Follow the money has been the mantra of investigative reporters since the Nixon era. But money may not be the only thing to follow. One might also follow the advantage. To whose advantage is a particular incident or string of incidents? It’s a question to which answers can shed light on murky subjects. Following the advantage can also lead down rabbit holes of fantabulous prejudice satisfying conspiracies, so it’s important to objectively verify as one goes along the trail.
With that in mind, what about the incidents of violence and property damage occurring as a part of protests in places like Portland, Rochester, Minneapolis, etc.? Today’s right wing says it’s the product of out of control left wing socialist agitators intent on destroying America as we know it. Is it? To whose advantage are these incidents? The protests frame demands for a more just and equitable society. Do violence and destruction inspire broader public support for greater social and economic justice? Do they generate greater public support for Black Lives Matter? Do they give credence to demands for reforms to root out systemic racism and change the way we define policing?
Black Lives Matter is an interesting check point because many of the protests originated with reaction to a black life being taken by police. A recent Pew study suggests that 43% of all adults of every race have a favorable view of BLM, but only 18% strongly support it, while 26% are somewhat supportive. Among whites, only 34% are supportive, 6% strongly so. And Republicans? 20% are supportive, but only 4% strongly so. If protests are intended to generate greater awareness of and support for dramatic change in society, destructive violence will simply drive away those who are only somewhat supportive. That can be enough to scuttle whatever momentum protesters hoped to build.
Among them are some who don’t care. They’ve had it with white supremacy and are disinterested in appealing for white support. Yet a minority of the population forming a bloc of white conservatives retains enough political power to block dramatic change. They use fear of out of control street crime to encourage a momentum shift in their direction. It is to their advantage that protests generate enough frightening violence as to create sensational t.v. coverage, and give fodder to the media voices they control. To whom do they direct their appeal? To those who prefer no change, or change back to a mythical golden time. Not all are reactionary libertarians. Some are single issue white supremacists. Others are of the old school who believe people of color simply need to conform to white middle class standards to succeed. To them, systemic racism, if there is any, isn’t significant. Failure to make it in America indicates nothing more than a lack of ambition and a poor work ethic. An even greater number, I suspect, are basically nice people who are comfortable with the way things are, fear street crime, and dislike conflict in any form.
Violence, especially destructive violence, works in favor of those with the power to put a stop to social and economic change they don’t want. Skillfully employed, it displaces entirely the issues of injustice that sparked the protests.
They don’t have to organize or pay for it. They only have to stimulate existing conditions. A few well placed words on social media can entice white supremacists, militias, and right wing patriots to act on their beliefs. A few well placed words on social media can entice left wing revolutionaries to act on their beliefs. A few well placed provocateurs can tilt momentum away from hesitancy toward specific action; then wait for things to unfold as if spontaneously.
Why? What’s to be gained by defeating movements for greater justice and more equity? It goes way back and way deep, but comes down to this. Liberalism works against control of society by oligarchs who are quite certain they are the rightful ones to hold power, and equally certain that the “common man” is a commodity to be used in the production of wealth for those who have earned it. Moreover, the “common man” can be sold that it’s in ‘his’ best interest, and ‘he’ will believe it. Government should aid them, not get in their way.
Liberalism gets in the way by giving emphasis to the general welfare, and using government to create conditions in which the “common man” is not a commodity but a fully empowered agent of her or his life in the context of a more just society. Today that means a greater emphasis on redressing systememic wrongs visited on people of color. Perhaps most embarrassing is liberalism’s track record of fiscal responsibility and economic progress. Violence in protests helps turn public attention away from liberalism, and that might be all they need.