Killing Police and Breaking Windows: The Wrong Way to Achieve Social Change
July 19, 2016 (Fault Lines) – Changing the world is no easy task. Hobbes said life before civilization was “poor, nasty, brutish, and short.” While things are better than ever today and likely to continue to improve, we have not created heaven on Earth. And this fact has been on display quite recently with the Orlando shootings, the public deaths of Alton Sterling and Philando Castile, the Dallas killings, the Nice terrorist attack, and the Baton Rouge killings. In many of these cases, the shooters appeared to be motivated by perceived racial injustice.
But talking about race, particularly in America, is a dicey thing. Scott Greenfield described the typical cross-ethnicity discussion as going something like the following:
Since Elie and I are friends, I presumed to be able to have this conversation with him without any hard feelings or negative consequences. After all, if two old friends can’t talk, who can? In other circumstances, I, because I enjoy white privilege (or, as I prefer to characterize it, don’t suffer black detriment), don’t get a say in the matter. The definition of that conversation is African Americans talk at a white guy, who sits there and listens, never uttering a word through his privileged mouth. Not much of a dialogue, but them’s the rules.
In the series of tweets between Elie Mystal and Scott, Elie describes his feelings on how the dialog should not proceed, followed then by Scott’s response:
This is where Elie tried his best to explain to me what I didn’t get.
We sure is sorry bout botherin whites with our concerns. We tries our best to make it so you folks want to hep us.
I reject the premise that winning over white people is the job of the African-American community.
Winning over whites is, perhaps, the job *I’ve* signed up for. But black ppl are not here to beg for their respect
There are some very real issues embodied in these twits. I can well appreciate Elie’s principled stand, that the evil of racism should not require the victim to appease the perpetrator. My problem is that standing on principle, while there are people dying in the streets, isn’t effective. I distinguish the impact of black guys getting beaten or killed by cops from having their sensibilities offended by historical artifacts or microaggressions.
Scott correctly recast Elie’s approach as the victim should not have to beg the oppressor for table scraps. No kidding. But if Elie represents the mainstream thought on this issue, and I think he does, then we might as well be speaking different languages. Besides being a pile of self-serving bullshit, it does absolutely nothing to convince me the movement’s propriety, except perhaps through a base appeal to shame. Shame that is vicariously imputed from historical acts, about which few still living had any agency.
We are marching, yelling, singing, physically and mentally exhausted because WHITE PEOPLE ARE KILLING US. So when I see white people show up to rally excited and smiling, ready to march like it’s a hobby — I’m disgusted and absolutely fucking livid. When I witness white people taking up space, pushing myths of whiteness as political truth or using white saviorism to reframe their power and privilege, I’m ready to fight.
And the writer then goes on to discuss reparations:
Nothing you have is yours. Let me be clear: Nothing you have is yours. Also, Let me be see through: Reparations are not donations, because we are not your charity, tax write off, or good deed for the day. You are living off of stolen resources, stolen land, exploited labor, appropriated culture and the murder of our people. Nothing you have is yours.
Reparations for us are not only necessary because we are economically harmed, exploited and stolen from — while the violence against us is never acknowledged — but because in order for us to create and move work for Black liberation, it requires resources and MONEY. We live in a white supremacist capitalist world, so ain’t no spinning webs of lies around “money isn’t the answer.” It is because money and exploitation and power are interconnected concepts of violence.
Even if one were inclined to be sympathetic to the notion that police officers too often unjustifiably kill black suspects, all sympathy and support evaporates with such hyperbole. That is unless of course you are susceptible to the shame and guilt tactics often employed by the social justice warriors. Unfortunately, more than a few people are emotionally overwhelmed by situations that they were neither involved in creating nor support.
While perhaps somewhat effective, these tactics have a corrosive effect. Thomas Sowell has long contended that these tactics not only hurt all involved but are often promoted to advance the condition of a few at the expense of many. In an effort to eliminate emotional terrorism, Walter E. Williams famously offered amnesty to whites. While Black Lives Matters may not be a terrorist organization, many of its supporters freely engage in emotional terrorism.
