Excusing Riots, Enabling Injustice
The riots in Baltimore following the death of 25-year-old Freddie Gray in police custody have reignited the debate about law enforcement and race relations. It should be a no-brainer that one can deplore police abuse (as more and more conservatives are doing, thanks partly to libertarian influence) and also condemn rioting and looting (as the vast majority of liberals have done, including President Obama). But along with the voices of reason and compassion, there are those living down to the worst political stereotypes: right-wingers who stoop to race-baiting and shrug off police brutality; leftists who pander to racial grievance and condone mob violence in the name of social justice.
The divisions are sharpened by the fact that the underlying issues are genuinely complex. Unjustified police violence and police impunity are very real problems. At the same time, special treatment of police defendants is not simply (sorry, libertarians!) blind deference to state authority; it is part of a social contract in which we citizens deputize the cops to stand between us and the bad guys. The same communities that chafe at police mistreatment also clamor for protection from crime, from which they usually suffer the most.
Giving the police enough leeway to do their job but not enough to be corrupted by power is a tough balance—further complicated by an indisputable legacy of racism in policing and the equally indisputable fact of higher crime rates in the black community. Some argue the real risk factor for police violence is not race but class, and it’s easy to find shocking cases of abuse toward white victims; but, for various reasons, young black men are disproportionately on the receiving end.
How to address these thorny problems? Well, here’s how not to address them: blame “our great African-American president” for being a bad influence on the looters, as Donald Trump did in a sarcastic tweet. Conservative journalist Ben Shapiro has faulted Obama’s “legacy of racial polarization,” while Fox News’ Lou Dobbs and his guest, psychologist Keith Ablow, have accused the president of encouraging the riots by waging “war on law enforcement.”
If Obama is responsible for urban riots, we might as well blame the senior President Bush for the racial unrest in Los Angeles, Miami, and New York in 1991-1992. As for Obama’s very mild criticism of law enforcement, treating it as incitement sends a truly un-American message: that questioning police behavior is an invitation to lawlessness.
Bloomberg News’ Dave Weigel also makes a good case that the conservative media have unfairly trashed Baltimore Mayor Stephanie Rawlings-Blake for supposedly admitting that her administration had intentionally given space to those who “wished to destroy.” In context, it’s fairly clear that she said this happened inadvertently, as a result of trying to give space to legitimate protesters.
Yet, if the right has sometimes equated protest with rioting, the left offers some egregious examples of equating rioting with protest. Salon.com, which ran a headline affirming that “Baltimore’s violent protesters are right,” is a reliable hotbed of far-left lunacy these days; but there’s also the mainstream liberal Atlantic and its pundit, Ta-Nehisi Coates, acclaimed by Vox.com as “one of America’s best living social critics.” In a widely quoted piece, Coates scorns nonviolence as “compliance” and argues that calls to end violence are hypocritically one-sided, since there was no “plea for peace” on behalf of mostly black men and women victimized by police brutality in Baltimore.
Really? As Coates points out in the same article, the city has paid a total of $5.7 million in compensation to victims of police abuse—including the people he mentions—since 2011. Yes, this indicates a problem; but it also shows an effort to stop such abuse. And surely the Baltimore Sun’s coverage of police brutality, some of it cited by Coates himself, counts as a “claim for nonviolence”?
In other left-wing media follies, the feminist blog Jezebel has assailed Mayor Rawlings-Blake for calling the rioters “thugs” while supposedly failing to condemn police violence or address Gray’s death. (In fact, the mayor has repeatedly spoken out on the issue, demanding answers and denouncing as “unacceptable” the lack of medical aid for Gray.)
But perhaps the starkest example of classic “liberal elitism” that pleads on behalf of riots from a safe distance comes from a now-deleted social media post by noted journalist and New Republic defector Julia Ioffe. On April 27, Ioffe, who has worked extensively as a reporter in Russia, made a public Facebook post (preserved by Google cache) on the “protesters or criminals” debate.
“I’ve seen it on the streets of Moscow and on the streets of Kiev,” wrote Ioffe. “When the courts and the police and every official in the land is set against you, when the media doesn't think the story is worth a story, the street becomes the only option to force people to pay attention to your grievance. It’s just that, when there are white people in Moscow or Kiev doing this, we say they're protesters for freedom and democracy. When it’s black people at home, we call them thugs.”
One could say many things in response. For instance, are all the courts—including the ones that award compensation to victims of police brutality—really set against Baltimore’s black community? Are the African-American top officials in the land and in their own city, including police commissioner Anthony Batts, set against them as well? Did the media really ignore Gray’s death? CNN has been criticized for staying with coverage of the White House Correspondents’ Dinner on April 25 even as violence broke out in Baltimore, but the network had earned plaudits earlier for its strong coverage of the Gray tragedy.
One could also point out that the only protest-related violence in Moscow has involved clashes with Russia’s notoriously brutal riot police, usually when the police tried to block the demonstrators’ path or push them back. By contrast, as Cato Institute scholar Walter Olson has noted, the mob violence in Baltimore did not escalate from the demonstrations but started in a different area.
But the best rebuttal to Ioffe came from a relative, Baltimore resident Dina Ioffe, in a strongly worded comment that I can only paraphrase because it has vanished down the memory hole. (I summarized it in a tweet moments after the deletion.) According to Dina, Julia Ioffe had not only begged her to get out of Baltimore but said that she herself was too afraid for her safety to come down until things had settled.
At 11:34 p.m. on April 27, while Julia Ioffe was debating her post with Naval War College professor Tom Nichols on Twitter, I chimed in to point to Dina’s recently posted response. Two minutes later, Nichols replied that the entire Facebook thread had been deleted. It seems that, confronted with the blatant disconnect between her public rhetoric and private reality, Ioffe tried to cover her tracks. This could have been a scene from a Tom Wolfe novel.
In a free society—however imperfect its freedom—treating violence as a mere extension of protest fails not only peaceful residents but also peaceful protesters. “This is not justice,” Freddie Gray’s cousin Carron Morgan told a journalist. “This is just people finding a way to steal stuff.”
In the end, those who excuse the thuggery enable those who ignore the calls for justice.