On Riots and the Postmodern Corruption of the Culture of Protest

Riots are commonplace in American history. When we hear the word “riot” people of my generation and my parents’ generation reflexively think of the period 1960-1969—Watts, the “long hot summer” of 1967, MLK Jr.’s assassination in 1968. But the decade that followed was also quite riotous. There was a downside. Nixon used social disorder to win reelection in a landslide. The effective neutralization of the Black Panthers by the FBI’s COINTELPRO saw inner-city black communities regress back to criminal gangs. Disorder and criminal violence fueled a several decades-long war on crime and drugs. After a relatively quiet 1980s, the LA riots, in 1992, sparked by the acquittal of officers who beat a black motorist, stand out for Americans. A couple of years later, the federal government put the hammer down on crime, locking up hundreds of thousands of mostly young men, disproportionately black (the current Democratic nominee was an author of the law). To be sure, riots are not only an expression of black American rage. But, for living memory, that perception is not without warrant.

Do the Riots in Minneapolis Forebode Greater Civil Unrest for the US?
Protestors in front of a burning liquor store in Minneapolis

Like many other rhythms in the social animal, riots come and go. We need to do some thinking about the conditions from which riots emerge and the character of the events triggering them. The oft-heard metaphor is that a fire requires preparation and a spark for ignition. What or who prepares the fire? What or who ignites it? In sociology, we talk about structure and agency, with structure referring to persistent constellations of social relations, abstractly obtained through theoretical means, and agency, referring to concrete social action and, more subjectively, consciousness, at an individual or small group level.

If we stand back and look at the matter abstractly, riots, or what some prefer to call rebellions, do appear to grow out of the conditions. Criminologists often say this thing about crime being caused by privation: society prepares the crime and the criminal commits it. It’s something of a slogan. There does seem to be something to it. At the same time, most poor people don’t serious crime or riot. It’s a probability. Poverty may be a source of crime and riot, but it is not a cause of these phenomena (poverty is neither a cause nor a source of white collar offenses). If poverty did cause crime and riot, given the fact that poor people are mostly white, then we should see the overrepresentation of whites in these phenomena. But we don’t. (For the record, of the 38 million poor people in America, more than three-quarters of them are white.)

The difference, it may be suggested, is the unique situation black people encounter, an experience shaped by racism. It’s not just privation. It’s the compounding effect of economic and racial inequality. The problem, we are often told by those who suggest this, is “institutional racism.” Accepting institutional racism as a fact in black lives, we are to share a story of black male agency directed by institutional forces. These factors compels black males to steal and vandalize property and hurt people. You might ask whether every person has a moral responsibility to obey just laws and respect the lives of others. Don’t black males also have agency? Not really, it seems. Structure denies agency. But why some and not others? The denial of moral agency to one side, the explanation remains an unsatisfactory sociological account.

Moreover, the thesis rests on a false narrative about American history. We might ask whether there is a difference between yesterday’s America, organized in part by institutional racism, manifest in the structure of Jim Crow segregation established in the wake of Reconstruction, which one would expect would prepare riots, and today’s America, in which, for more than fifty years now, institutional racism has been absent. Despite the rhetoric about “systemic racism,” the fact is that racial segregation was dismantled by the courts, legislatures, and executives in the post WWII- period. Today, there are no institutions accessible to whites that are not also accessible and on equal terms to blacks. This is a very different America from the one into which many of us were born. Tens of millions of Americans, black and white, those born after us, were and are born to a world without institutional racism. For every person in America today, there are no institutional or legal barriers preventing a person from getting an education, a job, a home, or any of the number of things that make life good. There is, of course, the inequality of social class—which is obscured by constant race-talk. But there is also a lot of personal failure. People waste their lives on their own accord. And there is language and culture. And the politics of division and resentment.

This is where agency becomes super relevant to the conversation. Appreciating our history as the story of a nation overcoming racism produces a very different set of assumptions, a fundamentally different frame for action, than embracing a narrative that sees no progress in American history. The United States was forged in a world where slavery and racism were commonplace. The United States freed itself from the British Empire and abolished the slave trade. The British Empire followed suit. Much of the world did not. In the 1860s, the United States fought a civil war to free people from bondage and preserve democratic-republicanism. Three-quarters of a million American men, the vast majority of them white, died so that black people could have rights. While men killed white men for the sake of human freedom. Following WWII, the civil rights movement saw black Americans come into those rights. This is a story of progress. America led the way for the world. However, if people are taught to believe that the United States is no different today than it was when Jim Crow prevailed, or worse, no better than the days when blacks were chattel, then the interpretation of selectively presented facts shaped by that framing comes out wrong and potentially destructive. Privation may lend this feeling energy, but it is the interpretation of American history that is malignant. Ideas matter.