In the absence of real oppressors, then they must be created. Just as humanitarians require others to be wanting, social justice warriors require others to be oppressed. Were it otherwise, then the dedication of one’s life to that cause would be meaningless. It is exactly this parasitic relationship that led Sowell to call the proto-social justice warriors “race hustlers.”
To that end, shame and guilt must be identified. And this is typically done through the notion of privilege, particular white male privilege. So too do the ideas of triggering and micro aggressions. Rather than shout someone down, you can shut them up.
On balance, these tactics are puzzling and generally ineffective. Sure, they may work in the short term, but when you ascribe murder and theft to regular people, who are mostly out playing Pokémon Go, you’re unlikely to persuade anyone. Or really more accurately, it seems that innocent bystanders are unlikely to feel the shame some activists hope to evoke.
But the ineffectiveness of the tactics is not the real harm; there is increasing evidence that these tactics are causing harm to all involved. Beyond the recent acts of terrorism in places like Dallas and Baton Rouge, old racist ideas are making a return, albeit in new wrapping. The Missouri protestors sought to segregate whites and blacks. Black men are criticized about miscegenation. An editor at Ebony strongly suggesting that blacks cannot commit hate crimes against whites. And mob violence has returned, harming innocent people attending a Trump rally.
Emotional terrorism coupled with appeals to justified violence is bearing bitter fruit. Recently, an employee at Yale took it upon himself to smash a stained glass window showing slaves picking cotton. His explanation was that “No employee should be subject to coming to work and seeing slave portraits on a daily basis.”
In case of the Taliban blowing up and destroying artwork that offended them, we had little problem seeing how such an appeal to moral authority was feeble. But when it is seen as black liberation self-help, a different standard is employed:
“Yale has to decide which is more valuable: a stained-glass window, or the dignity and humanity of the black people who live and work at Yale,” said Megan Fountain, an alumna and volunteer with the activist group Unidad Latina en Accion, which helped organize the rally.
Yale said in a statement on Tuesday that it had requested that the state’s attorney not press charges, and that the university would not be seeking restitution for the broken window. That request was not communicated to the prosecutor until after the court hearing, so another one was scheduled for July 26, when all charges will probably be dismissed, according to David Strollo, a supervisory assistant state’s attorney.
People should be free to express their conscience, as well as generally be free to abide by it. And occasionally the individual’s conscience is wrongfully restrained by the majority or powerful elite. In his Letter from a Birmingham Jail, Dr. King spoke about his frustration with the “the moderate white.” To be sure, then as now, there are people invested in the current order and cannot conceive of any order but the present one. But we cannot permit violence and destruction to pave the way for change.
One of the great powers of the West is the idea of civil disobedience. While it was of mixed effectiveness in the lead up to the Civil War, it had a dramatic impact later in the American South, India, and South Africa. But to be effective, it must adhere to several tenets:
The first principle is that you maintain respect for the rule of law even while disobeying the specific law that you perceive as unjust… Non-violent activists do not seek to undermine the rule of law, but only the repeal of unjust laws…
The second principle of civil disobedience follows from the first: you should plead guilty to any violation of the law… We have now arrived at the third principle of civil disobedience: you should attempt to convert your opponent by demonstrating the justice of your cause.
Active nonviolence does not seek, as Gandhi says, “to defeat or humiliate your opponents, but to win their friendship and understanding.” Gandhi would have agreed with King’s axiom that “there is within human nature something that can respond to goodness.” This is what gave King hope that “the aftermath of nonviolence is the creation of the beloved community, while the aftermath of violence is tragic bitterness.”
We now stand on the edge of tragic bitterness. These tenets and the example set by successful reformers such as Gandhi, King, and Mandela stand in stark contrast to what we see now. Not only is common ground rejected, but the innate goodness and humanity of the other is rejected. In such state there cannot be a peaceful community—only war.
Black Lives Matters is primarily about the perception that blacks are more likely to be killed by police officers. Whether this is true or not, the fact remains Black Lives Matters is neither about epistemology nor is it about statistics. Although I am, like Scott, an outsider, I cannot see how the movement prevails through violence and emotional terrorism. Frankly, I am inclined to think we wouldn’t want it to succeed that way anyhow; we’d all probably be the worse for it.