I have to admire the thousands of people protesting the awful death of George Floyd and the unredeemable racism in the criminal justice system that it represents. Even wearing masks, the protestors are risking their lives to show that they are both sick to their stomachs and exhausted by the centuries of racism that have poisoned the United States. Young and old, protestors are more likely to be hurt or die as a result of contracting Covid-19 at the rallies than from police brutality or getting run over by an uncontrollable mob. As is typical, the overwhelming majority of protestors have been peaceful, despite the rage boiling inside them. Congratulations to the thousands of peaceful protestors for their bravery and dedication to the cause.
There should be no prize or nod of recognition to those who predicted that we would once again see a national series of marches protesting police violence. It was bound to happen again as long as police departments don’t do a good job weeding out racists, as long as police recruitment ads focus on military adventurism and not peace-keeping skills, as long as police unions keep protecting bad apples, as long as we have an administration in Washington that is both racist and brutal and encourages both racism and brutality. It would have also been easy to predict that some demonstrations might lead to violence, because violence will occasionally break out at even a well-organized protest.
Keeping in mind that we don’t know yet how many of the incidences of violence at Floyd protests were large enough to be called riots and the broader question of what constitutes a riot, let’s consider how riots start. At the heart of the riot dynamic is the simple fact that most people are followers and conformists. Most people look to others to set the tone. One trivial example: In the late 1970’s in Candlestick Park, there were more people in the stands passing a doobie than standing up with their right hand at their hearts during the singing of the Star Spangle banner. Post 9/11, if you don’t put your hand to your heart and sing, people give you dirty looks. A less trivial example: tattoos. Thirty years ago, tattoos were an expression of rebellion; but nowadays, most people below 50 consider it a lifestyle decision.
A riot consists of two kinds of people: Those who start it and everybody else. Imagine being in a swarm of people that breaks off from a march or has been herded into a relatively confined space by the police and/or urban geography. Three people break the glass of a storefront and start looting. The entire crowd moves that way, sweeping individuals along with it. A few other people—let’s call them early adopters—start taking things. All of a sudden, what was once taboo is now being done by everyone. Keep in mind that everyone there—the good, the bad, the blessed and the cursed—is angry, frustrated and tired of the constraints of quarantine. Many are quite poor and long past disgusted at getting exploited, demeaned and paid poorly by the wealthy.
Or imagine that the same three people set fire to a car. A protestor’s better self knows it’s wrong, but the same primitive instinct that has you yelling for a defensive lineman to cripple the opposing quarterback kicks into high gear, so you start cheering. Your cheers and those of all the other basically good people around you are part and parcel of the start of a riot.
Keeping the three or four riot starters from activating the crowd is the key to making certain that a peaceful demonstration doesn’t steer into violence. Now at this point in history, virtually every group involved in organizing demonstrations for civil rights, criminal justice reform, LGBTQ rights, immigrants, the poor or any other cause under the banner of progressives and the left knows how to keep protests nonviolent. Additionally, the accurately named incident called a “police riot” really doesn’t happen in much of the country any more, even if individual instances of police brutality are frequent and ubiquitous. Good planning by organizers and police restraint explain why protests usually lead to very few altercations nowadays.
So why have the George Floyd protests been different? Do we blame the added frustration of the Covid-19 quarantine? Were there too few march monitors because of the relative spontaneity of the actions? Did the mix of responsible versus irresponsible people skew too much to the irresponsible, because the responsible ones stayed home to avoid the crowd?
Early evidence is suggesting another, more nefarious reason for the riots: They were started by white, right-wing provocateurs interested in stirring up a race war in America.
Already the police in Pittsburgh, Nashville, and Minneapolis suspect that riots in these cities were started by white nationalists. Mayors from all over the country report that a larger than usual number of riot participants have come from out of town.
What we may be experiencing is an American reboot of the 1933 arson attack on the German parliament building, called the Reichstag, that was perpetrated by Nazis, but blamed on the communists by the recently elected Nazi government. Now I’m not saying that Trump or the Trump campaign is directly or even indirectly paying white supremacists to start riots at George Floyd protests. It could be someone else. For example, we know that Koch-sponsored organizations are financing the anti-Covid 19 protests around the country—you know, the ones in which oversized, evil-looking dudes carry large weapons and are allowed to menace everyone around them.
But even if Trump had nothing to do with setting up these riots, he certainly is using the Nazi playbook following the Reichstag fire: labelling the protestors and rioters as terrorists and calling for the police to crack down with heavy boots and blazing firearms against rioters, and by implication, against protestors, too.
Motive is an important element in proving any criminal case, and there can be no doubt that Trumpites have more of a motive to start a riot than do #Blacklivesmatter, Antifa or other social justice and civil rights movements and organizations. As New York Governor Andrew Cuomo pointed out in a magnificent speech at today’s daily press conference (June 1), Trump and the conservatives are delighted to change the topic from the institutional racism that led to George Floyd’s murder to rioters creating mayhem in the streets and threatening our way of life. By contrast, it was and is in the best interest of those protesting to keep things peaceful.
The facts are slowly falling into place and so far, it looks as if white racists and not legitimate protesters are who started much if not most of the violence. Expect a white wash from the Barr Justice Department, but a thorough investigation by a number of state governments.
By the way, it’s easy to separate racists from non-racists among so-called friends of social justice by how they react to the violence. The non-racists like Cuomo focus on how the violence helps the right-wing narrative. The racists insist that the rioters have undercut their case for change. That case has not changed. Probably at the instigation or white provocateurs, a few people did some stupid stuff. As some have pointed out, their looting is peanuts compared to the $600 billion large corporations and banks have looted from the American people in the form of Covid-19 financial help, while individuals, small business, states and municipalities have been largely ignored.