Oakland, Calif., demonstrators not exactly winning over hearts and minds of middle and working-class people (Photo by JOSH EDELSON/AFP via Getty Images)
Drifting out of the shadows in small groups, dressed in black, carrying shields and wearing knee pads, they head toward the front lines of the protest. Helmets and gas masks protect and obscure their faces, and they carry bottles of milk to counteract tear gas and pepper spray.
Most of them appear to be white. They carry no signs and don’t want to speak to reporters. Trailed by designated “medics” with red crosses taped to their clothes, these groups head straight for the front lines of the conflict.
Night after night in this ravaged city, these small groups do battle with police and the National Guard, kicking away tear gas canisters and throwing back foam-rubber projects fired at them. Around them, fires break out. Windows are smashed. Parked cars destroyed. USA TODAY reporters have witnessed the groups on multiple nights, in multiple locations. Sometimes they threaten those journalists who photograph them destroying property.
Leggat, the security consultant, said intelligence reports from his colleagues indicate most of the hard-core protesters in Minneapolis are far-left or anarchists, and that far-right groups have not yet made a significant appearance. He said looting is typically done by locals – usually people with no criminal record who just get caught up in the moment.
But direct conflicts with authorities come from a mix of both locals and outside groups who see these conflicts as a core part of their mission. Many of the anarchists, he said, target banks, chain-type businesses and even luxury cars as symbols of corrupt institutions. He said even a peaceful protest can turn violent if outside agitators decide to participate, hijacking the message.
What interests me about this as least as much as the specific content is the fact that it is appearing in a major media outlet. I’ve been scanning the big ones these past few days, and you would not get the idea that the riots are any kind of shocking outrage. Ross Douthat’s column in the Sunday NYT — it was posted online this afternoon — is the first op-ed I’ve seen in a major media outlet strongly criticizing the riots. His piece, which focuses on how riots historically serve to empower the forces of reaction, is entirely commonsensical. Given how liberal social media has been reacting lately, I am quite sure he will be denounced for being insufficiently sensitive to the evil of white supremacy.
This afternoon I received a letter from a liberal(ish) white reader with whom I sometimes correspond. I’ve asked him if I can post it here, but haven’t heard from him yet. I can tell you generally, though, that he writes to say he has been truly shocked by how all his white liberal friends are acting now, at least on social media. His circle is all liberal urban professionals. He reports that he’s had a couple of really good conversations with black friends, telling them how they think about what’s going on. They’re really angry, and more sympathetic to the riots than he is, but he said the exchanges were good. Not so with his fellow whites, who have all denounced him as a fellow traveler of white supremacy simply for saying that riots are bad.
He said that the only way he can make sense of what he’s seeing among his white liberal friends is by understanding them as having accepted a kind of religion. He writes:
You shout out “praise the Lord!” by posting a meme about pigs. You cast out the devil by piling on the guy who raises a minor objection. And you deal with heretics by anathematizing them, because their reasoning isn’t based in the gospel, in this case the belief that as a White person your only role is to listen and offer support to activism by POC [people of color].
The reader adds:
I used to roll my eyes when you referred to “Weimar America,” but not anymore.
We’ve seen a fair bit of what this reader is talking about here in the comments section of this blog. To these true believers, one is not permitted to criticize the riots or rioters. I don’t think I’ve seen anyone actually endorsing the riots, but there has been a lot of “police brutality and racism are so bad that nobody has the right to criticize rioting over them” here. They meet objections with “how can you possibly compare a building burning to a man dying?!” — as if the horror of George Floyd’s killing, which nobody defends, justifies any response.
Look at this from a Philadelphia Inquirer reporter on the scene of Philly’s protests today. Earlier in the Twitter thread, she was sending out pictures of a large crowd demonstrating peacefully. Then they started to march. They arrived at the statue of former Philly mayor Frank Rizzo, and then:
Small fire now burning under the statue pic.twitter.com/nV8v9Bdvbw
— Anna Orso (@anna_orso) May 30, 2020
If you know anything about Frank Rizzo, you can easily understand why many people would want to take the statue down. He was not a good man. But that is a decision to be made democratically and deliberately, not by a mob. This is horrifying. Does anybody want to live in a polity ruled by a mob?
