Thursday, May 7, 2015

Rioting for justice

People in Ferguson and then in Baltimore have rioted, outraged by perceived police wrongdoing. I've not followed either situation closely. However, I want to begin this Ethical Musings' post with several observations:
  1. People of color disproportionately suffer mistreatment and brutality by police across the US, something social science research and anecdotal evidence repeatedly confirms. A brief news report I watched on TV featured interviews with people who live in poor areas of Baltimore and people who live in affluent areas of Baltimore. The former consistently describe encounters with the police characterized (perhaps on both sides) by fear, mistrust, and suspicion. The latter consistently describe their attitude toward the police as one of trustingly expecting the police to help. These attitudes did not vary by the color of the person interviewed. What does vary by color is that the residents of Baltimore's poor neighborhoods are overwhelmingly people of color.
  2. The riots in Ferguson and Baltimore have analogues in white and other communities. Rioting for justice is not a function of race or ethnicity.
  3. Rioting for justice begins when moral outrage builds among a disempowered community, reaches a flash point, and a triggering event occurs to ignite the anger.
  4. Government, especially in the twenty-first century US, will almost invariably respond with excessive force, calling in military troops, to try to end the violence.

Rioting for justice is invariably counterproductive:
  1. The outraged community may achieve some catharsis and attract national attention to its problems, but inevitably suffers disproportionate destruction of businesses and property, disruption of community services, and deepens the pre-existing feelings of alienation.
  2. National attention is short-lived. The media, politicians, and celebrities will soon move on to a new crisis. Any increase in resources that flow to the effected community will be insufficient to rebuild and repair, let alone to improve pre-riot conditions.
  3. The rioting will also attract criminal elements who see an opportunity for looting and other lawless activity. This drains resources from the larger community as well as the morally outraged community.
In short, everyone loses.

The Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., adamantly insisted that the civil rights protests he led remain non-violent. Civil disobedience called attention to the problem. Massive numbers of protesters ensured that the criminal justice system could not cope with the protest by persisting in business as usual. Police violence against protesters (recall the police dog attacking a little girl and fire hoses used on marchers) turned public opinion and eventually legal discrimination. The transformation is ongoing.

Nevertheless, a person who had lived his/her life in Birmingham, AL, and died in 1950 and who then returned to life in the same city in 2015 would, I am confident, be shocked at the change. People of all races utilize the same public services, white people now work for people of color, intermarriage is increasingly common, and mixed race friendships are unsurprising.

Injustice should generate moral outrage. The lack of widespread moral outrage about policing that tends to disadvantage or brutalize people of color should itself ignite moral outrage in everyone.

However, we need to use that moral outrage to organize campaigns for justice instead of channeling that moral outrage in destructive ways.

For example, the problems with policing in Baltimore, Ferguson, and elsewhere are not new. Where were the clergy and politicians willing to organize and lead a campaign for justice a decade ago?

Answering that question exposes the relative disempowerment of poor people, especially poor people of color. The residents of a city's poorest neighborhood do not comprise the critical constituency for mayoral or gubernatorial candidates. Nor are they the critical constituency for ambitious clerics, prosperous businesspeople, or any other powerful individual.


Communal change requires hope and leadership. Riots for justice occur in the absence of both. If the Church (and politicians, businesses, and others) prioritized empowering the least among us heeding Scripture's clarion call, we would live in a much more peaceful land. (NB: The word peace, in both Hebrew and Greek, denotes justice, prosperity, and well-being for the entire community, not simply the absence of violence.)

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