In this, the season of our discontent, there have been innumerable protests since the murder of George Floyd in Minneapolis on May 25. Forty percent of the counties in the United States have seen protests. If you watched them on a video screen, here’s a fact that may surprise you: 93% of them have been peaceful.
The imagery we see on television and the internet makes it seem as though they have all been violent. On video, peaceful marches are about as interesting as driving across Kansas. Peaceful protests are staid and boring to watch. Tear gas and Molotov cocktails make good TV.
Conservative pundits and politicians, led by the president, try to minimize or outright ignore the underlying racial tensions at the heart of this social justice movement, and focus on the 7% of protests that have turned into violent. It gives them a foothold for that old “law and order” trope.
For the record, let us stipulate here and now most want to live in peace. People have to be driven to desperation to foment unrest. President Kennedy’s observation bears repeating: “‘Those who make peaceful revolution impossible will make violent revolution inevitable.” It is unrealistic to think that you can spend generations gunning down unarmed people without consequence. In a way, it’s more unbelievable that this hasn’t happened sooner, for law and order is really a three-legged stool, and it will not stand without its third leg—justice.
If anyone wondered what it takes to get tens of millions of Americans of all colors and socio-economic stripes to take to the streets, they now have their answer. These have been the largest protests in the history of our country, and protests in solidarity against racism and police brutality have cropped up in over 2,000 cities and 60 countries worldwide. Far too many for this to constitute a radical fringe that needs to be put down violently. Something is really happening here, and politicians wish it away with tough rhetoric and rubber bullets at their own peril.
The social response to the killing of unarmed Blacks hit a tipping with the murder of George Floyd. In years past, these incidents have happened without the benefit of witnesses. Provoked or unprovoked? A dangerous criminal resisting arrest, or an unarmed victim profiled and stopped for a broken taillight? Both sides could tell their tale without blushing.
Then came the smartphone.
Suddenly, we have high-definition video cameras with us at all times, and it has become impossible for the agents of racial chaos to say anything more than, “Who are you going to believe, me or your lying eyes?”
It is rare in the history of man that large scale social change comes peacefully. As I’ve noted in this space before, no one willingly relinquishes power. Blood is usually spilled. It always takes effort, and even though when it comes, it seems to happen all at once, it always takes time. Apartheid was the bloody, unjust, and immutable truth of South Africa—until it wasn’t. There was no way the peasant population of France could ever overcome the monarchy—until it did. Early Americans protested against taxation without representation while the British enforced law and order. They beat and bloodied the colonists and quartered their troops in private homes—and then, we’d had enough.
Proving that party is not necessarily an impediment to an authoritarian invoking “law and order,” Richard Daley, Chicago’s Democratic mayor, shouted “law and order” as his police rioted against reporters and anti-war protestors outside the Democratic National Convention in in 1968. Alabama governor George Wallace used the promise of “law and order” in a racist, Independent Party presidential run that same year. Richard Nixon rose to power on the promise of law and order, but like King George, Louis IV, Mayor Daley, and Governor Wallace before him, he never put justice in the equation.
The last large scale, social change-inducing spasm of violence against unarmed civil rights activists was on March 7, 1965 on the Edmund Pettis Bridge in Selma, Alabama. It was enabled by racism in the guise of law and order. Justice was nowhere to be found on that “Bloody Sunday.” The images of water cannons and bullwhips and police dogs attacking peaceful protestors marching for the right to vote horrified most Americans, and eased passage that August of the Voting Rights Act of 1965.
“No justice, no peace” is the current rallying cry of the discontented. Martin Luther King, Jr said that economic progress and social justice, “are the absolute guarantors of riot prevention.” And that trumps law and order.
Law and order never prevail without their binding agent: justice. Without justice, “law and order” is at best an empty slogan, and at worst, the bloody passion of authoritarians.
Jon Sinton is a serial media entrepreneur, who has consulted for NBC News, ABC News, CBS News, and Fox News. He has owned and operated radio stations, radio networks, and digital media sites. Mr. Sinton, a Coronado resident, is the Immediate Past Chairman of the Georgia chapter of the nonpartisan, nonprofit government watchdog organization, Common Cause.