All of the views expressed in this post belong to the author and not to Political Union as an organization.
Recently, I have noticed a global trend where public support for social movements wavers when demonstrators do not adhere to ‘peaceful’ means. In Hong Kong in 2019, the proposal of a controversial bill to establish a mechanism for the extradition of criminal offenders to non-local jurisdictions, including mainland China, sparked an immense backlash that flared up into public demonstrations over the next two years. What were initially praised as peaceful protests were then denounced locally for their association with violence as clashes between protesters and police resulted in casualties and property damage.
This same phenomenon played out during the anti-police brutality demonstrations in America this past year. Initially the movement was widely supported across the country, but as footage of burning buildings and fights spread on social media, public support wavered. Politicians and media figures then focused their attention on the aftermath of the murder of George Floyd, seeing unrest itself as the root of the disruption to daily life. People began focusing their attention on the riotous methods of the movement, rather than seeking to tackle the underlying issues that lead to the outrage.
Property damage by itself is not inherently a cause for outcry. When we see a car crash, we do not cry out of the pain the car must have felt on impact. What we are feeling is an empathy for the humans involved impacted by that damage. Thus, when we see public figures denounce demonstrations as riots, we should ask ourselves: why should we care? This is not to say that it does not hurt to see a place destroyed, and we shouldn’t ignore the plight of those lives and livelihoods impacted by these protests. However, it is far more important to focus on the initial trigger. Protests and social movements are inherently reactions against perceived societal wrongs, and people do not loot or riot out of some random disposition. Only when people are pushed to the limit does property damage occur. Thus, greater indignation at property damage over the loss of life or oppressive events is an admission of apathy towards the injustice that sparked the anger in the first place.
This attitude against the vehicles of social unrest should be taken with further historical context as large scale change to entrenched ideological systems rarely occurred through peaceful means. The prevalence of this perspective in the United States is especially fascinating to me considering that many of the most heralded moments in American history happened as a result of destructive and even violent events: the Boston Tea Party and the Revolutionary War in response to colonial oppression; uprisings and rebellions against slavery prior to and throughout the Civil War; the riots and widescale social upheaval against segregation, police brutality, and economic injustices during the 1960s. I would be hard pressed to say that the violence that surrounded these events were unjustifiable, or that the outcome for us living in America following these events is undesirable. When considering the events of today, we cannot ignore that throughout history, violence against property and unfortunately people have accompanied the progression of power and justice.
It is often argued today that we have surpassed the need for violence. That if it can be avoided to result in the desired outcome it should be avoided at all costs, no matter if the outrage is justified. To make it clear, I do not believe that physical violence against other people is ever justifiable and I am not advocating for the use of violent means to enact change, I am just asking for empathy. After all, it is easy to make moral claims about right and wrong when one is not impacted by the approaches taken by people on the ground. Take the Hong Kong demonstrations for example: support for the demonstrators was universal among American politicians and the Hong Kong Human Rights and Democracy Act of 2019 passed unanimously in both the House and the Senate before being signed by then-president Donald Trump in a rare example of bipartisanship in today’s American politics. Yet, Republicans and Democrats alike denounce the outcroppings of violence during the Black Lives Matter marches, despite using the exact same tactics as the demonstrations in Hong Kong. Those living in those affected communities who claim to support the movement but disparage the means, remember that advocacy for change and progress must come with a willingness to be made uncomfortable. It cannot be enough for one to desire change while denouncing the surrounding turbulence, as their desires must come with the understanding and acceptance that disruption to everyday life can and will occur.
These types of public demonstrations of outrage are always matters of human values. In Hong Kong, the fear of an encroachment of rights and underlying economic and cultural anxieties imposed by an authoritarian government is seen as justification enough to damage public transportation systems and important buildings. In America, the real threat of violence towards people of color by the police and incarceration systems over the past hundred years is the rationale behind the demolition and looting of businesses and stores that provide livelihoods. It is a shame that these occur as a response to injustice, but violence in these circumstances only occurs when people value the potential gains of freedom and equality over present life and property. The far more important point of focus should not be the turmoil caused by demonstrators, but instead should be if the desired future is worth the disturbance to people’s livelihoods at any scale. With this in mind, is it justifiable that people loot and riot and damage property with regards to the events in Hong Kong and the US? I would say yes.
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