If people in this situation do not know, for example, that most victims of lethal police action are white men, and that white men are not disproportionately killed by police relative to their population—that is, if the situation of lethal police action is falsely portrayed as cops targeting and killing black men exclusively or even disproportionately (and the sophistication to check the accuracy of this portrayal is lacking), then a portion of the population is prepared to be provoked into action with a particular character. The facts matter. Ronald G. Fryer, in “An Empirical Analysis of Racial Differences in Police Use of Force,” published in the Journal of Political Economy in 2016, who, when turning his attention to the most extreme use of force—officer-involved shootings—found no racial differences in either the raw data or when contextual factors are taken into account. Joseph Cesario and colleagues, in “Is There Evidence of Racial Disparity in Police Use of Deadly Force? Analyses of Officer-Involved Fatal Shootings in 2015–2016,” published in Social Psychological and Personality Science, in 2018, found, adjusting for crime, no systematic evidence of anti-Black disparities in fatal shootings, fatal shootings of unarmed citizens, or fatal shootings involving misidentification of harmless objects. They conclude that, when analyzing all shootings, exposure to police given crime rate differences likely accounts for the higher per capita rate of fatal police shootings for blacks. In another study, “Disparity does not mean bias: making sense of observed racial disparities in fatal officer-involved shootings with multiple benchmarks,” published in the Journal of Crime and Justice in 2019, Richard K. Moule Jr. and Bryanna Fox found that, when focused on violent crime arrests or weapons offense arrests, black citizens appear less likely to be fatally shot by police officers. Charles E. Menifield and colleagues, in “Do White Law Enforcement Officers Target Minority Suspects?” published in Public Administration Review, in 2018, found that, although minority suspects are disproportionately killed by police, white officers appear to be no more likely to use lethal force against minorities than nonwhite officers. This is what science tells us. But what does the corporate media tell us? In other words, if enough people under similar circumstances see the world in a similar way, even if that worldview is the product of false consciousness, then the coil of collective violence is tightly winding. An event—a Michael Brown, a Trayvon Martin, a George Floyd—might release the spring. It doesn’t matter that everybody got the facts in the Brown and Martin case wrong. They couldn’t in the George Floyd case. All it took was seeing the first amateur shot video of a police beating to burn down south-central LA.

Thus a crucial principle to observe is that the decisions people make about how they will act under given circumstances is shaped by the way they think about the world around them. There is a pressing need to study the ideas that have colonized the lifeworlds of course citizens. Language, culture, and ideology are particularly important factors to consider. In light of this, I encourage people, particularly academics and journalists, those with the power to shape thought, to think about how they talk about America history and race relations. Stop proceeding on what you were told was truth and start working with the truth in mind. We have made immense progress since the 1960s, but if knowledge of that progress is unknown, denied, or suppressed, and especially if an alternative history is taught in our schools and on our streets, then the people’s lifeworld becomes shaped by ideology not reality. The paradigm of academic misdirection is Howard Zinn’s A People’s History of the United States, which came to dominate social studies curriculum (it is often the only history book our youth will ever read), a one-sided sledgehammer depicting American history as the story of oppression upon oppression, oppression in intersecting layers. It feels as times in this book that the sovereign people aren’t America at all, but rather are her slaves and subjects. But Zinn’s ideologically-driven history is part of the Maoist-inspired antiracist / postcolonialist project taken up by the New Left in the 1960s (by way of the French intellectual sweet on totalitarianism and Islam) that early on corrupted the civil rights movement, turning the struggle for equality, which promised class solidarity, to the tokenism of identity, with a new corporatist rhetoric of justice—diversity, equity, and inclusion—and white people as folk devils. And with it a drive the smash the democratic-republican machinery the working class need to peacefully transform society.

