Violence Hurts the Communities Protesters Want to Protect
A disturbing rise in crime figures highlights the dangers of endorsing militancy.
The gruesome killing of George Floyd under the knee of police officer Derek Chauvin has galvanized nationwide protests and reignited the ongoing debate of race relations in America. Some peaceful protesters have been met with even more brutality, including two journalists who lost an eye from police firing rubber bullets and a 75-year-old man shoved to the ground by officers.
But violence has also deeply harmed the very marginalized communities that activists are trying to protect. This year has seen steep rises in homicide numbers, after over two decades of decline in violent crime. In Minnesota, the original center of the protests, local communities have been ravaged by looting, rioting, and property destruction. Numerous Black-owned small businesses were destroyed, including Bole Ethiopian Cuisine, an ethnic restaurant burned and vandalized and Healing Path Wellness Services, a South Minneapolis minority-owned mental health clinic, which was burned and looted. Go Get It Tobacco, a Black-owned tobacco store in St. Paul, Minnesota, was also vandalized and left in ruins.
Many cities have experienced a drop in riotous demonstrations, but others have only worsened. In Portland, riots persisted for several weeks following the May 25 death of Floyd. “If you want to support Portland, stop the violence,” police chief Chuck Lovell recently asserted in a public statement. Several other cities across the country, such as Los Angeles, Omaha, Aurora, Austin, and Seattle have all witnessed resurging violence amidst the Trump administration’s deployment of federal officials in several high-crime zones.
Protests are an uncontroversial exercise of First Amendment rights which must never be obstructed. However, violence only exacerbates deep-rooted polarization and stunts any meaningful conversation on police reform and racial discrimination. It must be condemned from the top down and not be justified by structural inequities. Moreover, minority communities have disproportionately borne the brunt of property destruction and reckless violence scourging American cities. As a result, racial inequalities have widened, creating more economic destabilization which will be harder for marginalized communities to recover from.
Rioters set fire to 90 percent of the small businesses along the Lake Street corridor, many of which are minority-owned, according to the Minnesota Star Tribune. Korboi Falla, a Black firefighter, spent his life savings to open a bar, and looters burned it down. Video of him breaking down in tears speaks volumes to the self-destruction of the riots. Ironically, a $30 million affordable housing project designed to provide residence for many poor Black locals was burned. Looters smashed a library and completely burned down the Migizi Communication, a 40-year-old Native youth organization. The only minority-owned building on the block, Migizi executive director Kelly Drummer, said it was deemed a total loss, with damages nearing $2 million.
Small businesses across the country have been demolished. In Dallas, Texas, Guns and Roses Boutique, launched by a Black female entrepreneur, was looted and left in ruins during riots. Ihman’s Hair Studio, a Philadelphia hair salon, was ransacked and looted. The disgruntled owner wrote: “[I’m] hurt and angry that my people would vandalize and destroy a Black-owned business.” Floyd’s girlfriend said the riots would “devastate” George, and his brother announced, “Let’s switch it up. Do this peacefully, please.” He added: “You all are doing nothing. Because that’s not going to bring my brother back at all.”
Heartbreaking, first-hand narratives aside, riots cause long-lasting economic devastation. In their 2004 study, The Labor Market Effects of the 1960s Riots, social scientists William J. Collins and Robert A. Margo found a 9 percent decline in median Black family income in cities that saw large-scale riots compared to those that didn’t see significant violence. They also found correlations between the riots and the rise of African Americans living in high-poverty urban neighborhoods.
In a second paper, The Economic Aftermath of the 1960s Riots: Evidence from Property Values, Collins and Margo found the riots of the 1960s “depressed the median value of Black-owned property between 1960 and 1970, with little or no rebound in the 1970s.” The riots caused an estimated 10 percent loss in the total value of Black-owned residential property in American urban areas, widening the racial gap in property values. Black Americans often shared the belief that the riots had hurt their own communities. According to a Harris poll taken after the 1967 Detroit riots, 68 percent of African Americans surveyed characterized the looters as “criminals.” The same percentage felt that violence degraded the righteous cause of civil rights activism.
Riots of the recent past also have a visible impact today. The crime journalist Zaid Jilani visited Baltimore three years after the post-Freddie-Gray riots. Jilani notes there was little progress made in areas impacted by the destruction. The city has continued to suffer from significant population loss and violent crime, with 2019 marking the city’s deadliest year in more than two decades. Coleman Hughes, a contributing editor at City Journal, writes, “Riots exacerbate the very economic circumstances that create them. … Many businesses, some Black-owned, have still not returned to Ferguson to this day. No one has purchased the property. The buildings are just abandoned.”
Progressives have (correctly) critiqued conservatives who are more outraged by the destruction of inanimate property than the coldblooded murder of Floyd and the violence of police caught on camera numerous times in the last few months. However, property destruction and economic costs aren’t the most egregious consequences of the riots. Several people have been killed and dozens have been critically injured during the nationwide demonstrations.
As of June 8, 17 people have died amid the protests, higher than the total number of unarmed Black people (14) killed in America by police last year. A disproportionate number of homicide victims in the riots are Black. Out of at least five African American victims David Dorn, a retired St. Louis police chief who was guarding a friend’s pawnshop against looters, is a particularly grim case. His bloodcurdling death was captured on Facebook Live after looters shot him in the torso, and he died bleeding on a sidewalk.
Other Black victims include Italia Marie Kelly, a 22-year-old woman who was shot in the back while trying to escape a protest that had turned into a riot in Davenport, Iowa, and Chris Beaty, an ex-Indiana football player who was shot dead in an alley in Indianapolis after leaving a demonstration that had become violent. In the past month, several additional people have died in incidents stemming from riots, including two teenagers who were shot in Seattle’s (now disbanded) semi-autonomous zone CHOP, and a recent shooting of BLM protestor Garrett Foster in Austin, Texas. CHOP itself ended in a spree of violent clashes.
All this comes amid a wider crisis. The American economy has cut 40 million jobs since the pandemic began, which will disproportionately fall on the disenfranchised. Racial inequalities have been amplified, with more than half of Black adults rendered jobless. Black Americans report being furloughed and laid off at higher rates than whites, and dying of COVID-19 at higher rates than whites.
Emphatic condemnation of self-destructive riots is not to condone police brutality or discrimination. It is to point to the glaring counterproductivity and wholly unnecessary cost of fighting against structural inequities in modern policing. Unfortunately, high-ranking politicians and news commentators have cynically used structural inequities to justify mass violence and chronic unrest on the streets. The national focus has shifted away from policing and deviated to the destructive riots—and efforts to implement measured police reform and create more accountability have been hampered.