I’ve been re-reading, after many years, Bill Buford’s phenomenally good 1992 book Among The Thugs, a propulsive account of his embedding himself with English soccer hooligans, to find out how and why they do what they do. If you want to understand why people riot for fun, that’s the book to read. This passage is from Buford’s description of being in Turin with a crew of loutish supporters of Manchester United, there for a match against Juventus:
Harry had been drinking since five that morning and had, by his own estimate, five imperial gallons of lager in his stomach, which, every time he turned, rolled of their own accord. Harry had been busy. He had been one of those who had abused the bus driver on the ride into the city, and he had abused the bus driver on the ride to the ground. He had urinated on a café table that had, in his inimitable phrasing, a number of “Eyetie cows” sitting around it, and he had then proceeded to abuse the waiters.
In fact he had spent most of the day abusing waiters— many, many waiters. Who could know how many? They all looked so much alike that they blurred into one indiscriminate shape (round and short). He had abused the Acting British Consul, the police, hotel managers, food vendors of every description, and any onlooker who didn’t speak English—especially anybody who didn’t speak English. All in all, Harry had had a good day out, and then, in the full, bloated arrogance of the moment, he saw the following: thousands of Italian supporters converging on Harry’s bus. They had surrounded it and were pounding on its sides—jeering, ugly, and angry. What right had they to be angry?
Do you see what they’re doing? Harry said to the bloke behind me, full of indignation. And then if there’s trouble, Harry said, they’ll blame the English, won’t they?
This is exactly what I think of the rioters: that they are Harry, drunk not on lager, but on self-righteousness. And so are their bourgeois supporters.
My guess is that there are almost no people in major newsrooms who think this way — or if they do, they are too cowed to say it around their colleagues. And that this blind spot is affecting their coverage, and their ability to grasp fully what is happening. They’re more about managing the narrative than reporting the news. I have seen this personally in my years in newsrooms: how so very many journalists can’t play it straight when they’re reporting on issues that intersect with identity politics.
The American media (including me) did not see the Donald Trump election coming, and they’re going to miss the political blowback from these riots. I say that as someone who did not vote for Donald Trump, and who wishes we had almost anybody else in the White House right now in this time of grave national crisis, given that his big mouth is likely to make a bad situation much worse. Nevertheless, the fallout from these riots are going to push so very many middle-class and working-class people to the Right. Count on it. As Douthat writes:
[I]n hindsight the riots of 2015 — as well as the late Obama-era crime spike, and a cluster of high-profile cop killings in 2016 — helped create a late-1960s backlash moment in miniature. Republicans didn’t abandon prison reform; indeed, they eventually helped pass a criminal-justice reform bill. But they stopped talking about that issue, or talking like civil libertarians in general, and they nominated a figure for president who sounded like Nixon on a good day and George Wallace on the rest. Which meant that 18 months after the Baltimore riots, the violence’s major legacy was a still-wounded city — and the presidency of Donald Trump.
You can’t take this as proof that rioting never works, that it never succeeds in calling attention to an injustice that a more peaceful protest might incline the comfortable to downplay or ignore. But the political history of both the 1960s and the 2010s suggests a strong presumption against the political effectiveness of looting or vandalism or arson, to go along with the direct costs for the communities where riots are most likely to break out.
Minneapolis is an overwhelmingly progressive city that has been led by successive Democratic mayors for decades — mayors that, under the city’s charter, have total power over the police department. The City Council is Democratic. Minnesota is a Democratic state led by a Democratic governor. The fact that this repulsive episode of police brutality happened in such a place tells you that there’s a lot going on here that doesn’t fit the simplistic narrative that many liberals, especially media liberals, are fond of telling.
One more thing. Yesterday I was on the phone with a center-left friend who has a lot of experience in national politics. He talked about being present in an activists’ meeting a few years ago — Black Lives Matter, or some adjacent group, I can’t recall which — in which Jesse Jackson made an unscheduled appearance. Jackson came in, sat in the back, and listened.