If a young person is told that America is a deeply racist nation, that all whites are privileged and racist, that they are victims of oppression, intergenerationally traumatized, then a riot is being prepared. A riot is engineered with lies designed to engage people already frustrated by their life chances, the alternative paths out of frustration cut off by those who control their neighborhoods. Have you ever noticed that the poorest communities are led by the most progressive politicians? The likelihood that my interpretation is correct is quite high given the fact that the reasons given for the riots, while enjoying popular support in some political circles, enjoy little empirical support among objective ones. The claim that America is a country shaped by systemic racism cannot be rationally sustained. It is, however, a country where progressives, operating a vast culture industry, have brainwashed Americans into believing that the core values that define the West—enlightenment, humanism, liberalism, rationalism, secularism—are deeply problematic, and were very probably designed to benefit the white man at the expense of everybody else. At least, they claim, these values function this way, as one can plainly see in the racial disparities that distinguish America, thereby substituting for an explanation of inequality a definition: racism is racial inequality. With the certainty of this tautology at their backs, and the intrinsic evil of white people, America is subjected to a constant degradation of the history and the culture of European civilization—the culture that gave the world common law, human rights, civil liberties, and political freedom, not to mention the highest standard of living of any social formation in world history. Alas, these, too, are problematic in the same way. Paradoxically, for those who fetishize otherness (which is synonymous with constructing others), the things that prove its worth—liberty and democracy, civil and human rights, feminism, gay and lesbian rights, religious pluralism, scientific and technological advancements—are the things that condemn Western civilization.

Those who worry about the impression the mob leaves tell us that we should probably separate protesters from rioters. The rioters are a numerical minority. They are also not a monolithic bunch. Many are, if folks are honest, thugs who take advantage of the situation, under cover of chaos, to molest, steal, and vandalize. Again, since most poor people don’t do this, we can really only say that deprivation is a source of this behavior, not a cause of it. For sure we know that crime is more likely to occur when social control is loosened. It follows that depolicing communities, which progressives are advocating, will almost certainly worsen the crime problem. The crime problem is one that we should take seriously, since, while poor people are not destined to be criminals, they are more likely to be the victims of those who do. It is unjust to expose the vulnerable to disorder and predation. Harvard professor Randall Kennedy coined a useful term for this phenomenon—racially-selective underprotection. Others belong to the terrorist countermovement Antifa and its ilk, white youth who believe that anarchy by propaganda of the deed is an effective mode of societal transformation. Transformation into what? Nothing. They are nihilists. But, while most of the protestors are not either sort of rioter, they operate on the basis of the false consciousness we mistakenly attribute to the rioters. What moves the protestors is the belief that the police are targeting members of their community on the basis of race because America is a racist nation. Objectively, on the basis of this false narrative, they work against the community by demanding the police stand down. So, while protesting lethal police action is legitimate, the current protests are not.

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This false narrative is not benign. The call for depolicing is a call to abandon the black community to criminal violence, to disorder and despair. It refuses to admit that half of all homicide victims in this country are black men and that their murders come mostly at the hands of other black men. This past weekend in Chicago, more than eighty people were shot and nineteen killed in the worst weekend of violence for 2020 so far. Black men are less than six percent of the population, yet they account for half of all the murderers in our society. There is a moral crisis in black America. Black children sleep in bathtubs to avoid the stray bullets whizzing through the walls of their homes. Walking to school—of which they have largely been spared by the lunacy of the COVID-19 hysteria—can be a terrifying experience. The situation is unacceptable to those who genuinely care about equality and justice. A truly righteous protestor doesn’t leave people to such a fate, especially on the basis of race. ACAB is a bullshit slogan.

There is an elitism at work here, one that see black people as not being able to help themselves. As if they are savages with no agency, no capacity for moral responsibility. It is an anti-humanist ideology. The fact that the media only focuses on black victims of police violence devalues the lives of other victims and perpetuates a false narrative about policing and about America. What is more, among the majority of Americans, there will be many who will not see police violence as a problem since it does not affect their community. But if we are going to do something about it, then we need to see to it that they do. There is strength in numbers. Antagonizing white people by telling them that they’re racist for not buying into a false narrative that degrades them and the country of which they are also a part only alienates them. Is this stupidity or by design?

The BLM approach is counterproductive if the goal is reducing police violence. But, frankly, the goal does not appear to seek to raise awareness about police violence. Folks would not attack those who ask America to look at the other victims of crime and police violence if it were otherwise. What about Tony Timpa and all the white victims of lethal police action? Watch it or you will be accused of being an ALM racist, because apparently not all lives matter (that’s why the other victims of police violence escape our attention or soon slide down the memory hole for lack of it). No, the goal appears to be about creating and perpetuating resentment and prejudice towards the white people of a nation that dismantled institutional racism more than fifty years ago and widely instituted reparations shortly afterwards. The BLM approach, embraced by the corporate media, denies and distorts history and delegitimizes the institutions of our republic. It is functional for the few and politically paralyzing for the many. And these effects appear to be by design. This is a political project decades in the making. The riot does not organically emergent from the conditions of black America. It is prepared by the elites in the service of corporate power.

