I have been a participant in many protests in my adult life. The causes have differed widely, including opposition to various wars, support for civil rights, rejection of pipelines, and dissent against the election of a sexist and racist president. Almost all of them were non-violent. Almost all of them involved lengthy marches through city streets along approved routes, flanked by police escorts, inconveniencing drivers but causing no physical damage. I have been happy to donate my time and my physical presence to these efforts.
As I write this there are similar activities filling streets in all of the major cities in the United States and a large number of minor ones, including my current home town of Albuquerque. There have also been supportive rallies in many cities around the world. They are inspired by the May 25th death of George Floyd at the hands of Minneapolis police, but have increasingly commemorated other deaths, including Breanna Taylor and Ahmaud Arbery and Philando Castillo. The demands of the protesters are primarily in favor of significant police reform that would hold officers accountable and reduce the use of violence. The movement and phrase “Black Lives Matter” has been rejuvenated and strengthened and has begun to achieve greater acceptance among people who had previously rejected it. As for the protests, the images appearing in the media are familiar. The one significant difference is that the marches and gatherings have been continuous, daily, for more than two weeks, and do not seem to be coming to an end despite the fact that significant concessions have already been offered by various government agencies. On June 12th the complaints were given new life by the police shooting of Rayshard Brooks in Atlanta. The number of locations and the persistence of the events is only rivaled by the protests against the Vietnam War in the late 1960s and early 1970s.
The first three or four nights after the death of George Floyd the protests were marred by vandalism and looting. As is common in such situations the looters were generally separate from the vast majority of the protesters, often becoming active only after the peaceful demonstrations had subsided. Despite this, much of the early media analysis lumped them all together and highlighted the violence. In reviews and discussions they attempted to provide rationalizations for both the protests and the destruction, basing all such responses on injustice and poverty. It is true that those factors are operational, but as the most recent weeks of large daily non-violent gatherings has shown, it is always a mistake to conflate all of the varied disruptive activities, violent and non-violent, even if they occur in the same general neighborhoods on the same days. The reality is that in any sequence of this type at least five very different groups of people, with very different motives, can be involved:
1. Protesters who care deeply about sending a message and who wish to do so peacefully. This is usually the vast majority of those who come out into the streets during the daytime and early evening. In coverage of the Minneapolis “riots” it was clear that there was a strong majority of members who not only wanted a peaceful protest but who were actively working the crowd to maintain calm, sometimes in spite of police provocation.
2. Protesters who care deeply about sending a message and who are angered and frustrated enough to respond through vandalism, by causing damage to those they see as oppressors, i.e. the police and their cars and buildings.
3. Protest looters drawn to the action by the unrest and the related opportunity to send a message by taking material goods from those they believe are allied with the oppressors.
4. Opportunistic looters drawn to an area by the unrest, but interested primarily in enriching themselves. This includes groups that are taking advantage of the diversion of police patrols, which allows them to loot stores that may be distant from the scene of the protest. In the most recent case these looters often included organized gangs that used social media to select stores, track police movements, and coordinate attacks.
5. Thrill-seekers, anarchists, and others who are drawn to the unrest primarily by the opportunity to destroy whatever they can. These are often motivated by generalized social anger or angst unrelated to the specific cause of the moment. In recent actions, these included white supremacists and right-wing militia members looking to inflame racial animus.
As a day’s protest stretches on and the hour gets late the members of group number 1 thins out and the other groups, those who want to loot and/or cause damage, become dominant. That is why any destruction tends to get worse late at night. The motives of groups 4 and 5 (the most destructive ones) are often nonpolitical or non-specific. They include the types of people who also show up at celebrations of holidays or sports victories, demonstrating that the damage they cause is largely irrelevant to the purpose of the instigating event. All they need is for the police to be distracted. Such violence certainly cannot be allowed to challenge the validity of the protest message—this means that in general, observers shouldn’t be distracted from the purpose of a protest by complaints about property damage.
There is one other reason that outside commenters, professional or otherwise, should be careful about what they say about protests. When people ask, “But why do they destroy their own community?”, or even when others respond with justifications such as, “They act out of decades of frustration”, both are, unfortunately, employing the same lumping stereotypes that motivate bigotry. The fact is, there is no homogeneous “they” in a protest. There are only multiple “theys”. Any protest contains a multitude of individuals and motivations. To imply otherwise, especially to argue that the actions of a few reflect badly on the aims of the many, is only slightly less abhorrent than to assume that black or Hispanic criminals represent the attitudes of all black people or all Hispanics. The leaders or instigators of a non-violent protest know well that there is a chance that their efforts will attract people who do not share their philosophy. That is an unfortunate and unavoidable reality. They have no control over that, and any analysis that implies that they should better control any destructive individuals, or even worse that they should avoid mounting any activity, is both unrealistic and irresponsible.
The best way to avoid vandalism and looting on such a large scale is to create policies that will keep the police from misusing the power they have. The absolute best way is to build supportive and cooperative relationships between the police and the larger community, the one that police are supposed to “serve and protect”.