Watching rioting and debating rioting

Like everyone else, I’ve watched Minneapolis get torn open this week after George Floyd was murdered by Minneapolis Police Department officer Derek Chauvin. As of Friday night, much of Lake Street has been damaged or destroyed, including the 3rd Precinct building. Through Facebook, I’ve watched as my friends and family in Minneapolis join protests and argue about the situation.

I don’t think I have much to add to the conversation, but this being my hometown I am compelled to write what I think about the situation, particularly the ways people talk about rioting. This is just my attempt to parse out my thoughts on the matter, from basic moral principles to meta-commentary on the way the debate is often framed. Maybe there’s a nugget of a useful or original thought in here; more likely the act of writing it will simply help me sort out the knot of sadness and frustration I have in my stomach as I’m forced to watch this unfold from so far away.

1. No amount of property can ever equal the value of a human life. The loss of property should never be mourned with equal anguish, or given the same media attention, as the loss of a human life. This is, I think, a fundamental moral premise that many liberals and (hopefully) all leftists can agree with. I don’t think it’s possible for two people who disagree on this point to have a fruitful conversation about a situation like this one.

2. The choice for anyone resisting or protesting state violence is not one between violent and nonviolent tactics. Or, at the very least, those choices are not as easy to define as some people might think. The status quo is immensely violent, and tolerating it amounts to a tacit endorsement of a certain degree of social and economic violence that is inflicted on communities of color and other marginalized groups every day. Successful violent resistance might be less violent overall than the status quo, if it ends that everyday violence.

(That the status quo is itself violent is, I think, the fundamental dividing line between liberals and leftists in the US right now. Nevertheless, I think leftists might still disagree about violence as a tactic of resistance from time to time. More on that below.)

3. When protests and riots result in the destruction of property, we should emphasize at every single opportunity that not all property is equal. An occupied and destroyed police precinct has essentially nothing in common with a looted or damaged store. The Right takes great pains to paint all property destruction as senseless, but whatever you think of the successful attack on the 3rd Precinct, it was far from accidental or illogical as a target.

4. Not all private property is equal. Certain businesses, just like police buildings, might be seen by protestors as symbols of gentrification or oppression, and thus good targets during a riot. From what I’ve seen, this is the first of these points on which leftists often disagree. I would argue, as have many others, that the destruction of certain private property during a riot might not be any more senseless than the occupation of a police building. We’ve seen certain businesses spared damage just as conspicuously as others have been targeted, and certain damaged businesses have spoken out in support of the protests. Nor are all businesses equally hurt by looting: Target stores and chain pharmacies are able to withstand damage during a riot in a way smaller businesses are not.

5. Very little property destruction in the current riot can’t be indirectly traced to escalation by the police and the state’s baffling delay in arresting Derek Chauvin. As many, many people (including some mainstream voices, to their credit) have pointed out, there’s a striking contrast between how the police have handled the response to those protesting George Floyd’s murder and the armed, mostly white, right-wing protestors who have directly threatened state governments demanding an end to quarantine restrictions is striking.

6. Not all property destruction in a riot is caused directly by protestors. The use of police agents provocateurs is well established at this point, and there’s reason to believe the damage to the Minneapolis AutoZone next to the 3rd Precinct building, which kicked off a police escalation that has led to wider rioting, was the work of a St. Paul police officer. Likewise, the narrative of misguided young leftists — often white men — eager to set off disorder against the wishes of largely-peaceful protestors is well known, to the point where protest organizers will regularly ask that they please not do that. In either case, it’s impossible to fairly characterize the protests as fundamentally violent at their core or from the outset (not that that has ever stopped the Right from trying).

7. Some amount of violence was inevitable in Minneapolis, as it is in many American cities (and as I write this, there are protests in cities all over the country). MPD has a horrific track record of violence against communities of color. Barring widespread abolition or at least universal, fundamental reform of American policing, police officers are going to keep killing innocent people. The Twin Cities more broadly have a terrible history of segregation and racial oppression, and to this day the metro area is one of the most segregated in the country. What’s happening now in Minneapolis isn’t just about George Floyd, it’s an unleashing of unrerst and dissatisfaction from a variety of communities that have been politically, socially, and economically marginalized for decades, and targeted by truly vile white conservatives in mass media when they dare to speak up. It doesn’t come from nowhere, and it’s not so much an escalation of unrest as it is an uncommonly-visible expression of what was already there. There’s a reason so many people decided to join the protests and risk arrest so quickly.

8. The tactical value of rioting and outwardly violent resistance is, I would argue, very difficult to assess in the moment. Rioting can work, either by calling attention to serious social problems, or by directly affecting material change that improves communities’ conditions. It could also lead to a conservative electoral backlash, as frightened white suburbanites turn out in large numbers and throw elections to Republicans. Most of the debates I see on social media are between people who acknowledge that riots and property damage are understandable, but who can’t agree whether or not they are helpful. I think this is the most important area for the Left to debate right now, however the debates I see still question the effectiveness of riots in moral and tactical terms simultaneously. I think we need separate conversations about the righteousness of rioting (i.e. what constitutes a valid target) and the effectiveness of rioting (i.e. what constitutes the right conditions for a riot).

9. Riots are scary. Even from hundreds of miles away, I’ve been unable to sleep knowing my hometown is being literally engulfed right now. I think there’s a lot of weird posturing by some leftists that refuses to acknowledge that, whatever you think of the righteousness of the cause and even the validity of the tactics, seeing a city burn like Minneapolis is right now is fucking scary, not only because fire is unpredictable but because rending a city open like this can produce unwanted cover for violence or just accidental injury and death. I think people of good faith should be able to acknowledge that riots are scary while still disagreeing whether or not they’re righteous or effective.

Unfortunately in mass media, which still holds sway, the debate is not typically between people of good faith; it’s between those on the Right who weaponize the scariness of riots in order to undermine conversations about their cause and liberals who might nominally support protestors but who are too easily rhetorically cornered into condemning all forms of unrest and violence, however measured and legitimate. Our work on the Left should be to shift this debate, to foster a more honest conversation about everyday violence and the unsustainability of the status quo.

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