Those of us who study social phenomena must reckon the power of ideology. Don’t let people don’t tell you that language and culture don’t matter. They don’t believe that themselves. Beliefs organize action. Power organizes belief. The power of the culture industry is demonstrated by the ubiquity of a false narrative that has set ablaze the first southern city to desegregate its lunch counters. My city of Nashville is on fire because progressives run down America constantly. They preach racial division and resentment. Stripped of its academic pretense, “white privilege” is a variation on “kill the white man.” It’s that old “white devil” rhetoric. It’s hateful and racist. If you don’t believe me, listen to the rhetoric on the streets of America right now. You will hear recycled slogans culled from old news reels. They should stay there. Progressives wring their hands over hate speech and incitement to racial violence. They need to look in the mirror. They own this. At the level of electoral politics, the Democrats own this.

I want to make my position crystal clear because I expect people will want to make it less so. When I am criticizing mob violence in our cities today I am not saying that there is no problem with police violence or the people have no reason to protest. I have been a critic of police violence and an advocate for civil liberties for my entire life. It’s what I do. There is a problem with police violence and the people have the right to protest it and they should protest it. What I have a problem with is the character of the protests. They have been racialized. The problem with racializing the problem is this: if progressives are correct that whites don’t care about police violence because they don’t think black lives matter, then it is counterproductive to insist that not all lives matter in the same way. Since more whites are killed by police than blacks—a lot more—then it behooves those who oppose police violence to make whites aware that members of their community die in greater numbers at the hands of the police than do blacks. You won’t do that by telling white people that they’re all racist or that the best they can be is an ally. I’m not racist (I don’t know many white people who are) and the demand that I be an ally is to demand that I stand peripheral to a cause that is part of my life. I will not stand with any movement that subordinates me to any other person. I hear white people being told to shut up and listen. If somebody ever talks to you in that tone of voice, you tell them to fuck off.

Why haven’t the leaders and participants in this movement figured this out yet? I am continually astonished by the attempt to create a mass movement against police violence that at the same time strives to blind the public to the greatest number of victims of police violence while smearing white people as racist. Given how smart these folks are, does this not suggests that BLM is not actually a civil rights movement devoted to ending police violence but a grievance industry to heighten and entrench racial antagonisms? Looks like it to me. It doesn’t seek popular unity and class solidarity. It seeks racial division. Would Marx advocate such a thing? No, he would ask you to ask yourself, whose interests does this serve? Not the interests of black Americans. Except, of course, the handful of the black misleadership strata. Not the interests of the proletariat. this benefits the capitalist class. They are playing you.

I would be out there protesting police violence myself, but I cannot as long as the protests proceed on a basis of racial exclusivity/subordination or the glorification of anarchy and mob violence. I refuse to participate in racially divisive political action. I will not stand with protesters who erase the victims of police violence. I will protest when the protests expand to address the actual problem: police violence against the people. Moreover, I will not stand with those who advocate abolishing the police or depolicing communities. Crime is a serious problem and black Americans are disproportionately subjected to the fallout. I oppose the practice of racially selective underprotection of populations. We need to reform policing, not abolish it. Finally, I cannot stand with any movement that fails to condemn antifascism. Antifascism is the mirror image of fascism not its negation. Antifa is a terroristic countermovement rooted in nihilistic derangement. They are the extreme expression of postmodernism. Everything well short of that extreme is bad enough. So you won’t see me out on the streets.

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Andrew Austin

Andrew Austin is on the faculty of Democracy and Justice Studies and Sociology at the University of Wisconsin—Green Bay. He has published numerous articles, essays, and reviews in books, encyclopedia, journals, and newspapers.

2 thoughts on “On Riots and the Postmodern Corruption of the Culture of Protest”

  1. Your analysis of BLM is probably mostly correct but I’d add that BLM is a rational movement in the sense that of all the risks an urban black man expects to run in his life, being murdered by a public employee ought not be not one of them. The response of city governments is however to shrug and say “hey, what are you gonna do?” as if the city government is not responsible for its own employees.

    1. I agree with you about not being murdered by cops. I advocate aggressively reforming policing in America.

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