In the wake of George Floyd's horrifying murder and the ensuing national protests, I've seen and heard shocking responses.
Not in attempting to justify Floyd's murder: this act was so blatant that even the people who in past shootings said, "well…you could see how a cop could have thought he was reaching for a gun," could say nothing in defense of this.
But rather, I've heard that the protestors are ruining the opportunity Floyd's death gave them—"ruining" the message of their protests—by the things that have been happening at their rallies.
Let's break this down.
One sentiment I've heard frequently: "Resorting to violence (i.e. looting, burning businesses, throwing things at cops), especially against innocent people, is not okay."
Great. Let's agree on this. I don't like innocent people or their businesses getting hurt either. Looting is bad; property damage is bad. Let's just agree for the sake of this article, we're going to condemn all violence that's unnecessary or preemptive: all such violence is "not okay".*
*There are certainly many who will hold that looting IS a form of protest--that violence and force are an integral part of American history hearkening back to the American Revolution. That deserves an article in its own right. For the sake of argument, we're agreeing here that looting and property damage are bad.
"The protestors are rioting and looting."
Actually, no. The vast majority of the protestors are assembling—which they have the freedom to do—to speak out against the systemic racism and violence that led to Floyd's murder. Some people are rioting and looting. There are multiple reasons for this:
1st: Protests aren't invite-only. Anyone can come to them. So people who aren't even affiliated with the protest can see this as an opportunity to incite violence or loot or steal. Many of the looters are not people who came to protest.
2nd: There are "bad apples" in every barrel—we've heard this argument used in regards to cops, right? There's going to be a bad apple every now and then, but we shouldn't throw out the entire police organization* because of a couple bad apples. Well if we shouldn't throw out the police because of a few bad apples that are blatantly murdering people, then we shouldn't throw out the protestors because of a few bad apples that stole a TV from Target.
3rd: Everyone—even the police—agree that only a small number of people are doing the looting. The vast majority of protestors are not.
4th: Some of the violent protestors from Minneapolis who were arrested were from out of state. They weren't even a part of the citizens of the people who were protesting. They were "bad apples" who saw an opportunity to do a bad thing and took it.
*(Some people certainly are calling for the dismantling of the entire police organization, in part because the system is set up to protect corrupt cops with qualified immunity and not hold them accountable--that at some point, the system is too damaged to recover and needs to be dismantled and rebuilt. This, again, is an article in its own right. For the sake of argument, we are assuming that most of us would be happy with direct and immediate reforms within the system.)
Okay. Continuing these sentiments, I've heard this said:
"They're the ones who started the violence towards the cops—and of course if they're violent towards the cops, the cops should respond with force. They're asking for it. It's their fault."
A significant amount of violence at these protests was instigated by the police officers. Police officers are firing rubber bullets point blank into protestors' faces, pushing over elderly protestors and sending them to the hospital, and pepper spraying non-violent protestors in the face. In Columbus, my girlfriend was on the front lines of the protest there—and her account of the protest showed that the police began using flash bangs, tear gas, mace, and rubber bullets on unarmed and nonviolent protestors—only after they began harming people did the protestors begin to retaliate by....merely throwing back the tear gas cans that were being already thrown at them. She was personally following the officers' instructions and leaving the protest when she was stopped and maced in the face by a police officer.
Press—who are supposed to be able to cover events in America peacefully—are being harmed at alarming rates by police officers at protests: "In several cases, reporters appear to have been swept up in indiscriminate efforts by authorities to disperse crowds. But in a number of incidents, journalists were injured, harassed or arrested even after identifying themselves as reporters — a blatant violation of constitutional protections and long-standing ground rules that guide interactions between media and law enforcement officials."
Medics, at a protest in Asheville, were manhandled by police as the police baselessly destroyed their medical supplies. Medical neutrality is internationally agreed upon and is considered a part of global human rights, medical ethics, and humanitarian law.
It means medical personnel and supplies are not only supposed to be safe from interference, they are supposed to be protected. In fact, violations of medical neutrality is a war crime under the Geneva Conventions. Medics in Asheville, clearly marked as medics, had their medical supplies destroyed by police officers--who were being protected during this war-crime act by other officers with shields and riot gear, preventing any interference. That this was a methodical and organized act by multiple police officers speaks--again--to the widespread corruption throughout the system rather than it just being "one bad apple" of a cop doing this by himself.
Speaking of war crimes and the Geneva Conventions--tear gas is banned by the Geneva Convention, yet is being used by the police officers even though it is an "indiscriminate weapon": "It doesn't distinguish between people who are peaceful protestors or those who are using violence. But the idea is that this has become the first trigger — the first thing that law enforcement would use — as if it is going to be the way to de-escalate and end the protest. Most of the time, it's really used to suppress protest and that's really one of the fundamental problems with it."
Even if the protestors were initiating all the violence--which we see is untrue--tear gas, mace, and rubber bullets are not an appropriate or proportional response to flung water bottles. And police officers are supposed to be trained to keep calm and de-escalate potentially volatile situations: that's their responsibility, not the average civilian's.
