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Continued Riots Will Destroy the Black Lives Matter Movement (and Democrats' Chances)

by Jay Sibbs 2 years ago in opinion
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The question is not whether we sympathize with rioters' grief and anger at persistent racial injustice; the question is whether we want racial injustice to finally end. If so, we must recognize that the violence in our streets destroys public support for our cause.

March 7, 1965-- Peaceful demonstrators are beaten by police in what became known as Bloody Sunday, and galvanized public support for the Civil Rights Movement. Future congressman John Lewis (foreground) suffered a fractured skull. | AP Photo

What is necessarily true when someone says a thing is "mostly peaceful?" That it is somewhat violent.

Mass destruction in a civil society should never be tolerated, and Democratic politicians' overwhelming silence on the violence witnessed in recent months is complicity.

It is astounding and disheartening that to say something as seemingly self-evident as "the government should prevent individuals from causing millions of dollars in property damage" has become a politically-polarizing statement. To some, such a claim is perhaps even racist.

Democrats are correct to call out those attempting to falsely equate the millions of Black Lives Matter supporters with a relatively few rioters and opportunists, who do not represent the movement or its message. Yet, Democratic politicians' deafening silence in condemning the violence witnessed in recent months seemingly legitimizes this false equivalency, and plays right into President Trump's 'law and order' propaganda. In recent days, with even CNN’s Don Lemon joining conservatives in criticizing Democrats for largely “ignoring this problem,” Joe Biden has finally begun speaking out forcefully against the rioting. But this denunciation should not stop with just Biden. It needs to be a consistent message by the entire Democratic Party. Moreover, this violence will likely not stop with just words.

One one hand, Democrats acknowledge that this destruction has nothing to do with the goals of Black Lives Matter. BLM is about ending unwarranted violence, not creating it: finally stopping the injustice of American citizens killed and abused by those entrusted to serve and protect. Democrats argue that one can't condemn the movement or the principles for which it stands by the work of a small fraction unrepresentative of the whole. And they are right. And yet, on the other hand, Democrats seem to be unwilling to hold rioters and the looters accountable for their actions, and to call it out for what it is-- criminal acts intolerable in a civil society. If the millions of Americans peacefully protesting unaccountable murders by our government actors are not there to loot and burn, then why are the Democrats so hesitant to condemn the looting and burning?

This hesistation likely stems from a fear that certain voters on the left will interpret denunciation of this violence as a betrayal of the cause. And that has indeed been the reaction of at least some far-left progressives to Joe Biden's recent statements. As supporters of racial justice, we cannot allow ourselves to fall for this false equivalency, and we should criticize those pushing this misleading narrative-- both those on the right and those on the left.

Fundamentally, the question is not whether we sympathize with, or even share, the underlying sentiment that has catalyzed this violence: the grief and anger at the persistent-- typically unpunished-- injustice committed against Americans of color by our own government.

Nor is the question whether we can understand how those who are perpetually kept down by the system may, as Martin Luther King Jr. articulated, feel that to riot is their only way to be heard.

Rather, for all of us who seek true justice and liberty for all of us, the question we have to ask ourselves is this: Do we want to merely vent our frustrations at yet another travesty, or do we want to prevent these travesties from continuing to happen? Because, perhaps the best way to ensure that Americans of color continue to be profiled without cause, imprisoned en masse, and even killed with impunity, is to allow this destruction in our cities to continue.

Dr. King recognized this. Non-violent protest was not only a religious philosophy, it was a political strategy. While often left out of references to his famous line that "a riot is the language of the unheard," King forcefully rejected such violence on political grounds just a few sentences later, asserting that "riots are self-defeating and socially destructive."

In fact, the success of the Civil Rights Movement largely depended upon activists' commitment to non-violence, even when facing violence by fellow citizens and the police. News coverage of such one-sided aggression against protestors, particularly on Bloody Sunday, galvanized public support for the Movement among white moderates and led to the most impactful piece of civil rights legislation-- the Voting Rights Act of 1965. Indeed, King notoriously questioned whether "the great stumbling block in the stride towards freedom" for African Americans was not the KKK, but "the white moderate who is more devoted to order than to justice."

Similarly, for our modern racial justice movement to succeed, the support of white moderates is likewise essential. White suburban moderate women were pivotal to Democrats' winning the House in 2018, and will likely decide control of Congress and the presidency in November. Yet, Democratic leaders seem to be ignoring recurring urban unrest and banking on the rest of America-- particularly these white moderates-- joining them in this self-delusion.

Not only history, but human nature, suggests that this is a terrible bet to make.

Consider your typical suburban voter watching the DNC and RNC conventions, arguably each parties' largest platform to directly articulate their message to voters. They hear the Republicans saying 'unjust killings are bad, but the chaos in our streets has to stop.' Conversely, the Democrats speak only of 'peaceful protests' and 'racial injustice.' (Literally no Democratic speaker mentioned the rioting or looting.) Then, these voters get their newspaper, go on Twitter, or watch NBC and see burned-out cars, destroyed courthouses, ruined small businesses; scenes they associate with some "foreign warzone"-- not America. Who are these voters going to believe, the Democrats' claims that the talk of violence is 'right-wing propaganda'... or their lying eyes?

It is entirely natural-- for better and worse-- for a person to be most concerned about those issues that directly impact herself or her family. If voters do not feel safe in their communities, then more abstract principles like racial justice, equal access to economic opportunity, and even children torn from their parents and imprisoned, become secondary. And, importantly, it's these voters feeling unsafe that matters, not necessarily the reality.

If we make this election appear to be a choice between ending violence in the streets and ending violence against blacks... for many voters, that will be no choice at all. President Trump and certain right-wing pundits are attempting to do just that. And Democrats' hesitance to speak out against rioters may reinforce that perception among even voters supportive of racial justice. Public approval for the protests, particularly among whites, has already declined precipitously in recent weeks. While it's too early to draw strong conclusions, this election will be close, and Democrats need not provide President Trump with any further ammunition.

Ultimately, the party needs to stop downplaying what is actually happening and Democratic politicians need to take measures necessary to quell further lawlessness. Vigilante justice by self-empowered militia should not be tolerated, but what is to be expected when the appropriate authorities seem unable to stop the violence?

We, who believe that black lives should be valued equally in this country, must not fall for the deceitful framing of the protests by Fox News and its friends. It is not enough for Democrats to say that the real issue is violence by police, not violence by rioters. By ignoring unrest on the streets, Democrats allow right-wing narratives to distract from the genuine, anti-violence message of the Black Lives Matter movement, and seemingly force Americans to choose between one form of violence or the other.

Very likely, forcing this choice will not only result in four more years of President Trump. It will mean less justice, and no peace.


About the author

Jay Sibbs

Polemics of a Patriot. Follow me at:

I'm an everyday plebeian, seeking to shed light on the good (and the bad) on both sides of the American political divide, to highlight that what unites us is more than what divides.

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