Focusing on the riots is avoiding the real problem: police brutality

Violence begets violence: the riots are subsequent

“Violence begets violence.” That’s an idea that comes from the New Testament, where Jesus rebukes Peter after he cuts off the servant of the high priest, Malchus, when they come to arrest Jesus. I love how Jacques Ellul, the French theologian, describes the redundancy of violence.

Then Jesus said to him, “Put your sword back into its place; for all who take the sword will perish by the sword.”—Matthew 26:52

He calls it the law of violence. It is: 1) Continuous, since there is no escaping it. 2) Reciprocal, since it begets more violence, 3) The same, as “it is impossible to distinguish between justified and unjustified violence, between violence that liberates and violence that enslaves.” 4) The method of falsehood. It only begets more violence, “nothing else.” 5) Self-justifying, as whoever is executing it seeks to justify himself. Ellul argues that the violence is so heinous that proponents of it must argue for its morality because its immorality is so plain. “Always violence and hatred go together.”

Ellul is toughest against state-sanctioned violence. He says, “every state is founded on violence and cannot maintain itself save by and through violence.” And so he burdens the state as main purveyor, that is to say distributor of violence. The state is responsible for the violence that we see around us, he argues and I agree, since it tries to monopolize it. This is why the state has arrested thousands of people this week instead of arresting the four officers involved in the killing of George Floyd.

And so when we see violence and rioting in the street, we need to know that it’s the result of the state’s violence, first. And we need to confront that police brutality: all who take the sword will perish by the sword. The riots are subsequent (and consequent?) to police brutality and violence. I’ve seen it: the police tear gassed peaceful protesters in Philly this week. That’s how you incite violence. Police are leading the efforts of violence in the protests too.

So we must decry and condemn the police violence that started these protests and that continue throughout. We must name the fact that the President has threatened to “dominate” the streets with the military if the governors don’t do it with the National Guard. That’s how you get chaos. If you want the rioting to stop, as I do, we need to address the real problem. The primary thing advocates of nonviolence need to confront is police violence. Taking the moral high ground with people that use other strategies might make you feel better, but it does nothing to convince them, and in the end, the police get away with more violence.

And this violence is racist, too. I think it’s important to name racism as the great scourge that infiltrates everything in this country. But it’s too passive to preach against “racism,” as if it just happens to us. The issue at hand is police brutality against black bodies. Let’s name that.

The riots are not reducible

Acting as if property destruction is an individual choice that can be solved by individual confrontation is exactly what’s wrong with the conversation. The riots that are subsequent to the police violence are not reducible to one group of people or one idea. I keep hearing people quote Martin Luther King who said that the riots are the language of the unheard.

But then we see people that are hardly unheard destroying property. I don’t think white folks destroying stuff is what MLK was talking about when he said that riots were the language of the unheard. We hear white folks loud and clear.

But the truth is that the riots are not reducible to one group of people.

“We’re going to see a diversity of fringe malefactors,” said Brian Levin, the director of the Center for the Study of Hate and Extremism at California State University, San Bernardino. “We know for a fact there have been far-right agitators both online and at these rallies, as well as far-left.”

Some people think there are provocateurs and saboteurs in the mix. Other suspect there are bored young people just trying to get in on the chaos. There are people involved that are getting radicalized online that are showing up, too. Some suspect undercover cops are there to provoke more people into getting arrested. And still others know that there are people directly affected by the racist police violence expressing their rage and anger. I think it’s important to understand the complexity here and not buy into the myth of “outside agitators.” There are definitely some of those, but focusing too much on this decenters police violence, and it also reinforces racist idea of the “model minority.”

All of that is happening and I think we need to hold it all, lest we start blaming people simplistically for what’s going on. When we don’t have all the facts, it is usually ideology that makes up the difference. Our ideology informs our lack of understanding. But what I want us to move to is what Jesus would move us to: allow grace and empathy to fill our lack of understanding.

The riots shouldn’t be moralized

I think it’s important to avoid moralizing the rioting. And that cuts both ways. I mean, that we shouldn’t say it’s “right” or it’s “wrong,” because it’s more complicated than that. We need to stop trying to make everything about what’s “right and wrong.” How we react to injustice is more complicated than a moral binary. We have different motives, some of which we know or don’t.

I think it’s indicative that a lot of folks offer police officers who engage in murderous behavior the benefit of the doubt, but have a hard time doing that with the folks that are protesting in ways that seem wrong to them.

At the same time, I think it’s important not to offer a moral defense of the riots, as much as an emotional one. Can we see them as a complicated cornucopia (and not a single factor)? And as such, I hope we can see them as reactions to injustice, and complex ones at that. Reducing them to “right” or “wrong” seems to be missing the big picture. The riots are a response to oppression and trauma; let’s be moved toward grace, compassion, and empathy instead of moralism.

The riots are not utilitarian

I think it’s important also to not think of them as “strategic.” Now, in some cases they are: taking down the statue of Frank Rizzo, the racist police chief and mayor of Philadelphia seems like a strategic move to me. Sometimes it’s antithetical to any sort of strategy (like in this instance when a young man thought to burn a synagogue!). And sometimes it is deliberately not helpful (like when black-owned businesses are looted, or other businesses are damaged that help the community).

But I don’t think it’s too helpful to imagine the riots are utilitarian, because I believe that leads us to judge them as political tools that are supposed to advance legislation, or something. They are obviously not that, and judging them for being something they explicitly aren’t, seems foolish. They aren’t condemnable because they aren’t “effective.” They are an emotional response to injustice, and reiteration of the state violence that started them. We need to heal the wounds and confront the violence.

We need to lament, not condemn

The riots themselves are an expression of lamentation. And so, family, in solidarity, we must lament. Not condemn. Our communities are torn apart by state-sanctioned racist violence. We are in pain. We are traumatized. We are hurting. And when one part of the body hurts, we all need to. We need to be troubled, cut to the heart as Peter said in Acts 2. I see the pain expressed in the street, and I lament. We need peace, we need justice. And the unrest that follows is a result of the lack of that. We needn’t judge it, but rather move to empathy, and lament together.

When you see people expressing their rage about it, understand that it’s not super helpful to address this as an individual problem. It’s a systemic one that simply says, “no justice, no peace.” We need justice from God to rain down on us. We need the police to hand in their riot gear and weapons. We need a new world.

5 Replies to “Focusing on the riots is avoiding the real problem: police brutality

    1. Sorry, Scott. Sounds like I missed you. I’m talking to people that are trying to “moralize” the circumstance instead of empathizing with the folks who are suffering at the hands of police. I think God is showing us to feel first, instead of judge. If you want to talk more, you can comment, or Email, or call me too. I’m feeling for you, too.

    2. Scott –
      Consider going inward and thinking more about why you feel hurt and sad about the call to think in less binary ways about our complex system of injustice.
      I for one, as a part of circle of hope, feel empowered and grateful by Jonny’s words.

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