All you have to do is look beyond Fox News (who is slanting their media in an anti-protest bias: look at this video that they edited to ignore how the police are initiating conflict) to see that the police are tpreemptively starting much of the violence in the protests across the country. The police are shooting at medics, attacking people who are on their own property (...hi, where are the people concerned about personal property?) , and pulling down people's masks explicitly to mace them in the face while their hands are up. In NYC, police drove into a crowd of protestors.
In fact, in many of these cases, by their unjustifiably forceful response, the cops are considered to have (inadvertently though it may be) encouraged the looting. When you come out swinging, even if your opponent was trying to be peaceful, at some point they have to fight back or be crushed.
"What do they expect, if they're going after cops? Of course the cops will retaliate?"
See above. Some jobs don't get to have bad apples. If cops can't control themselves in dangerous situations—that's literally their job description. To engage with dangerous situations and keep citizens safe.
And anti-protestors are trying to kill—not loot—the people protesting, such as driving them over and doing a drive-by shooting. If we're going to be upset about violent crimes (like looting...?), let's be upset about all violent crimes.
"I'm focusing on the looting because they shouldn't be doing it."
Stealing is wrong. You shouldn't steal a pair of jeans or a TV; society can't function when people can take from each other with impunity. But murder is also wrong. Society can't function when people can—and do—murder other people. I think it's clear that murder is the bigger wrong here. A pair of jeans can be replaced. A human life cannot.
If at this point you're still dismissing the message of the protests—which is "Hey, Floyd was brutally murdered by a police officer while three others watched, which pretty fucking perfectly proves that this systemic corruption and racism throughout the police force that we've been talking about for years is real and isn't going away; PLEASE HELP US demand the police stop killing us"—then you're falling victim to one of the classic blunders: an ad hominem-style attack. You're overlooking the message in favor of critiquing the flaws of the people themselves ("hey, they're looting, and looting is bad! Ergo I don't have to listen to anything else they say!")
An ad hominem attack is a common error in logical thinking, but it's an error. At the end of the day, every human is flawed in some way. If we waited for the people behind causes to be blameless before we listened or supported, we'd be waiting a long, long time. In fact, if we threw away causes because someone "bad" (or someone we didn't like) was affiliated with it, we would throw out every cause that has ever existed. This is where the idiom that warns us not to throw out the baby with the bathwater comes from.
What's true and just stands on its own two feet, and truth is true even if people we dislike speak it.
"They should protest peacefully."
1st: Most of them are protesting peacefully. So the vast majority are doing the thing you say they should do. The ones who aren't, are the bad apples, who are precisely the people we're NOT dismissing, remember: just because there are CLEARLY bad apples in the police department doesn't mean we're getting rid of the police across our nation.
2nd: They HAVE tried protesting peacefully. Colin Kaepernick took a knee with one of the most peaceful protests you could have possibly imagined, and the conservative/ GOP/ Christians lost their minds over it. You really can't get more peaceful than kneeling in a place you were already standing. Black people have tried protesting peacefully.
3rd: As Trevor Noah said, a protest is by definition polarizing. If everyone agreed and was doing the thing, there would be nothing to protest about. And the people in power aren't the ones who need to protest. They just do whatever it is they want to do. Protests are for the people. They always have been.
And lastly, any protests up to this point have done very little to change the situation. Even in 2020, trials--let alone convictions--are rare, even for officers involved in fatal shootings. What people have been doing so far hasn't been working. Police officers are still disproportionately killing people of color. "Insanity is doing the same thing over and over with no result," said Einstein. They've tried protesting peacefully. And police officers are still getting away with blatantly murderous shootings. Even if the vast majority weren't protesting peacefully--and the vast majority ARE protesting peacefully--we should still hold space for realizing they've protested peacefully, and nothing has changed--so black people and allies either need to give up (not an ethical option), or take a different tack.
And I'm going to be real with you. Even if the protestors were all unilaterally looting and rioting, that still doesn't negate or erase their message.
For multiple reasons: one, because the message should be weighed on its own merit, and isn't thrown out just because we don't like the person saying it.
But also: because at some point, our ability to blame a person for their breaking point from a moral high ground diminishes the longer we ignore them.
I'm a preschool teacher. If I'm on the playground and I see a kid getting picked on by a bully—pushed around, hit, knocked to the ground—and I do nothing, and this poor kid keeps saying, "Please stop, you're hurting me, I don't like this—hey Teacher help!"—and maybe I call back encouragingly, "you've got this, kid! Just keep trying to talk to him!", but I do nothing—and the bully keeps punching and kicking him and begins to break the kid's bones, and eventually the kid hauls off and punches his bully in the face—who should be in more trouble here? Should the kid have punched his bully? You may say yes, you may say no—but what about the bully? It's pretty clear the bully is the antagonizer: the onus is on him. If anyone is getting in trouble, it should be the bully: he started this.
"They shouldn't be throwing stuff at the cops." Okay, I AGREE WITH YOU. But the cops ALSO SHOULDN'T HAVE BEEN MURDERING THEM. Both of these are bad! But one is worse than the other. And if we yell at the protestors for throwing things at the cops, ignoring that this protest is sparked by decades of systemic oppression and black people being disproportionately killed by police—then we are the teacher who scolds the kid for throwing one punch after his body was broken by the bully and he was screaming for our help the entire time.
