Bruce Thornton is a Shillman Journalism Fellow at the David Horowitz Freedom Center.
Ever since the start of the protests and riots over the police killing of George Floyd in Minneapolis, commentators both progressive and conservative have claimed that “peaceful protestors” who are “justifiably” angry over the callous and deadly treatment of Floyd were being “hijacked” by violent “outsiders” like Antifa. Especially on the progressive media, phrases like “peaceful protestors” or “peaceful protests” have been serially repeated like mantras by television news talking-heads––Google both phrases and you’ll get about 5 million hits.
The trouble with this verbal tic is that it is misleading at best, and often false. “Peaceful protestors” have been seen coordinating with rioters to help them avoid the police, and acting as human shields. Indeed such coordination between shock-troops and “non-violent” political actors has typified revolutionary movements since the French Revolution. And there have been only a few examples of truly peaceful protestors separating themselves from the rioters and looters, or issuing public condemnations. But they have been overwhelmed by the thousands of protestors intermingling with the “hijackers.”
There’s an obvious reason why the progressive media keep chanting this phrase: the fourth protection of citizens in the First Amendment is “the right of the people peaceably to assemble, and to petition the Government for a redress of grievances.” The use of “peaceful” asserts that these protests are protected by the First Amendment.
But consider these protests from the perspective of that phrase. First, there is the large number of violent looters and rioters intermingled with protestors who may not be acting violently, but also may be helping rioters. Again, just by remaining in the streets where violent thugs are rampaging, the “peaceful” protestors have violated the Constitutional proviso “peaceably” since they have made it extremely difficult for the police to do their jobs and restore peace. And especially at night, how can the cops sort them out? How do the police know that screaming and hysterical “peaceful” protestors haven’t also been throwing rocks or frozen bottles of water at them, or a few minutes earlier have been looting the Nike store? Don’t the “peaceful protesters” sticking around all this violence rather suggests an age-old tactic of rioters using acquiescent “innocent bystanders” as cover for their mayhem?
A spontaneous demonstration in which anyone can participate always runs the danger of turning violent. That’s why legitimate demonstrations, such as the 1963 March on Washington, are well-planned and coordinated with local civic and police officials, and so remains peaceful. There’s a program of events, with a line-up of speakers setting out the grievances and the remedies. (Take a look at the program for the 1963 March on Washington.) The 1963 March’s purpose was articulated specifically: passage of civil rights legislation to end segregation and secure voting rights for black people. That’s how serious and sincere people exercise the right “peaceably to assemble, and to petition the Government for a redress of grievances.” They gather peacefully and make coherent, rational arguments for their cause, their passion demonstrated not by violence, but by their oratory, as is obvious in Martin Luther King’s iconic “I have a dream” speech.
Spontaneous protests, however––with the only organization coming from the bad actors who want to turn it into a violent “propaganda of the deed”––invariably turn violent. Opportunists and thrill-seekers will compromise the protest, and the innate human desire to destroy will be given scope. The innocent inhabitants of the neighborhoods are victimized, small businesses looted and destroyed, essential services like fire and police departments unable to do their jobs.
Moreover, the violence sparks a backlash against the rioters and the cause they claim to support. As Ross Douthat wrote recently, “there is a striking pattern of evidence, teased out in the research of the Princeton political scientist Omar Wasow, showing how peaceful civil rights protests helped Democrats win white votes, and then violence pushed white voters toward Republicans.” He continues,
Looking at data from the civil rights era, Wasow argues that “proximity to black-led nonviolent protests increased white Democratic vote-share whereas proximity to black-led violent protests caused substantively important declines” — enough to tip the 1968 election from Hubert Humphrey to Nixon. More broadly, in news coverage and public opinion from those years, nonviolent protests (especially in the face of segregationist violence) increased support for civil rights, while violent protests tipped public opinion away from the protesters, and toward a stronger desire for what Nixon called law and order, and Wasow calls “social control.”
Just on sheer utilitarian grounds, a spontaneous, violent protest against an injustice is counterproductive because it invariably descends into violence and looting.
Finally, what are the “grievances” animating the protests, and what are the “remedies”? The pretextual grievance is the unjust death of George Floyd. But this particular grievance of cops unjustly killing black men has been aired for decades now, including during Barack Obama’s presidency when black suspects ended up dead after encounters with the police. Riots and demonstrations followed, as well as the assassination of five Dallas policemen in 2016. Given how widespread this grievance is, did it require two months of riots and other violence for it to be aired?
That question is particularly important since contrary to Black Lives Matter propaganda, police shootings of unarmed black men are rare: “The number of unarmed Black shooting victims,” Heather Mac Donald writes, “is down 63% from 2015, when the [Washington Post] database began. There are about 7,300 Black homicide victims a year. The 14 unarmed victims in fatal police shootings would comprise only 0.2% of that total.” If protestors want a real “grievance” to air, it should be the callous indifference of politicians and activists to the yearly slaughter of black men by other black men. Given the 10 million arrests police make every year, the number of unarmed people of all races shot––keeping in mind that “unarmed” doesn’t mean “not a threat”–– is remarkably low given the flaws of human nature and the dynamic dangers of police work.
Perhaps that low number is why the protestors’ grievance is more focused on “systemic racism,” that is, an subconscious racist act reinforced and encoded in institutional structures. The problem is, there is no empirical evidence for “systemic racism” other than over-simplified disparate impact statistics. For example, black people comprise 13% the population, but are 23% of those shot by law enforcement. But that disparity is to be expected when blacks are overrepresented in every type of crime––in 2016, 69.6% for all crimes, and 29.6% for murder and manslaughter. That means they necessarily have interactions with the police at a rate well beyond their proportion of the population.
Finally, what comprises the “remedies” for this phantom grievance? Preposterous proposals like abolishing the police, an obvious non-starter, along with chestnuts like reparations, or illegal policies of affirmative discrimination against whites. I doubt these are the “grievances” and “remedies” the Founders had in mind when they wrote the First Amendment.
Of course, all this doesn’t mean the people don’t have the right to protest no matter how preposterous or politically ideological their cause. But those “assembling” in ad hoc, passion-stoked demonstrations that tolerate violent thugs, vandals, and looters do not deserve to be called “justified” or “peaceful.” Like other such riots and protests going back nearly half a century, no meaningful change will occur other than one faction’s aggrandizement of power at the expense of other factions.