Democratic presidential nominee Joe Biden made a forceful denunciation this week of the property destruction that followed the Jacob Blake shooting in Kenosha, Wisconsin, saying “rioting is not protesting.”
“I want to make it absolutely clear, so I’m going to be very clear about all of this, rioting is not protesting,” he said. “Looting is not protesting. Setting fires is not protesting. None of this is protesting. It’s lawlessness, plain and simple.”
Biden’s rebuke of rioters and adulation of peaceful protesters reflects a bipartisan sentiment.
President Donald Trump argued during his own trip to Kenosha that “these are not acts of peaceful protest, but really domestic terror.” Attorney General Bill Barr similarly denounced “mob violence.” Barr urged Americans concerned about police shootings to trust the “due process” of the law and allow “dispassionate, reasoned decision based on an analysis of the situation.”
It’s not hard to find denunciation of looting from local officials — from Chicago Mayor Lori Lightfoot arguing that rioting was “not legitimate First Amendment-protected speech,” to Minnesota Gov. Tim Walz decrying property damage as “attacking civil society.”
These politicians insistence on nondestructive protest echo President Richard Nixon’s civil rights era appeals for law and order amid riots against racial injustice. “Dissent is a necessary ingredient of change,” Nixon said in 1968. “But in a system of government that provides for peaceful change, there is no cause that justifies resort to violence.”
Yet what Nixon, Trump, Biden, and other elected officials miss is that America’s government frequently fails to provide meaningful avenues for peaceful change — particularly on police violence.
If looting and rioting have no place in a well-functioning democracy, then perhaps we should pause to consider that these are signs that Americans are not, in fact, in a functioning democracy.
Rioting and unrest, while tragic and destructive, remains a historically familiar and rational response to state violence and weak democratic institutions. From the Boston Tea Party, to John Brown’s raid on Harpers Ferry, to the 1992 Los Angeles riots, violent insurrections have served as a form of protest and resistance for centuries in the United States. Today’s riots, still relatively rare, roil after years of legal logjams and gridlock on meaningful policing reform.
In the executive branch, the recommendations from President Obama’s Task Force on 21st Century Policing failed to be implemented nationwide. In the judicial branch, legal precedent still protects officers from the consequences of deadly force with qualified immunity. In the legislative branch, this summer’s police reform bills have stalled out. The institutional stalemate persists at the local level even in the bluest of districts like in New York City or Minneapolis, where police brutality persists, despite years of activism and electoral support for reform candidates.
In declining to reconcile the failure of America’s democratic institutions and in their strong denouncements of riots as political protest, elected officials like Trump and Biden avoid the truth — there is no more effective force for stopping riots than making a serious effort to stop police from killing Black people.
Why looting happened in Kenosha and elsewhere in the US this summer
On Sunday, August 23, Jacob Blake was shot in the back by officers as they attempted to arrest him in Kenosha. Graphic video of the shooting shows an officer holding Blake by the end of his shirt and firing bullets into his back as he attempted to enter into his car.
By that night, protesters and demonstrators gathered to express their outrage, and were further agitated as police pepper-sprayed them. As the night went on, demonstrators set fire to dump trucks and local buildings. It was the beginning of a week of unrest and protests that mirrored destructive demonstrations seen earlier this summer following police violence.
The unrest in places like Kenosha happens as local leaders show an inability to enact basic police reforms like firing police officers known for misconduct. Regardless of the specific details of any police shooting, Black people have seen the same pattern play out over and over.
As civil rights attorney and Democratic mayor of the very liberal city of Minneapolis Jacob Frey said of his inability to fire wayward officers: “We’re hamstrung by the architecture of this system that prevents change and protects officers from being held accountable. And if we really want to see the massive culture shift that is essential, we need to have that ability. And right now, in many instances, the truth is we don’t.”
Executive officials’ failure to fire violent officers on the front end is also matched with judicial officials’ failure to prosecute them on the back end.
As observed in the absence of guilty verdicts after the killings of Elijah McClain, Rekia Boyd, Trayvon Martin, Sandra Bland, Tamir Rice, Korryn Gaines, Eric Garner, Aiyana Mo’Nay Stanley-Jones, Michael Brown, Eleanor Bumpurs, Freddie Gray, and many, many others, the courts — a key site of democratic life — consistently fail to provide justice for Black people slain, and deterrence to police or vigilantes who would unjustly slay Black folks again.
America’s government repeatedly fails to provide meaningful avenues for peaceful change.
In absence of that, and in the presence of racial violence and discrimination, some people lose faith in democratic institutions. “I don’t know where they got them motherfucking jurors from, but that was some straight-up bullshit,” Valerie Castile said in a Facebook Live video in 2017 after the police officer who killed her son, Philando, was found not guilty. “They’re gonna keep on killing us, as long as we just sit down and just take it.”
“I just want to say one thing to everybody out there, I don’t give a fuck what you do,” she added. “Do what your heart desires because that shit wasn’t right. Because I’m here to say that, and fuck the police.”
Castile’s disillusionment is common. It’s human. It’s rarely acknowledged, however.
Instead, the heroes held up in media are the family members and activists who forgive their attackers or retain faith in the political system. Rachel Kaadzi Ghansah remarked on this selective storytelling in her GQ profile of Dylann Roof, who killed nine Black people at a church in Charleston, South Carolina, in 2015. She said it was somewhat startling when one of the shooting survivors told the court that “Roof belonged in the pit of hell”:
Their vitriol was warranted but also unexpected, since in most of the press coverage of the shooting it had largely been erased. Almost every white person I spoke with in Charleston during the trial praised the church’s resounding forgiveness of the young white man who shot their members down. The forgiveness was an absolution of everything. No one made mention that this forgiveness was individual, not collective. Some of the victims and their families forgave him, and some of them did not.