Do I like violence? No. Do I like violent protests? No. But I do have a very clear understanding that throughout human history, when peaceful protests did nothing, it took force in order to bring about actual change.
It seems to be predominantly conservative or Christian GOP voters who are dismissing the protests by their violence. Okay. Let's take a quick jaunt over to the Bible and see if it has anything to say about this.
The Bible's pretty anti-violence and anti-destroying other people's property, right? All that turn-the-other-cheek and thou-shalt-not-steal stuff. Yeah, that's true. But the Bible's also pretty fucking great at nuance--and understanding that the right thing for one situation is not always the right thing for others.
"Okay but that was Jesus," you say. Well don't worry, the Bible is rife with examples of violence being used in condoned ways.
In one of the most famous biblical uprisings of all time, Moses demands that Pharaoh let his people go. When Pharaoh refuses, God himself sends plague after plague upon the Egyptians: he turns the Nile to blood (killing countless fish and animals), kills all the Egyptians' livestock (sounds like property damage to me), and causes boils to break out on everyone's skin. Not just Pharaoh's, not just the people in charge, but everyone: the innocent people too. And most horrible of all, in the final plague, God kills every firstborn: from grown men to children to newborn babies. In order to achieve freedom for his people, God kills innocent people.
I'm not saying this to say we should be killing anyone. The whole point of these protests is that we don't want anyone else to die. But when Christians condemn the protests because "they're violent" and permit themselves to dismiss the message out of hand because they dislike the way it's being delivered, they're forgetting a long biblical history where even Christ and God himself commit violent acts in order to achieve righteous ends. Violence is not a necessary evil, but neither can it be rejected out of hand as antithetical to Christianity. Jesus said to turn the other cheek—and he also said he came to bring fire and a sword.
Doing our best to be peaceful is a very Christian thing to do—and so is fighting, sometimes with force, for what is just and true and right.
As for whether the Bible values human life or property more—this shouldn't even need to be argued, but the Levitical laws showing that if someone steals, they need to pay the person back; and if someone murders, he too shall be killed is quite clear on what the bigger punishment is reserved for.
Even if we determined the harm being done by rioters and looters was equal to that being done by the cops, the cops' actions are still worse because they are held to a higher standard. And to be clear, it seems manifestly evident that the looting and rioting of a small minority of people (directly or indirectly affiliated with the protest) is still not comparable to the reason behind the protest: the shameless coldblooded murder of a black man by a police officer as multiple cops looked on and ignored onlookers' protests. But even if we determine the harm being done by the rioters and looters is equivalent to that of the police officers, God is blatantly clear that "those in authority shall be held to a higher judgment". God goes so far as to say that most Christians should not become teachers or people in authority because he will hold them accountable to what they do to those under them.Those in authority are responsible not only for their own actions, but for those of all the people they safeguard: "pay careful attention to yourselves and all your flock (Acts 20)." God even says it is an abomination for those in authority to commit wicked acts, because their leadership is supposed to be governed by righteousness (Proverbs).
One of the most chilling Bible verses of all says: "But whoever causes one of these little ones to sin, it would be better for him to have a great millstone tied around his neck and for him to be drowned in the depth of the sea (Matthew)." This is often clearly interpreted to mean, whoever is in authority and provokes them under him to sin, it's better that he literally die than have done that.
These protests and the ensuing riots didn't happen until George Floyd was murdered by multiple police officers: the people in authority over us citizens, whose responsibility it is to uphold the law and keep us safe. The protests were provoked by this act. And the police are clearly escalating violence and provoking further violence at much of these protests. Ergo, they are causing their citizens--the "little ones"--under them to sin. There is no biblical way to justify seeing even blatantly immoral rioting and looting as anywhere near the same ethical level of immorality as the actions of the police organization.
At some point, when a people have been systematically and systemically oppressed for their entire existence in our country and have been crying out for justice for decades—when they snap, we don't get to be the ones to sit on our nonexistent high ground and tell them how they should and shouldn't object.
These past several months alone, three black people—Ahmaud Arbery, Breonna Taylor, and George Floyd—were killed by police and former police. That's only in the last several months: and those are only the people we know about. We white Americans have a history of oppressing black people for literally longer than this country has been alive. The system that allows corrupt police officers to brutalize and kill black people is widespread and has been permitted to continue despite years of evidence of its existence and cries for justice and reform. And now—enough is enough. This is the straw that broke the camel's back.
In sum: is violence good? Nope. (Or at least, usually not the best or first choice.) Is there violence on both sides of this issue? Yes. Does a proportionately-small amount of violence on the side of the protestors mitigate their message? Absolutely not—and in some cases they are being goaded or flat-out attacked by police, which is the very point. Is it Christian of us to ignore black people's call for justice and instead dismiss their protest in the name of anti-violence? Very definitely not.
One of Jesus' core messages was to dismantle power structures set up to benefit those in authority and bring justice and peace to the oppressed. If we want to say we're following in his footsteps, let's make sure we actually are.