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A History of Violence, Part II

Brett Davis

Posted on June 4, 2020 21:24

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Historically speaking, there is nothing new about the looting and rioting in the wake of George Floyd’s death at the knee of a Minneapolis police officer is. But does such pillaging and plundering work? Yes and no.

The Boston Tea Party and the Stonewall riots are often held up as examples of vandalism and violence achieving the desired results. Proponents of this point of view often then make the leap to defending the current rioting and looting ostensibly being done in the name of George Floyd. Some scrutiny reveals this line of thinking to be flawed at best and tragically wrong at worst.

Students of history, if not the general public, are aware that during the Boston Tea Party no damage was done to any of the three ships, the crew or any other items onboard the ships, except for one broken padlock which was the personal property of one of the ship’s captains. It was promptly replaced the next day by the raiders.

Great care was taken by the perpetrators to avoid the destruction of personal property, save for the cargo of British East India Company tea. So fastidious were the raiders that they swept the decks clean of any loose tea and other debris. Nevertheless, the Boston Tea Party was controversial among those in America chafing against British rule. George Washington and Benjamin Franklin, for example, were aghast at the destruction of private property.

The Stonewall riots in New York City saw a marginalized population – gays, lesbians, bisexuals, transgender individuals – fight back against state-sanctioned harassment in the form of police shutting down same-sex bars and clubs on the flimsiest of pretexts (no liquor license, disorderly conduct, public displays of affection).

The property destruction and violence in both historical examples was targeted; planned in the former and spontaneous in the latter.

Riots may be as American as apple pie, but the fact that not all riots are created equal is where defenders of the current turbulence taking place across America go wrong. Attempting to graft the purpose and tactics of the Boston Tea Party and the Stonewall riots onto the present upheaval doesn’t wash for the average American watching looters steal drugs, electronics, jewelry and shoes, supposedly to honor or mourn Floyd.

This wanton violence isn’t proportional or targeted. Rioters and looters aren’t just setting police cars on fire or vandalizing government buildings – elements of state power – but are targeting entire neighborhoods. Business owners and employees – many of them minorities – who have seen their establishments damaged or destroyed, are less than sanguine about the mob’s abstract philosophical justification for its extreme aggression against fellow citizens, especially given the lack of any articulated policy goals looters and rioters are trying to achieve.

Sometimes lost in Martin Luther King Jr.’s well-known refrain that “a riot is the language of the unheard” is the fact he was not a fan of riots, calling them “socially destructive and self-defeating.” It seems he knew unfocused riots get you heard, but not listened to.

Brett Davis

Posted on June 4, 2020 21:24

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