Mass protest works, even when participants break the law in acts of targeted civil disobedience. Random lawbreaking — like vandalism and theft on city streets — does not.
The nonviolent protests that were a famous hallmark of the civil rights movement in the United States were not passive. Organizers executed direct actions linked to their political goals, including those that required breaking unjust laws, like sitting at segregated lunch counters and in prohibited seats on buses. Organizers knew that white onlookers and police would respond with violence and spur chaos, and they faced that violence with courage and dignity. Those heroic actions spurred passage of the landmark Civil Rights Act and Voting Rights Act.
Anti-Trump resistance in the streets in 2017 was not as bold, but it included acts of defiance. Protesters shut down access to airports and agitated and confronted members of Congress. The targeted disobedience had an impact, delaying and scaling back Donald Trump’s efforts to enact some form of a “Muslim ban” and mobilizing a sustained level of heightened political engagement by a huge cohort of mostly women. They spurred electoral change in the year to come.
Black Lives Matter is driving progress in reducing police violence. Protesters in Ferguson, Missouri, and elsewhere refused police orders to disperse. They disobeyed curfews. They disrupted Democratic candidates’ events. They forced their issue onto the political agenda and got results. Trump signed a criminal justice reform bill, and reforms have led to fewer police killings in big cities where liberals hold political power.
Much of these public protests looked chaotic in the moment, particularly when police responded violently with military-grade equipment and wartime tactics, firing tear gas, releasing dogs, and turning power hoses on fellow Americans. But they were part of a concerted campaign of political action that continues today in the form of large mass demonstrations against police violence and racial injustice in many American cities.
But over the past week, we’ve also seen a significant number of incidents that look like random theft and vandalism. Windows have been smashed and stores burglarized as targets of opportunity or outlets for fun, closer in spirit to a sports riot than targeted civil disobedience.
And research shows that on a larger scale, vandalism can be very damaging to vulnerable communities, while also creating a counterproductive distraction from real efforts at political action.
Nobody is speaking in favor of vandalism or theft, but there’s unquestionably a sense in the air on the left that it’s inappropriate to condemn these actions. The sentiment is pervasive on social media, where many on the left make the point that human life matters more than property, as if there’s a hard trade-off between the destruction of property and saving the lives of African Americans.
To be clear, if a few smashed windows or a looted Target were the price we had to pay for racial equality, it would be one well worth paying. But this is not the trade-off.
Nobody leading real movements for change is suggesting that people engage in indiscriminate acts of destruction. In fact, there are many examples of protesters intervening to stop looters and vandals (many of whom are white) whom they realize only serve to discredit their work. Nationwide, protesters are challenging the multiple, interlocking injustices faced by African Americans. Right now you’re either helping or exacerbating the problems — and it’s clear where the vandals stand.
Smashing random property is not the Boston Tea Party
The kind of nonviolent direct action — something that requires more courage and discipline than mere “peaceful protest” — spearheaded by Mahatma Gandhi in India and Martin Luther King Jr. in the US is one of the hardest and most underrated tactics for political change in the history of the world.
Defenders of more aggressive forms of physical force are correct that their approach can also bring about useful change. But their examples, like the Boston Tea Party, do not capture the current chaos.
The essence of the Boston Tea Party is that New England radicals protested an act of British Parliament that was designed to help the British East India Company. They boarded the company’s ships and destroyed its tea in an act tied directly to their political message.
Some sympathetic voices argue that the current looting and vandalism have a similar political connection to the protests. Speaking to Vox’s Terry Nguyen, sociologist Darnell Hunt gamely tried to posit that “protesters are not indiscriminately burning things. They seem to be more focused on chain stores, like Target, or specific cultural icons that represent a system people feel has not served them.”
The reporting from the ground does not fully support this theory. The vandalism and looting is not exclusively targeting big-box stores or symbols of transnational capitalism. Instead, journalists are capturing incidents of indiscriminate looting and vandalism being carried out by opportunists from Los Angeles to Washington to Miami to Philadelphia. Local black- and immigrant-owned businesses have been robbed and torched, along with a labor union headquarters and whatever else happens to be nearby. There’s no meaningful connection between much of the vandalism and the protesters’ political messages.
One could have a separate conversation about things like pulling down the Robert E. Lee statue in Montgomery, Alabama, or attacking the one in Richmond, Virginia. These gestures may or may not be politically effective, but the symbolic meaning of physical assaults on inanimate monuments to white supremacy is very clear. Even setting police cars on fire is a legible form of political action, albeit a political risky and substantively dangerous one. Spraying graffiti on one of Trump’s hotels or smashing in the windows would be a form of protest. Smashing windows that just happen to be nearby is not.
