Unrest continues in Kenosha, Wisconsin, in the aftermath of the shooting of Jacob Blake. News of street violence makes my heart sink. But I’m not surprised. Since George Floyd’s death, civil authorities have done everything possible to avoid deadly encounters. They have given low priority to the protection of property. The danger in this approach is that those victimized start to fight back (or hire proxies to do so).
In New York protests pushed police to the perimeter of sections of the city. With thousands of cell phone cameras trained on them, officers had to act carefully to avoid confrontations, lest they be captured on video and create still more violence. In any event, civil leaders had urged police restraint. This created police-free zones in which looters could freely roam.
The strategy was one of containment, not confrontation. This was not necessarily a stupid approach, given that public opinion at that point was solidly behind protesters and against police. But it came with costs, which storeowners and residents of the neighborhoods overrun by disorder and crime had to absorb.
This strategy has its roots in university culture. Since the 1960s, campus leaders have perfected a script. Student activists can take over administrative offices or the library. These violations are tolerated, as long as not too much is disrupted. University leaders are careful to affirm the “spirit of protest.” Eventually enthusiasm wanes and things return to normal.
This script has costs. Some must endure rhetorical assaults. At Yale during the 2015 Halloween costume dust-up, Dean Jonathan Holloway was expected to accept verbal humiliation from student activists. Students who verbally abused Erika Christakis were not held accountable. In the script it is assumed that, given the legitimacy of student concerns about racism and other evils, the costs—incivility, commandeered space, damaged property—must be borne.
In recent months we’ve seen this script applied to city streets, where the costs are higher than having to bite your lip as inflamed nineteen-year-olds berate you. These costs can seem manageable. In New York at the end of May, the police-free zones were of limited size and duration. A city-wide curfew restored order. In Portland, Oregon, and elsewhere disorder is episodic and limited to small areas. Some are affected, but not most. The strategy of containment seems to work.
But this risks misjudging the situation. Protecting property from theft and destruction is one of the fundamental functions of government. The university strategy, if applied to the hardscrabble streets of a poor neighborhood rather than the safe confines of a college campus, risks allowing an atmosphere of lawlessness to take hold.
The destruction of property is not just an attack on another’s possessions. It is a violation of justice. This is why rioting and looting affects far more than those whose stores are burned. Citizens begin to worry that they do not live in a society committed to justice. As we know from blacks who resent mistreatment by the police, which is also unjust, this worry can become explosive, even among those not personally affected.
If civil authorities do not restore order reasonably soon, it is nearly inevitable that citizens will organize to defend themselves. Gun sales have skyrocketed in the last three months, a sure sign that many citizens no longer believe that the police will protect them. In June, a widely shared video showed a black man in South Central Los Angeles telling white protesters they could not come and trash his neighborhood—and he backed it up with a credible threat of violence. The same push-back seems to be happening in Kenosha.
Vigilantism is a dangerous enterprise. In our system of law, we have a broad right of self-defense and a limited right to defend our property. But we do not have a right to take upon ourselves the duty of punishing wrongdoers and ensuring law and order. That duty rests in the state alone.
The strategy of contain-but-do-not-confront has limits. Under current circumstances, the necessary way forward is to reassert the authority of civil society. Police and other legitimate representatives of the state need to regain control of the streets. To do so they must be authorized to use the force necessary to restore the rule of law, confronting rather than being satisfied with containing violence against persons and property.
R. R. Reno is editor of First Things.
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