I have to admire the thousands of people protesting the awful death of George Floyd and the unredeemable racism in the criminal justice system that it represents. Even wearing masks, the protestors are risking their lives to show that they are both sick to their stomachs and exhausted by the centuries of racism that have poisoned the United States. Young and old, protestors are more likely to be hurt or die as a result of contracting Covid-19 at the rallies than from police brutality or getting run over by an uncontrollable mob. As is typical, the overwhelming majority of protestors have been peaceful, despite the rage boiling inside them. Congratulations to the thousands of peaceful protestors for their bravery and dedication to the cause.
There should be no prize or nod of recognition to those who predicted that we would once again see a national series of marches protesting police violence. It was bound to happen again as long as police departments don’t do a good job weeding out racists, as long as police recruitment ads focus on military adventurism and not peace-keeping skills, as long as police unions keep protecting bad apples, as long as we have an administration in Washington that is both racist and brutal and encourages both racism and brutality. It would have also been easy to predict that some demonstrations might lead to violence, because violence will occasionally break out at even a well-organized protest.
Keeping in mind that we don’t know yet how many of the incidences of violence at Floyd protests were large enough to be called riots and the broader question of what constitutes a riot, let’s consider how riots start. At the heart of the riot dynamic is the simple fact that most people are followers and conformists. Most people look to others to set the tone. One trivial example: In the late 1970’s in Candlestick Park, there were more people in the stands passing a doobie than standing up with their right hand at their hearts during the singing of the Star Spangle banner. Post 9/11, if you don’t put your hand to your heart and sing, people give you dirty looks. A less trivial example: tattoos. Thirty years ago, tattoos were an expression of rebellion; but nowadays, most people below 50 consider it a lifestyle decision.
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