too long. It has not been easy to conquer. Yet the morally imperative and materially necessary violence that now comes to America’s streets gives hope to its future. So let it be said that rioting and looting are justified, and beautiful in their capacity to enact change.

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