Riots Invite Future George Floyds

The press and social media are abuzz today as protests and riots break out across the country following the police killing of George Floyd in Minneapolis. We have them here in Cleveland, and even in sleepy Ft. Wayne where my husband grew up. Cleveland Mayor Frank Jackson has declared an unprecedented 12:00 Noon curfew today.

The protests are even international. This protest took place in London.

Protest is Appropriate & Essential

Protests is appropriate and essential at this time — the larger the better, social distancing notwithstanding. This is not a time to be silent.

Unfortunately we’ve seen peaceful protests give way to riots, property destruction and looting. These riots are playing right into the hands of the very forces that killed George Floyd, Ahmaud Arbery, and countless others. The riots help give cover and justification to future killings.

The President, for his part, has called rioters “THUGS” and tweeted “when the looting starts, the shooting starts.” We can debate whether he was speaking surgically about just a few specific people, but that’s not what gets heard. Such messages are quickly generalized.

Riots Shrink & Disempower the Movement

The problem with riots is actually quite simple. They serve to shrink and disempower the movement.

What’s needed today is a mass mobilization of working people of all races to fight against police killings of Blacks and minorities, and other injustices currently spotlighted by the pandemic. COVID-19 is disproportionately impacting the Black community, a consequence of the systematic institutional racism and discrimination under capitalism.

Mass mobilization means getting as many people as possible out there, but rioting discourages this. Speaking for myself, being days away from 67, I’m not likely to show up at a march or demonstration where there’s a high likelihood of violence. I don’t think I’m alone in this.

By discouraging mass action, rioting and provocative actions disempower the movement. You don’t need a “movement” to break a window or set a building on fire. A small handful can do this, and in doing they substitute themselves for thousands of others. And, as a small group, they are much more easily victimized and attacked — too often dragging innocent others along with them.

I’m not against rioting, per se. The modern Gay Liberation movement was born out of the Stonewall Riots. Violent rebellion has its place and time in history. But at this juncture, at this time, I don’t see it. Stonewall was an unforeseen organic response sparked in the moment when there was no prior movement or organization to speak of. There was nothing else to do. Today’s rioting has a different source and character.

Who is Behind the Rioting?

Who’s behind the rioting? This is an important question. A list I saw on Facebook this morning answers succinctly. Allow me to plagiarize:

  1. Cops acting undercover as agents provocateurs
  2. Right-wingers acting as agents provocateurs
  3. Middle-class leftists of whatever “ideological” stripe acting as agents provocateurs
  4. Ordinary people, especially youth, who are understandably reacting and are enraged, rather than responding politically, and allowing themselves to be provoked by any of the 3 other “actors”.

See a trend? Riots like we’re seeing today are almost invariably instigated by provocateurs — people who set out deliberately to cause trouble. Those of us from the anti-Vietnam War movement know the first group well. Police agents would infiltrate under cover and attempt to sow dissension or steer us off into some stupid adventure.

These days the second group, right-wingers, are just as likely to play this role.

Middle-class liberals and leftists can sometimes be attracted to ultra-left or anarchist ideologies. Both perspectives steer away from engaging large numbers of people in protest. They don’t need those people. They just need themselves.

Finally there’s the fourth group. These are the ones that get hurt the most. In their justified hurt and rage, probably without a lot of political experience, they look to “leaders” who appear to know what they’re doing — but they may not be out for common good. These “leaders” aren’t acting out of hurt and rage, they’re acting out of calculation.

Rioting Endangers Political Space

In the end, rioting serves to weaken, discredit and marginalize the movement. The issue shifts from police killings to lawlessness and property damage by “THUGS.” Prejudices are reinforced. Sincere supporters are scared away. Police can pick off and victimize individuals. March permits can be denied, citing the potential for violence. Curfews can keep people locked in their homes, off the streets and isolated.

The space and ability to engage in political discourse and action is vital, and not something to be taken for granted. It must be guarded. This is not to say that peaceful protests can’t or won’t be attacked. It’s happened before and will again. But it makes absolutely no sense to invite these attacks.

The point is to put them on the defensive, not us.


David Rosenfeld, Socialist Workers Party candidate for U.S. Senate in Minnesota, released a statement yesterday, Saturday, May 30, 2020.

Revised June 6, 2020, to amend and clarify some points.

Title image: Rosa Pineda / Wikipedia Commons / License

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