Towards the end, said my friend, Jackson asked the young organizers what they thought of LBJ. All of them had a very low opinion of him. Jackson told them they were wrong, that under crude old Lyndon Johnson, and thanks to his leadership, Congress passed a massive amount of legislation that did practical good for black Americans. The point, said Jackson, is that you don’t get anywhere as protesters without knowing how to work in practical politics. And one of the most important lessons is that you cannot demonstrate for an abstraction, e.g., for an end to police brutality. You have to have concrete, specific demands in mind, otherwise you won’t get anywhere.
The riots are going to take this country somewhere, all right — but it’s not to a place that any of us want to go.
UPDATE: For a deep dive into how Social Justice has become a pseudo-religion, take a look at this great piece by James Lindsay and Mike Nayna in Areo. I draw on it in my forthcoming book Live Not By Lies, which argues that the country is moving towards soft totalitarianism, a form of integralism built around SJW religion. These riots are accelerating the Weimar stage. More on that in a separate post.
UPDATE.2: I want to point out, though, that there are a lot of journalists doing solid work under frightening conditions. Aside from that absurd “merry caravan” remark by the CNN reporter, it’s not the reporting from the scenes that bothers me, but the imbalance in the framing of the stories by their broadcast outlets and publications.
UPDATE.3: This just in from Chicago:
CHAOS: Police officers dragged through the street in Chicago
— Breaking911 (@Breaking911) May 30, 2020
They’ll blame the English, won’t they?
UPDATE.4: Here is a really interesting thread from an L.A.-based writer named David Hines. Click to read the whole thing; here are excerpts. He’s talking about how the riots are affecting the evolving views of the Left and the Right.
Hines says that white nationalists are small and badly organized. But liberals reflexively blame them because they have to blame somebody for the riots, and they are incapable of allowing themselves to blame protesters, especially black protesters, who have to remain heroic in the liberal mind. When it becomes impossible to blame white nationalists, liberals will switch to blaming the white hard left (e.g., Antifa).
UPDATE.5: The reader I mentioned above, the one who wrote me a long letter, has just given me permission to use it here:
Rod, I have to tell you, I have had a bonkers 48 hours on social media that ties in to a lot of what you have been talking about.
So, a tiny background–I have developed a bit of a reputation among my online friend circle as being the “article man”–I share 5-10 a day, usually from high-end center-left to left outlets but also from NRO, TAC, etc. I am blessed to have a pretty bipartisan and diverse group of friends, and by moderating discussions on the articles I post, I’ve created a sort of informal blog kind of like this one. I’ve been doing this for a decade or more. Also important to note for the following that I’ve posted many, many articles critical of police violence, exploring themes of White fragility and fear of Black men, etc. I am pretty evidently on the side of the left here to anyone who reads my articles.
So since the riots began in MSP, I’ve had two experiences that are very jarring. First, compared to previous incidents like this, especially Ferguson, there is a sudden and marked shift among my White, progressive-to-liberal professional peers. These guys are almost to a man posting content that more or less endorses violent rioting. Nobody’s come out to the point of “it’s good that this guy’s restaurant got torched” but there is a lot of “don’t tell me about riots when they didn’t arrest those goons with AR-15s at the anti-lockdown protests” and “when they protest peacefully like Kapernick no one listens, so we have to riot now.” This is coming from comfortable White professionals. My cousin, a White guy who works in a well-paying job for a Federal agency, grew up in relative privilege as the child of two lawyers, and currently lives in a middle-to upper-middle class leafy neighborhood, posted completely unironically today a meme calling policemen pigs. I know privileged radicals are a long-time thing, but he NEVER would have done this five years ago. This dude has always been a liberal, but is being genuinely radicalized–if armchair radicalized–by how woke everyone is becoming. It’s pretty terrifying to see these middle-of-the-road bougie White people dancing around endorsement of this riot. Gone is the sense of “I support your peaceful protest but hey, let’s not burn the city down.” Tangential to this is, compared to the last time this happened, a huge explosion in the posting of “I am an unqualified ally of POC, I won’t tell them how to grieve, I can only apologize for being a racist” stuff from the same group. When I posted a mild thought about how rioting enables right-wing authoritarians and destroys the communities POC live in for decades, I got huge negative responses, basically implying that by talking about anything other than Floyd’s death I was just shilling for the cops.
