“They did this for no reason. It’s not going to bring George back here. George is in a better place than we are. Last night, I’m going to be honest, I wished I was where George was. ... These people are tearing up our livelihood.”
This is how Stephanie Wilford, a disabled African American woman who lives in south Minneapolis, responded to the recent destruction in her community. She obviously had nothing to do with the tragic death of George Floyd, but she has become a victim of those who are perpetrating violence in response to it.
A woman threw a Molotov cocktail into an NYPD car with four police officers inside Saturday. The bottle shattered two of the vehicle’s windows, but the gas inside did not ignite because toilet paper was used instead of a rag.
At least 60 Secret Service officers and special agents sustained multiple injuries in three days of violent clashes near the White House. The Lincoln Memorial and National Mall World War II Memorial are among the sites defaced with graffiti. Four police officers were shot early this morning in St. Louis and were taken to a hospital with non-life-threatening injuries. The ongoing violence has forced store closings around the country.
In response, President Trump said late yesterday that he is taking “immediate action” to mobilize “all available federal resources” to stop looting and riots across the country.
“The people are left with NO CHOICE”
David French recently quoted New York Times author Michelle Goldberg, who noted that 2020 started off like 1974 (an impeachment crisis), quickly became 1918 (a pandemic), turned into 1929 (an economic crash), and is now 1968 (massive urban unrest). We could add 1992 and the images of Los Angeles burning after four police officers were acquitted in the beating of Rodney King.
According to U.S. historian John Baick, “What’s fundamentally common for all of these things in our history is a lack of agreement of what reality is—a lack of agreement about facts, about causes. When we can’t agree on basic truth, we reach our greatest periods of divide.”
Here’s the reality upon which many are not agreeing today: violence is the wrong response to violence.
Rapper Cardi B tweeted: “They looting in Minnesota and as much as I don’t like this type of violence it is what it is. Too much peaceful marches, too much trending hashtags and NO SOLUTIONS! The people are left with NO CHOICE.”
Slate columnist Steven W. Thrasher claimed: “Property destruction for social change is as American as the Boston Tea Party and the Stonewall Riots.” (I plan to discuss the Boston Tea Party analogy in tomorrow’s Daily Article.)
By contrast, Atlanta’s African American mayor, Keisha Lance Bottoms, denounced vandalism in her city: “What I see happening on the streets of Atlanta is not Atlanta. This is not a protest. This is not in the spirit of Martin Luther King, Jr. This is chaos.” She added: “If you want change in America, go and register to vote. That is the change we need in this country.”
Which view more accurately reflects reality?
Does violence effect positive change?
Dr. King: “Let me say as I’ve always said, and I will always continue to say, that riots are socially destructive and self-defeating. I’m still convinced that nonviolence is the most potent weapon available to oppressed people in their struggle for freedom and justice. I feel that violence will only create more social problems than [it] will solve.”
Omar Wasow is a professor of politics at Princeton who studies protest movements and their effects on politics and elections. In a recent New Yorker interview, he cited “a lot of evidence that nonviolent tactics can be effective” in garnering support and sympathy for a cause. However, when a protest movement turns violent, this “ends up undermining the interests of the advocates” by shifting public sympathy from their cause to their victims.
We’re already seeing this shift.
Americans were overwhelmingly united in collective outrage over George Floyd’s death. Many welcomed peaceful demonstrations calling for change. But the narrative is now less about such a movement and more about lawless violence that dishonors his name.
In the words of George Floyd’s brother, “If his own family and blood are trying to deal with it and be positive with it, and go another route to seek justice, then why are you out here tearing up your community?”
Courteney Ross, George Floyd’s girlfriend of three years, said, “Waking up this morning to see Minneapolis on fire would be something that would devastate Floyd.” She wants everyone who took to the streets “to know that I understand their frustration. . . . I want people to protest in a peaceful way.”
Two mutually dependent life principles
This week, we’re exploring Jesus’ teachings in the context of this crisis. What did our Lord teach about responding to violence? Consider two principles, each of which depends on the other.
One: Refuse to return violence for violence. When Peter attacked the servant of the high priest in defending Jesus, our Lord told him, “Put your sword back into its place. For all who take the sword will perish by the sword” (Matthew 26:52). He wanted us to break the cycle of vengeance, not perpetuate it.
Two: Seek justice. Jesus described a woman who continued to seek “justice against my adversary” from the court (Luke 18:3). The Bible affirms our responsibility for self-defense (cf. Exodus 22:2–3; Proverbs 25:26; Psalm 144:1). When the proper authority prosecutes crime, it “carries out God’s wrath on the wrongdoer” (Romans 13:4).
Just as it is illogical to blame all police officers for the actions of some, it is illogical to blame peaceful protesters for the violence of some. But it is also illogical to honor the memory of one victim by victimizing others.
Conversely, it is logical to treat others as we wish to be treated. Just as people tend to return violence for violence and hate for hate, they tend to return grace for grace and love for love.
What’s more, this ethic is the command of our Lord (Matthew 7:12) for all people, at all times, in all places.
Including you and me today.
This piece was originally published at the Denison Forum