Riots Will Not Solve America’s Racism Problem

Protests are an important way to initiate change—but not at the expense of creating more victims of injustice.

The nation is mourning George Floyd, who died at the hands of Minneapolis police on Memorial Day. Last weekend’s mass protests were ample demonstration of that.

Floyd joined an endless list of Black Americans who have been killed because of the color of their skin—from the dawn of slavery right up to now. At the same time, we should also have sympathy for Charles Stotts, whose restaurant in nearby St. Paul, Minnesota was destroyed by rioters after Floyd’s murder. “It’s worse than anything I ever imagined happening,” Stotts told reporters. “What did my little building on the side of the road do?”

The answer, of course, is nothing, just as Floyd, Breonna Taylor, and Ahmaud Arbery did nothing to deserve their tragic fate. The people rightfully protesting racism and police brutality should also find it in their hearts to empathize with the victims of the wanton violence that was triggered by these deaths.

By Saturday night, at least 75 cities had witnessed looting and other kinds of violence. In our bitterly polarized nation, where even the wearing of masks has become a political statement, reactions to the riots broke down along predictably partisan lines. Conservatives worried about law and order, taking their cue from President Donald Trump’s ridiculous tweets inciting violence. Meanwhile, liberals spoke out about systemic racism and police mistreatment of minorities but evoked little concern for people harmed by the riots.

Disconcertingly, many those victims were black themselves. They included Ethiopian immigrants Solomon Haile and Rekik Abanieh, whose St. Paul restaurant was burned to the ground. As a girl, Abanieh “dreamt of one day becoming a chef and letting others enjoy what Ethiopia as to offer,” their website says.

That dream died—or, at least, got seriously dashed—in the recent riots. Ditto for the hopes of other black entrepreneurs whose businesses were vandalized or destroyed last week. “I look just like them,” Milwaukee cellphone merchant Katherine Mahmoud told reporters, after African American looters smashed her store’s windows and stole all of her merchandise. “Why did they do it?”

Apologists for the violence trotted out Martin Luther King, Jr.’s famous speech at Stanford University in 1967, during another era of uprisings in American cities. King described riots as the “the language of the unheard,” warning that America “has failed to hear that the promises of freedom and justice have not been met.” That’s still true. We can’t explain the violence that enveloped our cities recently without considering the enormous injustices suffered by African Americans across our history and into the present. But explaining something  does not excuse it. To understand why officer Derek Chauvin killed George Floyd, we’d have to look at the culture of racism in the Minneapolis Police Department. We’d also need to examine Chauvin’s own personal background, especially his family and schooling. But nothing we found could possibly excuse murdering Floyd, any more than discrimination against black Americans excuses harming innocent shopkeepers.

And using violence to advance a political agenda—even one as noble as racial justice and equality—dishonors the legacy of freedom fighters like Martin Luther King, who insisted that victimhood could never validate violence. Conveniently, most people who quoted his 1967 Stanford speech about the causes of riots have omitted the part where he denounced rioting itself. “Riots are socially destructive and self-defeating,” King said. “Violence will only create more social problems.”

Let’s be clear: the vast majority of demonstrators over the weekend did not engage in any kind of violence. Some of the rioters are reportedly linked to white-supremacist groups and to so-called “outside agitators” on the far-left, who see the crisis as an opportunity to sow racial unrest. That’s a shame, because they are distorting an all-too-important message that needs to seep into the conscience of all Americans.

Of course, the victims of the riots merely lost their livelihoods, whereas George Floyd, Breonna Taylor, and Ahmaud Arbery lost their lives. But while protests are an important way to initiate change so there are fewer needless deaths of black men and women, it’s important that we don’t create more needless victims in the process. Riots certainly reflect injustice, as King said. But they aren’t very effective at rectifying it.

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Jonathan Zimmerman

Jonathan Zimmerman teaches education and history at the University of Pennsylvania. He is the author of  The Amateur Hour: A History of College Teaching in America, published by Johns Hopkins University Press.