Second, I, like you, HATE a mob. I’m considerably to the left of you in many ways. And I know on this issue you’ve had the same response as me, which is sympathy for Black people who are the victims of police brutality. But the mob is terrifying and has been for all of human history. There’s a reason disturbances of the peace are so elementally frightening. Anyway, when I saw this explosion of stuff starting Thursday night, I got hot. I usually keep my FB interactions pretty low-key and in the role of moderator, but I confronted a few people about it, and when some people posted some muted shade about my anti-riot sentiments, I asked them to take the gloves off and tell me why I was wrong. So between comments and private messages, I had five substantial conversations yesterday, two with Black people (both college educated, one who still very much lives as part of the Black community, the other who is in a mixed-race marriage and from what I can tell travels in a mostly White social circle) and three with White people (a lawyer, a social worker, and a city bureaucrat).
Here’s what freaked me out: All 5 were hot, and all 5 were more sympathetic to the riots than I was. But, the conversations with the Black people were good. They pulled no punches but they listened to me, and they took the time to tell me why they felt the way they did. Both of them acknowledged the complexities of the situation, and left me with something to think about myself.
The conversations with the three White people were much worse. They kept circling back to “that’s you just shilling for White Authority” and “everything you say just sounds like you’re blinded by your White privilege.” One of them ended up very quickly at “because you are so blinded by your privilege, we’re not going to get anywhere with this, and until you can see this like an ally there is no use in us talking.”
This was a clear as day example of what you’ve posted on a few times–that woke White progressives are far more radical on these issues than Black people themselves. And the more I think about it, the more it came across as religious–my wife, who grew up in a conservative Christian milieu (I didn’t) calls “Jesus Juke” the pious prefacing of everything with “lord willing,” or “Praise God that….” This was total Jesus Juke, but for progressives. The gratuitous use of “ally,” “POC”, the handicapping emoji–it’s a way to demonstrate zeal and sincerity.
I want to be super clear–I’m not calling these people hypocrites (though I think they’d be on the phone to the “pigs” in about 30 seconds if a brick came through their window) or doubting their sincerity and genuineness. Dismissing this phenomenon and these people as snowflakes, or hypocrites, is a mistake many on the right make way too often. But what I felt like I was seeing was every bit a performative religious display, an Amen corner for the preacher. And what I came to realize was that, for the Black people I talked to, this was real life. The perspectives they had on it came from growing up scared of the cops, knowing people who’d been manhandled or profiled, and just navigating America and all the systemic racism in it (which I 100% believe is real) as Black people. So it was nuanced and grounded in reality. The White liberals, on the other hand, for them it was purely ideology and performance. It wasn’t their house on fire, and it also wasn’t the guy who could have been their brother or father or son with the boot on his neck. For them, it’s pure abstraction and ideology. And again–I’m not doubting their sincerity! Or that they have a right to have that view. After all, I’m a man–there’s a sense in which for me, abortion will always be an abstraction, but I still stand by my moral views on it. But Rod, for these guys, it’s church. You shout out “praise the Lord!” by posting a meme about pigs. You cast out the devil by piling on the guy who raises a minor objection. And you deal with heretics by anathematizing them, because their reasoning isn’t based in the gospel, in this case the belief that as a White person your only role is to listen and offer support to activism by POC.
I don’t know, Rod. My particular flavor of the faith is Calvinist, and it helps me. I don’t believe I got a signed document when I was born that said my threescore and ten would be during peaceful, plentiful times, or even that I’d get that many years. Rioting has been around as long as there’s been people. And if you think about it–how could we not be having unrest right now? Sudden, mass unemployment, teens out of school for months, people locked into their houses for almost as long ready to blow, leadership that only seeks to stoke the flames (talking about president Bozo Bull Connor here), and no bread and circuses (sports, concerts, etc.) for people to spend their evenings watching. The country is a tinderbox, officer Chauvin is the spark, and POTUS is just going to pour gasoline on the fire.
But I tell you, we’re in for some rough times. I used to roll my eyes when you referred to “Weimar America,” but not anymore.