Big riots are harmful
Many riot skeptics have pointed to Princeton political scientist Omar Wasow’s research showing that while nonviolent protests helped boost the civil rights movement in the 1960s, the “long hot summer” of rioting in 1968 shifted white opinion sharply to the right. There is some countervailing evidence suggesting that the 1992 Los Angeles riots actually did inspire constructive political change, though Wasow himself argues that they are likely picking up the effect of genuine shock over the events that precipitated the rioting.
A recent Morning Consult poll, which is broadly full of encouraging information about public views of the protests, does also say that 64 percent of people have heard a lot about looting and over 70 percent think it’s very important to prevent it.
And beyond politics, it’s actually worth thinking about not just the secondary political consequences, but the actual direct impact of vandalism on the communities where it occurs.
The rioting of the 1960s was concentrated in majority-black neighborhoods, and William Collins and Robert Margo find that it meaningfully depressed property values in impacted neighborhoods. This is perhaps not a shocking finding (of course property values decline when buildings burn down), but they show that the effect was large enough, systemic enough, and lasting enough that “that the racial gap in the value of property widened in riot-afflicted cities during the 1970s.” In a separate paper, they find that the same set of riots decreased labor market earnings for black workers in impacted cities.
One piece of good news about 2020 is that, so far, absolutely nothing on the scale of the big 1960s riots has taken place. The point, though, is that you really are hurting people when you engage in indiscriminate property damage, and the more that happens, the worse things will be.
The police need to do their jobs
In theory, the division of labor in a protest situation in the United States should be very clear. People are allowed to protest (it’s in the Constitution!), but they are not allowed to destroy property and steal. Police officers are supposed to enforce the law by arresting and deterring criminals while protecting law-abiding citizens.
This is obviously not what has been happening over the past week in the United States.
Because the protests target police misconduct, many police officers have been acting as counterprotesters — engaging in further acts of misconduct by beating or gassing peaceful demonstrators and oftentimes seeming to target members of the press. Some of this seems to come from grassroots cop sentiment, some from police leadership, and some from the president of the United States himself.
In New York Monday night, NYPD officers appeared to take out their longstanding grievances with the city’s mayor and overall public opinion by completely standing down in Midtown Manhattan to allow looters to run rampant.
The police are supposed to protect protesters and prevent looting. When the opposite happens, it raises the suspicion that the police are sending a message. https://t.co/S4TkEJo6q3— Binyamin Appelbaum (@BCAppelbaum) June 2, 2020
The fact that police can choose to engage in either broad or selective underpolicing is one reason the realities of municipal governance are a bit trickier than people sometimes allow. Officers in Baltimore appear to have responded to the Freddie Gray protests by staging a years-long de facto police strike that sent the murder rate soaring.
But while navigating these issues on a practical level is tricky, on an ethical level it’s an easy problem — those looting and vandalizing are in the wrong, and police officers who focus their ire on peaceful protesters while letting vandals roam free are also in the wrong, and political leaders like Trump who use the existence of vandals as a hazy excuse to fire tear gas into law-abiding crowds are the wrongest of all.
Black leaders don’t want this
Last but by no means least, virtually nobody in this country who’s accountable to a black electorate thinks this is constructive.
“What I see happening on the streets of Atlanta is not Atlanta. This is not a protest. This is not in the spirit of Martin Luther King, Jr.,” Atlanta Mayor Keisha Lance Bottoms said on Monday. “This is chaos.”
The day before, DC Mayor Muriel Bowser cautioned that “tearing up our beautiful city is not the way to bring attention to what is a righteous cause.”
“Rioting, looting, and burning is not the way,” according to civil rights legend Rep. John Lewis.
This sentiment extends beyond moderates like Bowser and Bottoms and veterans of the 1960s like Lewis. Ilhan Omar has a very different ideological orientation than those mayors and comes from a different tradition than Lewis, but she shares the same perspective that looting and vandalism are antithetical to the causes she is fighting for.
Our organizers don’t put black lives at risk. Those who are exploiting our grief do.— Ilhan Omar (@IlhanMN) May 31, 2020
We also can’t allow the “outside agitators” narrative to be used to inflict more pain and justify militarized force against our community. pic.twitter.com/gyspXgisQE
Some political leaders have been trying to make this same basic point by perhaps exaggerating the extent to which mayhem is being wreaked by out-of-towners or even false flag operations by white supremacists. But the sentiment all these elected officials are expressing is clear — this is not what they and the people they represent want. It is not helping them, and while they don’t want vandalism to be the center of attention, they also have no interest in soft-pedaling their criticism of it.
We should not obsess about vandalism and crowd out attention to the dignified conduct of the much larger group of legitimate protesters, to the underlying injustices they are highlighting, to the potential for solutions, or to the intersecting catastrophic failures of national leadership that we are currently living through. But we can’t deflect the basic reality that at a time when millions are struggling to address serious problems, the people running around smashing windows aren’t helping.