Protests quickly turned violent last night in the wake of the announcement that a grand jury had decided not to indict Officer Darren Wilson in the shooting of Michael Brown in Ferguson, MO.
Probably the only people who will benefit from the burning down nefarious institutions such as a Little Caesar's location in an already poor neighborhood are the major news networks, who got exactly the kind of apocalyptic footage that they wanted to generate viewership.
There's plenty of mis-management to go around. Why in the world did authorities decide to announce hours ahead of time that they had a result back from the grand jury, and then make the actual announcement after dark? If you're going to break potentially riot-inducing news, do it at 7AM, not under cover of darkness.
Various authorities, from the local prosecutor to the family of Michael Brown to President Obama called for protests to the decision to be peaceful. That they weren't is hardly surprising. Since the Civil Rights marches of the '60s became part of our national mythology, there's been an idealization of the power and importance of the peaceful protest in the American imagination.
With something like an organized march along a clearly defined route, on a day long planned ahead of time (whether the Million Man March or the annual March For Life) it's fairly realistic to keep things peaceful even on a contentious topic. However, large crowds are by their dangerous things. People feed off each other's emotions in a crowd, and they're willing to do things together that they would not do alone. Actions and sounds create emotions. Stand with a large crowd, chanting a slogan and waging your fist, and you'll feel more intensely that if you were on your own. Crowds also create group identity. One member of the crowd throws a rock at the police, all the police feel threatened. One protester is suppressed by the police, the whole crowd feels attacked.
Put a large, angry crowd on the streets at night to express their feelings on a contentious topic, and you're fairly likely to get arson and looting out of it. It's not just that some members of the crowd may get swept up in the moment if others start violence. Even those who remain peaceful but on the streets end up inadvertently providing cover for those who are being violent. If the streets are empty except for a few troublemakers, it's comparatively easy for the police to deal with them. If there are crowds of people protesting, and the smaller numbers of people smashing windows and starting fires, the crowd ends up providing cover for the trouble makers and the police are less likely to keep a lid on things.
I think we should be less optimistic about the ability of unorganized crowds to conduct peaceful protests at moments of high tension. Obviously, freedom of speech and assembly is important, and I don't think that we should allow those to be over-ruled, but the fact that something is legal does not mean that it is a good idea. People who actually want to conduct peaceful protests rather than burning down their neighborhood would be well advised to consider the idea of not holding spontaneous protests at the moment when an event takes place. If what you want is a peaceful protest, either conduct it in a naturally peaceful place (such as holding a large prayer service at a church) or organize a scheduled protest when the most raw feelings have cooled a bit, and the protest and be organized and supervised.
Of course, there's the also the matter of people who kind of want peaceful protests, but also want to excuse violent ones. Twitter seemed replete last night with fairly privileged people pontificating about how it was smug of the middle class to decry arson and looting on the part of protesters.
Those who try to come up with explanations for how different dispositions lead to different political alignments often describe conservatives as being characterized by the feeling that we need to maintain order and stave off barbarism. If so, I guess I'm something of a text book conservative. I have pretty much zero sympathy with looting and arson as a way of venting one's feelings about an issue. Some of this may also be personal history. Growing up in Los Angeles, the '92 Los Angeles riots loom large in my impression of such things. We lived in a working class suburb of LA, so my family was not directly exposed to the rioting, but the nearly week-long riots were not that far away either. Schools and businesses were shut down. From where we lived you could see the smoke columns rising up from the arson which eventually totaled 3,767 buildings burned. And since everything was shut down there was a curfew, I spent a lot of time sitting rooted in front of the TV watching crowds loot and burn down my city.
So by disposition my reaction to an angry crowd deciding to loot and burn is not "it would be awfully privileged of us to criticize them for acting out on their rage" but "if we're civilized, we will do something about these barbarians." But disposition aside, those inclined to think that riots are a good way of sticking it to the white and the privileged should consider what's really going on here. One of the things that makse poor neighborhoods poor is not just the low incomes of the people who live in them, it's that on top of not making much money, and not having very good transportation, people are stuck buying goods and services at businesses with smaller selections and higher prices. That sort of problem doesn't get better when a mob decides to teach the powers that be a lesson by burning down a bunch of businesses. Not only is it likely to make the people whose businesses you burn down hate and distrust you, but it also makes your neighborhood even poorer and even more discriminated against.
It will take years for Ferguson to recover from the damage which its residents are doing to it in venting their anger. The fact that it's only a small minority of people who are actually doing the looting and the burning doesn't make that any different. Business owners quite rationally do not want to run businesses in neighborhoods where they're likely to see their livelihood destroyed because people don't like a legal proceeding which the business owner had nothing to do with.
Trying very, very hard to avoid protests turning violent is not just some odd hang up of the secure bourgeoisie. Preventing arson and looting is very much in the interest of the communities themselves.