Bruce Thornton is a Shillman Journalism Fellow at the David Horowitz Freedom Center.
The riots and protests that began in late May have been like wildfires of the sort currently blazing in California. Just as riots have lessened in intensity in some cities, in others they have flared up to new levels of destruction. In Kenosha Wisconsin, the arson has spread more widely, and fatal gun-battles have erupted between the “peaceful protestor” thugs and armed citizens defending their lives and property.
Also like the wildfires, the continuing violence is the consequence of unforced errors made by civic leaders in thrall to dubious ideologies. California is burning because of government environmental policies that encourage mismanagement such as not thinning its huge tracts of forest, resulting in lethal loads of dead and dying trees that provide abundant the fuel for the fires.
In the cities most afflicted with violent protests, mayors who embrace the progressive demonization of law enforcement and the racial melodrama about “systemic racism” have not acted quickly and vigorously enough to stop the violence before it escalated. Police have been ordered to stand down, restricted in their tactics and weapons, and left on their own without moral and material support from their civic bosses.
The ancient lesson has once again been proven: Failure to act preemptively and forcefully to violent disorder, and the appeasement of aggressors with concessions, lead to ever escalating levels of violence and mayhem.
America’s historically most destructive riot provides an object lesson. In July of 1863, New York erupted in widespread rioting over a recently passed federal law instituting a draft-lottery. Working class New Yorkers went on a rampage, attacking buildings and free blacks, who were not subject to the lottery. Five days of rioting left over 100 dead, including 11 black men who were lynched, 3000 blacks left homeless, 2000 blacks and whites wounded, and millions of dollars in property damage.
The level of death and destruction was in part a consequence of the city government’s reluctance to confront the rioters. New York was run by Tammany Hall Democrats––whose power was threatened by the recently elected Republican mayor. But the mayor was politically crippled by an ongoing corruption scandal, and so was slow to declare martial law. The Democrats’ base comprised recent immigrants, mostly Irish, the bulk of the rioters who believed that the September, 1862 Emancipation Proclamation, soon to be implemented, would lead to their jobs being taken by newly freed blacks, even as white workers were being conscripted to fight in the war. Additionally, financial ties between New York merchants and the Southern slavocracy also made civic leaders reluctant to forcefully put down the riots: Before the war, 40% of the trade from New York comprised Southern cotton.
The riot ultimately was ended by an influx of thousands of state militiamen and Union Army troops, some arriving from the recent battle of Gettysburg. In the final confrontation between the police and military and the rioters, twelve were killed.
The parallels with today’s riots are obvious. City and state governments have been reluctant to confront decisively the violent protestors because they are sympathetic to their racialist ideology of “systemic racism” and the false narrative of racist police arbitrarily executing black men. Indeed, civic leaders have been publicly sympathetic and supportive of the protests despite the attendant violence. Also, the protestors and rioters comprise the base of blue-state mayors and council members, who are loath to alienate their voluble constituents who could turn their telegenic violence against them. As a result, police have been limited in numbers and tactics, reduced to merely containing the mayhem rather than ending it, and mayors and governors have refused federal help, leaving their own police outnumbered.
Just as in 1863, when the city leaders in New York were sympathetic to the rioters because merchant and government financial interests in the slave trade were not served by the war, so too today blue-state mayors and governors align with the protestors’ hatred of Donald Trump, and see the riots as yet another tool for weakening the president’s chances for reelection. After all, another term for Trump would mean a continuation of policies that damage the ideological and economic interests of big-government, hyper-regulatory, tax-and-spend progressives.
Next, as in 1863, numerous blacks have been victimized by the riots. Most of the 30 dead have been black people, with many hundred more killed in the crime-waves that have followed the pull-back of police and reduced funding of police departments. Hundreds of black-owned businesses have been looted and destroyed, some never to return. The difference is, in 1863 there was no hypocrisy perfuming the violence. Today, the shameless dishonesty of Black Lives Matter instigating violence––the disproportionate victims of which are blacks––is blatant.
The lesson is clear. When violence erupts, the response must be swift and forceful. Any hesitation, any statements of solidarity, any specious rationalizations for violence, are acts of appeasement that only fuel the flames. The primary duty of any government at any level is to protect the safety and well-being of its citizens. Even in a noble cause, the use of violence discredits it and must be swiftly ended. Civic authority needs to make it clear that once violence starts, all discussion of alleged grievances stops. This means the so-called “peaceful protestors” must take the lead in helping the police stop the violence, rather than being excused as “peaceful” and thus free of responsibility for the mayhem that attends their protest.
This point is illuminating for the Draft Riots and today’s riots: violence that serves political interests always finds an excuse in some principle, and most of the time the principle is specious. In 1863, free blacks were not numerous enough to threaten white workers, and the Emancipation Proclamation, which applied only to Confederate states still controlled by the South, was unlikely to create a tsunami of free blacks who would threaten white jobs. The riot was really about politics, business, and white bigotry.
Similarly, the pretext for today’s ongoing violence, police targeting of innocent black men, is unsupported by fact. As commentator Larry Elder recently tweeted, “Cops kill 2x as many whites as blacks. Cops kill at least [as] many unarmed whites as unarmed blacks. In USA, 1/2 of homicide victims are black, almost all killed by blacks. #1 cause of preventable death for white males: accidents. #1 cause of death for black males: homicide by blacks.” If black lives really mattered, BLM would be protesting this scandalous reality rather than inventing an epidemic of extrajudicial police murders.
Thus the effects of both riots are the same––harm to black people. So who are the real racists today? An organization raking in millions of dollars in white-guilt danegeld by fomenting racial division, or an administration that has increased funded for black colleges and universities, lowered black unemployment to historical levels, reformed sentencing guidelines that freed thousands of black prisoners, and championed school choice that would allow black children to escape the failing, violent public schools? The Obama-Biden administration had control of both Congress and the Executive for two years, and didn’t achieve a fraction of what the alleged “racist” Donald Trump did.
Finally, stopping a riot in its early stages requires mind-concentrating force, not “containment” and stand-downs, not pepper spray and rubber bullets. Those half-measures only prolong the disorder, as we see today as we start month number four of rioting. That’s a tragic truth many of us don’t want to face, since our therapeutic delusions make us think that violence can be neutralized without commensurate violence. We’ve seen that tried over and over, and the result ends up more dead innocents than instigators. We willfully ignore what Lincoln called the “awful arithmetic”: That some must die now so more do not die later.
These are lessons that better be learned soon. If, as seems likely at this point, Trump gets reelected, there will be even more blood in the streets.