In the wake of the brutal murder of George Floyd, protesters flocked to the streets of many major U.S. cities day after day. In some cases, there were individuals at the protests that incited violence and destruction; in most cases, the protests were pacific – a true reflection of our First Amendment right to “peaceably assemble, and to petition the government for a redress of grievances.” But no matter how the protests went, there was one common theme among all of them: They were disruptive!
I live in one of the urban neighborhoods of the city, where protesters marched on two separate occasions. For the first protest, I hadn’t realized it was happening when I ordered a pizza from a place smack dab on the path of their march. I had to park two blocks away to get to the pizzeria, and once I picked up my pizza, I sat in traffic for 20 minutes getting home (I only live about 10 blocks away in the first place). All with the sweet smell of tomato pie filling my car. It was 20 minutes of hangry torture. The next time, my wife and I heard about the protest just as it reached our neighborhood, so we threw on some clothes (confession: our work-from-home uniform is usually pajamas) and we went outside to at least show support. The marchers were about five blocks away this time, so we walked. The march traversed two bridges in a city where it’s impossible to get anywhere without crossing a bridge, so needless to say the traffic was even worse during this protest – we passed about 200 cars idling on our way, some honking angrily in vain.
And those were the peaceful protests… then there were the protests that got a bit, shall we say, rowdy? Stores were looted, windows were broken, garbage cans were overturned, people were injured, things got ugly. This kind of protest is not sanctioned by our constitution, and for those that were caught, there were legal consequences. In many of these cases, the people who turned these otherwise peaceful protests violent were outsiders just looking to cause trouble; other times the violence erupted organically from an encounter between the militarized officers sent (ironically) to keep the peace and the protesters themselves. Protest organizers across the nation have condemned these acts of violence and strongly encourage their allies to remain peaceful.
Among all the protests, though, it was clear that they caused quite an inconvenience for our way of life. Well… um… good! All over social media, the anti-protest protesters repeated variations on the same tired set of counterarguments: “Don’t the protesters know that they are preventing people from getting home to their families by blocking traffic? Don’t they realize that looting the stores hurts our community?” And of course the maligned, “Yes murdering innocent Black folks is bad, but what about STEALING?!” Others said that the peaceful protesters (those exercising their First Amendment rights as citizens, that is) should be arrested; still others recommended more Draconian punishments for the non-crimes being committed. And yet, these anti-protest protesters fail to recognize the irony in their position: Protests are SUPPOSED TO cause an inconvenience for our way of life. People wouldn’t be protesting our way of life if our way of life was just.
In Game Theory, when we try to predict what the next event will be based on current knowledge, we might guess that an issue of this magnitude would turn into a tit-for-tat standoff where each side measures blows against the other until one is defeated. It’s not even absurd to imagine that it could eventually escalate to a full blown civil war. We should feel very lucky that it has not come to this in modern times. All things considered, protests are a fairly mild response to centuries of oppression of an entire segment of the population. When analyzed through this lens, even the violence that has broken out at protests doesn’t seem that bad. Bad? Yes. But congruent to the events that led to the violence? Not quite. Some have pointed out that a more accurate name for these so-called riots is “rebellion,” reminiscent of the acts committed by the Sons of Liberty to protest unjust taxation in the late 18th century. To me, that seems like a fair characterization. I do condemn violence of any kind; but I also understand its origins and empathize with those who feel that the system is so overwhelmingly against them that tearing it down is a legitimate response. Put more simply: Violence sucks, but systemic oppression sucks more.
Ultimately, how people have reacted against the protests is a telltale indicator of the issues preserving the racist institutions. If your reaction to people protesting the unrelenting murder of innocent citizens is “What a headache this is for me!” then take a moment to recognize your privilege and then sit with the discomfort; that’s literally the least you can do. If the discomfort is truly unbearable for you, then do your best to channel empathy for the protesters, who feel that marching through the streets is their only way to make people believe this is a real problem, and take action. Be an ally. March with them. Remember that among the most transformative phrases that have changed the course of history is one that echoes louder than ever: We, the people!