Call them the coronavirus riots
Months after the novel coronavirus first appeared, a typically sterile and idiotic debate erupted over what to call the thing, with President Trump and various other right-wing figures demanding it be called the "Wuhan virus" and various left-wing figures objecting that using this nomenclature was fueling anti-Asian racism. I call the debate idiotic because it was, on both sides, an attempt to man familiar ramparts rather than directly confront the reality of the crisis.
I fear something similar is happening with the violence and vandalism now convulsing so many American cities. We're on the brink of having a largely spurious debate about whether the violence is a necessary or at least understandable response to the continuing scandal of brutality and racial bias in American policing, or whether, on the contrary, it is the kind of overreaction that will discredit and set back the causes of anti-racism and policing reform.
I say that debate aborning is spurious because I don't believe the violence we've seen is very closely related to the protests at all. If I had to come up with a name for what's happening, I'd follow my colleague Matthew Walther and call them the lockdown riots.
To start with, there's precious little evidence that the people leading the protests, or the overwhelming bulk of those protesting, are engaging in acts of violence. Anecdotally, we're hearing a lot more stories about protesters pleading with vandals and looters to stop. In many cases, the protests and the looting aren't even happening in the same places or at the same time — and at least in some instances the police have focused more on policing legal protests than on preventing criminal activity. There have been enormous protests before in the wake of killings by police, and some of them weren't handled well by the police either, but we haven't seen this kind of anarchy. Why now?
The virus cries out as an explanation. Because of the virus, our city centers and retail districts sit largely empty, but the vitality of city life is a huge deterrent to theft and vandalism, while emptiness and abandonment are provocative temptations. The lockdowns have massively disrupted the economy, and beyond the acute need and deprivation that have resulted, they have also disrupted the normal sense of give-and-take of economic life that undergirds the social agreement on the right to property in the first place. People have been cooped up, bored, and anxious, with few traditional sources of pleasure or relief — no churches to worship in, no sports to cheer, no basketball courts to play on, no bars or clubs to socialize at — for weeks and months. It would be shocking if we didn't see an explosion once the match was lit.
I suspect the lockdowns have played a role in the over-the-top police response as well, which in far too many cases has managed to combine brutality with ineffectiveness. There are deeper causes of course — which is precisely what the protests are about — but the lockdowns have badly exacerbated things. They put the police on edge, since they do a job that puts them at significantly elevated risk of infection, but they have also empowered the police to regulate and control the normal life of the citizenry to an extraordinary and largely unprecedented degree. After a period in which the police have been basically instructed to keep everyone in their homes, it's not terribly surprising that some have forgotten how to handle people exercising their fundamental rights to free assembly and speech.
Finally, the virus has profoundly discredited the authority of American government at every level. Starting at the top, with a president who did virtually nothing for months to mobilize and organize the vast resources at his disposal in response to the crisis, down to state and local officials who have far too often appeared reactive to pressure rather than having and communicating a clear plan, Americans have been given very little reason to believe that the authorities know what they are doing — though they are palpably desperate to believe that they do. That can't help but hollow out any reassurance that might be offered that this time a bad cop will truly be held to account, this time promises of reform will be followed up, this time we should believe that the system will work. And no authority so comprehensively distrusted can effectively maintain order.
Rebuilding trust starts with gestures like that of NYPD Chief of Department Terence Monahan who took a knee with protesters in downtown Manhattan. Not because it means he'll be a staunch ally of reform efforts — I have no idea if he will or not, and even if he wants to be he'll need the pressure of a mobilized and active citizenry to push them into effect in the face of the inevitable opposition, just as President Obama recently stressed. Rather, they buy the police and the city government a modicum of the good will they need to be able to re-establish public order, not to mention restoring norms of obedience to strictures necessary to preserve public health.
But those strictures have also got to change — in their substance and in their structure — and fast. Here in New York, for two and a half months the citizenry has been basically told to wait, and by and large we've waited. Gov. Andrew Cuomo, who had never been loved and who made some early decisions that were catastrophic (like forcing nursing homes to take COVID-19 patients), became a cultural hero simply for taking charge, attesting to our palpable yearning for legitimate authority. Now, though, the time for obedient waiting is over. The next phase of fighting the virus is going to have to be far more attentive to the needs of the people — particularly black and working-class people who have been hit hardest by layoffs, by school closures, and by the virus itself — for a full and functional life.
That includes a full and functional political life, protests and all.
Want more essential commentary and analysis like this delivered straight to your inbox? Sign up for The Week's "Today's best articles" newsletter here.