This same complex communal response helped fuel the riots in Kenosha last week. After watching a local Black man shot seven times in the back in front of his children, some residents were saddened by property destruction, and others were fine with it, according to New York Times reporter Julie Bosman. Summarizing her reporting on The Daily, she said:
A lot of people said, look, this is a totally appropriate response to what happened to Jacob Blake. This is a totally appropriate response to the oppression of the Black community in this city and in this country. Like I talked to a man who was standing there, smoking a cigarette. And just said, “Look, I’m really sorry to see this, but like if this is what it takes, then this is what it takes.”
Incubated by generations of rejected appeals to legislative, judicial, and executive bodies, the lure of violent unrest grows. This is evident not only in the upheaval that stretched from Atlanta to Wisconsin this year, but in the periodic upheaval that has repeated across the last century.
We tend to lionize peaceful movements — and forget the riots that also brought change
In August 1943, the avenues of Harlem in New York City descended into chaos. Black people ran through the streets with their arms filled with coats, jewelry, and furniture. The young and the old, the rich and the poor, looted as much as possible from white store owners. A young Malcolm X watching it all unfold recounted seeing “all of these Negroes hollering and running north from 125th Street. Some of them were loaded down with armfuls of stuff.” The rioting, the destruction, was triggered by news of a police shooting.
This is one of several scenes of unrest depicted in the University of Massachusetts Amherst historian Traci Parker’s book Department Stores and the Black Freedom Movement. The book recounts Black activism’s decades-long history, both nonviolent and violent, unfurling at stores. While Parker covers the famous sit-ins, she also writes, that “not all expressions of Black consumer protest and outrage, however, were so composed and organized; in fact, several pointedly sought violent and destructive revenge.” During riots like the one in Harlem, Parker explains that looters “were frustrated and angered by not only the reported killing but also the history of racial oppression and violence.”
In her book, Parker writes that riots didn’t just express public rage. They were at times even an effective mode of political advocacy prompting biased stories to reflect on biased business practices. “Wartime riots not only ended race discrimination in the marketplace but also created an awareness and discourse that would benefit the black freedom struggle in the postwar era.”
Parker explains the decades-long persistence of both nonviolent and violent protests unfolding at retailers should inform how we understand the fight for racial justice. Rebutting the binary politicians like Bill Clinton posed last month between the legacy of nonviolent figure John Lewis and the less compromising Kwame Ture, Parker tells Vox that “we have to understand that the Black freedom movement isn’t always about an either-or, or a versus.”
“We should be thinking about this as there are different organizations, different tactics, and strategies that are useful to get to a particular endpoint,” she said. “It doesn’t have to be all or nothing, one or the other. I’m not advocating for looting, right. But I think that there could be other ways of thinking about this.”
Whether looking at the looting in Watts in 1965, Detroit in 1967, Los Angeles in 1992, or Baltimore in 2015, many of America’s most infamous instances of racial unrest start after police brutality. In fact, the autopsies and commissions investigating these uprisings describe a direct relationship between police violence and property destruction. Summarizing the findings of the 1968 Kerner Commission that investigated the civil rights era riots, Princeton professor Keeanga-Yamahtta Taylor writes that “the top three grievances it found in Black communities were police brutality, unemployment and underemployment, and substandard housing.”
Today it is perhaps the New York Times columnist Jamelle Bouie who most pithily expressed how this relationship works. “Kenosha would be quiet if not for an incident of police brutality and abuse,” he wrote this week. “The same is true for other cities where rioting and disorder have taken place.”
Nothing extinguishes a burning skyline like equality and justice for all
Consulting the historical record, we can see looting isn’t some random act of destruction. It isn’t the bloodthirst of the “mob,” as Trump describes. It is political speech, at times persuasive, at times not, that is made all the more common by weak democratic institutions.
Like America’s burning forests, America’s burning cities are the result of years of policy decisions. And like tackling climate change, there is no quick fix for the underlying racial inequality that fuels unrest. Yet for those serious about tackling the problem at the scale that it exists, blueprints are present. As Martin Luther King Jr. explained on similar riots in 1967:
Certain conditions continue to exist in our society, which must be condemned as vigorously as we condemn riots. But in the final analysis, a riot is the language of the unheard. And what is it that America has failed to hear? It has failed to hear that the plight of the Negro poor has worsened over the last few years. It has failed to hear that the promises of freedom and justice have not been met. And it has failed to hear that large segments of white society are more concerned about tranquility and the status quo than about justice, equality, and humanity. And so in a real sense our nation’s summers of riots are caused by our nation’s winters of delay. And as long as America postpones justice, we stand in the position of having these recurrences of violence and riots over and over again. Social justice and progress are the absolute guarantors of riot prevention.
If politicians don’t want to see cities burn, they must prioritize real change. The policy options are endless. Establishment Democrats have introduced the George Floyd Justice in Policing Act of 2020 which has provisions to make police more accountable in court. Progressives Democrats have introduced the Breathe Act which provides a framework for defunding. At the local level, moderate reformers have suggested ideas such as 8 Can’t Wait’s plan to revamp police use-of-force policies. More progressive activists have pushed the 8 to Abolition to move toward less violent emergency response systems. Many plans exist, but too few make it through the gears of American bureaucracy.
Elected officials have options for expanding social justice and progress in communities long denied it. But until politicians heed demands to end police brutality, America will continue to struggle with periodic riots and unrest, as it has for generations.