On Rioting

A friend issued a challenge to substantiate the position that protesting police brutality isn’t justified. I was on a debate team in 1992, and there was a similar debate topic the Autumn after the Rodney King verdict / LA Riots. I won by convincing people that the LA rioting wasn’t justified. But I also won by advocating *other* rioting … which I doubt was what the debate sponsor meant when assigning the sides as “The rioting that occurred in LA following the Rodney King verdict was (not) justified”. And my position was not something the other debater was prepared to rebut. Instead of the easily defensible position that disruptive protests are correlated with change and change is obviously needed (which he was well prepared to rebut), the other debater had to defend destroying the property, businesses, and persons of uninvolved parties.
My argument at the time, which generally holds today, is that general rioting is understandably cathartic — ironic because I suspect the police brutality we’ve witnessed has been cathartic for the officers involved. The system is corrupt; burn it down! But understandable is not the same as justified or right. In 1992, some half of the damage was incurred by Korean-American businesspersons in a particular section of LA. Some half a billion dollars! People fob off property damage because “insurance covers it”. Being reimbursed for damaged property does not erase the harm. People are still physically hurt. There’s time rebuilding, lost business. Insurance rates are calculated to ensure profits for the insurance company. Increased risk means increased premiums. Property underwriters, in 2020, are rethinking their risk calculations because civil unrest had been fairly uncommon in the US. But it’s becoming more common and something they need to price into policies. Increased expense is a widespread, long-term damage that erodes the viability of small businesses.
Just short of 14% of the LAPD were classified as Asian American in 1990. The force was over 60% white. The officers who assaulted King were 100% white. The jury included ten whites (one bi-racial male, one Latino, and one Asian American). That’s more than 75% white and not quite 8% Asian American. How are the people whose businesses were destroyed in a position to remedy either the proximal or distal problems fomenting the riots? Larry Tarvin is white; Reginald Denny is white. Beyond the misfortune of sharing a common (and very broad) ancestry, how are these men representative of racist policing practices? Of a judicial system that tells police officers that it’s OK to beat someone? But they’ve been terribly injured just the same.
War used to involve a lot of generalized destruction. There’s a reason governments were generally housed in the center of their territory. The king is safe because you need to march through a hundred miles of peasants to reach him. And the king doesn’t really concern himself with a bunch of dead peasants. With the advent of air-delivered ordinance, the methods of war have changed. Attacks can be targeted to military and government installations to reduce collateral damage. Rioting can similarly be adapted to reduce collateral damage. To some degree, I’ve seen more targeted destruction this year. CHAZ in Portland, burning police cruisers, torching the police station in Minneapolis, attacks on federal buildings when Trump started deploying his DHS army to attack on protesters? I cannot mount an argument against those actions. Technically, it’s illegal. But I despair as Democrats politic in good faith whilst Republicans undermine the Democratic system to ensure victory … same here. If one side decides to descend into lawlessness … the “we go high” approach has not historically worked, and I have no reason to expect it to work in the future. But there’s still a lot of collateral damage. The rioting is frequently mis-targeted, and this renders the protests less effective. Will looting my clothing store spur me to your cause? No! This is one lesson from the American invasion and occupation of Iraq — you can turn people against you by maiming their uncle and destroying their business.
Changing the criterion from “is rioting justified” to “is protesting justified” … a few months ago, a friend asked why Kaepernick had to make such a spectacle. I find the a priori assumption that *he* made a spectacle of it flawed, but accepting the premise and asking the more general question “why do these protesters need to inconvenience *me* in order to make their point?” … well, were you aware of their point before they slightly inconvenienced you? How inconvenienced were you *really*? OK, had to listen to Trump be a jackass about it … but that was more on Trump & co that Kaepernick. How inconvenienced do you think being harassed by the police is? Or killed!?! So you are objecting to an action that was incredibly effective at communicating a message in a way that barely inconvenienced you. WHY??
I’ll grant that encountering a peaceful protest is more inconveniencing than seeing (or hearing about) someone kneeling along the sideline of a sporting event. You needed to get back to work and traffic was a mess. You were late to an appointment because you had to make your way through protesters downtown. Still, it’s a trivial thing that happens rarely (OK, maybe not rarely if you’re making your way home from work through a protest … but still, not a huge deal in the grand scheme of things).
The only objection (apart from denying there’s a problem, which is rather absurd) I could see to the peaceful protests is that the most effective approach would be run for office. Become the city council and demand police reforms from your position with authority over policing. It’s not a viable approach, though — it’s expensive to run for office, and not everyone has the time and resources to devote to that endeavor. Far better to ensure local government officials know this is what constituents demand from them. Write letters, call the offices, protest — make sure you are seen and heard.

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