Once again—as in Baltimore, following the 2015 death of Freddie Gray, and long before then, in Watts, Newark, and Detroit—the actions of rioters in an American city are being described as protests, or, by PBS, no less, as an “uprising.” Even Minneapolis’s hapless mayor, Jacob Frey—under siege as his city burns—graces the violence with understanding. “There is a lot of pain and anger in our city,” said Frey, adding that “this is what happens” when long-standing issues of race and poverty go unaddressed. It’s “not just because of five minutes of horror,” Frey noted in a press conference, referring to the images of George Floyd gasping for air beneath a police officer’s knee, “but 400 years.”
Frey rightly called for the arrest of the officer, Derek Chauvin, and Chauvin has now been arrested. But Frey was wrong to ascribe anything close to justifiable motives to those who have torched a police precinct building and a youth center and looted stores serving their own community. It’s as if we have learned nothing over two generations about what happens when public officials give license to the lawless, letting marauders proceed under cover of high-mindedness. We expect as much from inflammatory activists like Al Sharpton but deserve better from elected officials charged with protecting property, lives, and livelihoods.
It’s time, again, to cite the work of political scientist Edward Banfield, whose seminal book about urban life, The Unheavenly City, includes a chapter, both relevant and prescient, entitled, “Rioting Mainly for Fun and Profit.” In the wake of the 1960s’ riots—43 people died in the deadliest, in Detroit in 1967—Banfield asserted that it is “naïve to think that efforts to end racial injustice and to eliminate poverty, slums, and unemployment will have an appreciable effect upon the amount of rioting that will be done in the next decade or so.” This before the full rollout of the Great Society—and, long afterward, the riots in Los Angeles, Baltimore, and now Minneapolis, where a $30 million affordable-housing project was just destroyed. Banfield’s lesson was plain: Young men, not stopped swiftly and sternly by police, will be emboldened to loot and set buildings afire, simple for the anarchic thrill of doing so. The failure to distinguish between protest with purpose and lawlessness would fan the flames.
Banfield would likely judge Mayor Frey harshly, not least for withdrawing police from the city’s Third Precinct and permitting rioting to go on in order to avoid confrontation. Yes, investigate the incident; yes, take stock of the Minneapolis police department. But don’t dignify violence by calling it a protest, and don’t abdicate your responsibility as a public official to uphold the rule of law and civil order.
Of course, Floyd’s life matters—but so do the hopes, dreams, bank accounts, and insurance costs of the small-business owners, including African-Americans, who provide goods and services to that precinct. Long before the death of Floyd, Frey’s administration had made the idea that Minneapolis suffered under a legacy of racism part of its governing message. It’s a bridge too far to connect such rhetoric with the current explosion of violence, but it does prove Banfield’s point. No one truly concerned with the aspirations—and grievances—of American blacks should confuse riots with protests.
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