Predictably, rather than take on the exceptionally difficult task of a national self-assessment, some politicians and media directed public attention to the most egregious actions during protest rather than to the aims of the protest. The brew of militarized police, enraged citizens, and criminal looters — bursting into scenes of chaos backlit by burning cars and flashbangs — is a powerful elixir. Sensational images and impassioned appeals to stop the violence flooded traditional and social-media outlets, broadcasting the destruction and airing competing ideas about how to restore order.
Political leaders at all levels of government took their cases to public, typically sorting into one of two ideological camps. Atlanta mayor Keisha Lance Bottoms characterizes one side, telling her city in an emotional speech that breaking windows and looting stores runs counter to the spirit of the protest and detracts from its purpose of calling attention to racial injustice. President Trump is a superlative characterization of the other side, which suggests that the unrest is not a symptom of a larger national problem but is the problem itself and requires a response of overwhelming force. He modeled his vision for quelling protest by sending federal agents with nonlethal munitions and smoke cannisters to surge against peaceful White House demonstrators so he could cross the street for a photo op in front a damaged historic church.
And, as usually happens when racial tensions reach fever pitch, Martin Luther King Jr. becomes the referential totem. In explaining the anger that boils over into destruction, we are reminded of his statement that “a riot is the language of the unheard.” Others note that the principal order of business should be to restore order, echoing another King quote from the same speech: “I will always continue to say that riots are socially destructive and self-defeating.”
As the protests continue across the United States, we risk finding ourselves lost in the same pattern of unproductive behaviors that have long plagued the country. An obsession with modes of racial protests rather than with the meaning of them belies an unwillingness to face the flaws they expose in the nation’s ability to live up to its ideals and fulfill its obligations to the citizenry. Public order and the rule of law are elemental to the well-being of liberal democracies, but the values on which our republic is founded are far more important than any material loss from protest. After all, nearly 250 years after Massachusetts colonists destroyed private property by dumping the contents of a British East India Company shipment into the Boston Harbor, no one gives a damn about the tea. However, the principle that inspired that protest — “no taxation without representation” — endures.
If we are to capitalize on the present crisis to strengthen America and make the Union a little more perfect, we are duty-bound to grapple with the abiding sense of injustice that is felt in black America and fuels civil unrest today, just as it has for centuries.