Pearl River Riots are often studied, but little understood. They are unpredictable by definition. Why does a riot erupt in one place, but not another when the combustible conditions for a conflagration seem to exist in both? How does a peaceful protest one-minute cross the line into a riot the next? Importantly, what impact do they have? Are they effective in advancing causes, winning attention, and change, or do they have the opposite impact by provoking fear and repression?
In the ongoing reaction to the police killing of George Floyd in Minneapolis, a black man living in one of the whitest cities in America, there have been days of riots in that city. Protests have broken out in dozens of places across the country, some of which have also targeted specific buildings and involved arson and arrests.
The conservative, but thoughtful, columnist for the New York Times, Ross Douthat opined about whether these current outbreaks of social disruption would help or hurt the Democrats’ chances in November. He cited contending arguments on the issue, mysteriously finding it significant to litmus test the political leaning of the authors within a matter of degrees. On one hand is “the research of the Princeton political scientist Omar Wasow, showing how peaceful civil rights protests helped Democrats win white votes, and then violence pushed white voters toward Republicans… Looking at data from the civil rights era, Wasow argues that ‘proximity to black-led nonviolent protests increased white Democratic vote-share whereas proximity to black-led violent protests caused substantively important declines’ — enough to tip the 1968 election from Hubert Humphrey to Nixon.” On the other hand, “columnist Ryan Cooper argued that, in effect, that was then and this is now: Maybe riots weakened liberalism in the past, but the riots of 2015 were more localized and therefore less threatening, the America of 2015 was less white and therefore less easily threatened, and the Republicans of 2015 were ‘talking about prison reform, not Willie Horton.’”
Nothing too solid to hang onto with either hand there, that points a direction now, but 2020 holds a different weight in both hands: police brutality and ubiquitous cellphone footage. This morning as dawn was breaking, mi companera, was traumatized by one video after another from the previous nights’ protest of police violence. A policeman was kicking a pregnant woman in Oakland. A policeman in Salt Lake City pushed over an elderly, white man for the crime of standing on the street. Police in Atlanta were pulling people out of cars and macing them at curfew time. Police in Seattle maced a child at 5:03 where there was a 5pm curfew and bus service had been stopped then and pulled people’s masks off to mace them in the face. In Columbus, rubber bullets, tear gas, and pellets were fired by police at protestors and bystanders an hour before curfew began. The stories were endless. The police in many cities seem out of control.
An equation that tries to determine the impact of mass civil disobedience that takes a violent turn is going to have to factor in a new variable: police overreaction and violence. Arsonists and rioters are never going to win popular support, but the political impact is mitigated when police are both the incipient trigger for the protest and the explosive, violent reaction captured in response to the protest. The line between protestor aggression and self-defense becomes blurred, confusing the public, and therefore the politics.
White policemen beating and killing black men, women, and children is Bull Connor gone viral and national. As long as President Trump fans the flames, there is no spin that benefits the conservatives this time. Of course, few will defend a riot. If they continue, it’s another story, but right now is different, and in the immortal words of comic Chris Rock, the American people are thinking, “I understand.”