Protesters in Wisconsin torched the inventory of a used car lot, destroyed a municipal truck and smashed the doors and windows of a public library, to protest the death of a man who resisted the police and tried to open the door to his car while being pursued. Protesters in Portland have continued to throw rocks at police, vandalize property, burn down buildings and block public access to streets for months. On 16 August, they attacked a vehicle whose driver was lawfully operating on the street, chased it and kicked the driver in the face after he crashed. Similar violence against property and people has taken place in Seattle, Chicago, Lafayette and across the country. There has been rioting for months.
Many people do not want to acknowledge the extent of the looting and rioting. Many media outlets support the George Floyd protests and do not want to risk discrediting the cause of defunding or reforming the police. Others fear being labeled racist or right-wing. But the refusal to condemn rioting is also born of the sincere belief that destroying property is a justifiable—or, at least, excusable—response to police brutality.
Many have cited Martin Luther King’s remark that “rioting is the language of the unheard.” Some argue that, since people are dying, we shouldn’t be concerned about property damage. “These protests are more than catharsis; they are an imperfect expression of grief,” Minneapolis teacher Christopher Mah comments in the Minnpost.
But these justifications fall apart upon closer analysis. The Choi family, who operate a jewelry store in Miami, had nothing whatsoever to do with the killing of George Floyd or anyone else, and yet their store was burgled and trashed. One tragedy does not diminish another tragedy. Hurley Taylor, operator of Tar Heel Sneakers, has every right to be angry that his merchandise has been stolen, along with his collection of jerseys. The fact that George Floyd died doesn’t make the damage to so many people’s livelihoods caused by rioters any less of a problem for those people and their cities. Nor does attacking an uninvolved person help bring about justice.
Apologists for rioting often dismiss it as mere violence against property—as if people did not need to work and earn money in order to afford the food and shelter that sustains them, all of which is made more difficult when one’s place of business has been destroyed. Most of the small businesses that were targeted either lack insurance or have insufficient insurance to cover the damage.
And the violence is not limited to property damage. As Portland Mayor Ted Wheeler commented, “When you commit arson with an accelerant in an attempt to burn down a building that is occupied by people who you have intentionally trapped inside, you are not demonstrating, you are attempting to commit murder.” The violence, moreover, is increasing in severity. Over the last week of August, street fights involving guns between protesters and counterprotesters resulted in three homicides.
Supporters of the rioters have justified vandalism as a way of venting frustrations and dismissed looting as unimportant. They will now have to justify pulling people out of cars and kicking them in the face. They seem to think that people on the street are incapable of controlling themselves or acting in accordance with social and moral standards.
These apologetics for social deviancy are happening across American society and across the political spectrum. The social justice activists who justify resisting arrest and stealing from small businesses are on the left, but the right is justifying obstructing justice, lying to law enforcement officers and looting the Treasury for the personal benefit of the politicians they happen to support.
Depravity is a bipartisan affair. The Democrats have their Bill Clintons and their campaigns to broaden sexual norms. The Republicans have their Donald Trumps, who have affairs with porn stars. And Jeffrey Epstein liked to hang out with both.
Many Americans have too much tolerance for immoral behavior. Some excuse college-age rapists because “boys will be boys.” Some justify assault and battery, even the taking of a taser by a drunk-driving suspect on the grounds that no one is perfect. This is symptomatic of social decay.
America’s moral decay has many causes. Two of the most important of these are the ideas that no one should be judged and that everyone’s opinion—even on matters of fact—is equally valid. It is fashionable to stigmatize successful people with expertise as elites—particularly if they rightly believe that they are more qualified to offer opinions on certain issues than ordinary people.
Much of this anti-intellectualism has developed, ironically, in academia. As Kurt Andersen writes in Fantasyland: How America Went Haywire, cultural relativists “convinced [themselves] that all knowledge and especially science are merely self-serving opinions or myths,” while “among the gatekeepers in academia and media and government and politics charged with determining what’s factually true and what’s iffy and false, there has been much more capitulation, voluntary surrenders to the barbarians at their gates.”
The tearing down of scientific and moral standards impacts America’s body politic, both our political parties and public health. Much of the focus has been on trite culture wars issues that impact very few people. (Less than 1 percent of Americans identify as trans, despite the controversies on daytime talk shows and internet forums, but 10 percent of Americans think vaccines cause autism, a belief that causes real sickness and death.)
During the 2016 presidential campaign, supporters of Donald Trump chanted mindless, authoritarian slogans like lock her up at rallies and wore T-shirts with slogans like Trump that bitch! Yet those who pointed out that some Trump supporters (perhaps a “basket” of them) were hateful and uncivil were derided by the mainstream media—the supposed gatekeeper that has capitulated to mass populism—and political activists as haughty and evil for judging people. At the time, conservatives relished attacking liberals for upholding their values in opposition to Trump supporters who assaulted people at rallies, but now that very same reluctance to uphold moral values is preventing Americans from condemning criminals and rioters.
Noncompliance with police orders does not warrant a death sentence, we are told, and nor does property violence. But should defending one’s property—refusing to walk away and let gangsters steal everything—warrant a death sentence for the owner of a business? An elderly man was attacked in Wisconsin just for trying to put out a fire at one of the stores the protesters had looted.
Apologists often point out that suspects are unarmed, though police do not always know that at the time. But some apologists are also calling for armed suspects to be able to run free. In Lafayette, a criminal who was carrying a knife and causing a public disturbance in a parking lot was shot as he was entering a gas station, knife in hand.
Time magazine, which claims his death sparked outrage, describes the situation:
Lafayette Police Department officers responded to a disturbance and found a man, 31-year-old Lafayette resident Trayford Pellerin, allegedly armed with a knife in a convenience store’s parking lot, the state police said. The officers tried to approach Pellerin, but he ran away, and the officers followed him on foot as he walked from the convenience store, which was at a Circle K gas station, to a Shell gas station, according to the Lafayette Daily Advertiser. The officers shot him with tasers, but didn’t manage to stop him, the State Police said …
A woman who filmed the shooting, Rickasha Montgomery, 18, confirmed to the Lafayette Daily Advertiser that she watched the officers tase the man, and that he had been carrying a knife. The officers had ordered the man to get to the ground, and shot him when he tried to go inside the convenience store, Montgomery said.
If you were working in that gas station, would you want a violent criminal with a knife running around?
When we evaluate what we want from our government, law enforcement, society and the country at large, we must consider what the average upstanding, moral citizen would want. We must try to create a better society with higher values, not dumb down our norms and values to meet the standards of deadbeats, criminals and tyrants.
Blameless people want to have the right to drive on their roads and fill their cars with gas, not be blocked by economic terrorists surrounding a privately owned gas station in a self-styled form of protest. They want to be able to walk the streets without fear of either being beaten, murdered or infected with coronavirus by science-denying lunatics who refuse to wear a mask because they believe masks are effete or linked to Bill Gates. Enlightened people want a president who makes handwritten notes on his carefully crafted speeches, not a president who rants wildly about ramps, showerheads and injecting oneself with disinfectant and whose contributions to the written record include angry all-caps diatribes full of misspellings.
These rational people should not be shamed for their reasonable desires and expectations.
Some might disagree with me for condemning people who engage in violence and refuse to follow just laws. But in tearing down all standards of moral and honorable behavior, we deny ourselves the standards by which to condemn racism, corruption and other immoral acts. This is one of the reasons Donald Trump was elected in the first place.
This hurts all of us.