by Jon Guze
Senior Fellow, Legal Studies, John Locke Foundation
The death of George Floyd on May 25, 2020 sparked an extraordinary wave of anti-police protests. While most of those protests were peaceful, many turned violent as protestors and/or interlopers resorted to looting and rioting. Billions of dollars worth of property was stolen or destroyed, buildings were burned to the ground, and many lives were lost.
A lot of people, including many politicians and most members of the press, seemed to think the protests were a good thing overall, but I disagreed. I thought the level and frequency of the violence ensured that the protests would inevitably do more harm than good.
In a piece that appeared soon after the violent protests began, I explained my pessimism by citing a Harvard study that looked at the effects of previous violent anti-police protests and found that, subsequent to those protests, the five cities in which they occurred experienced “almost 900 excess homicides and almost 34,000 excess felonies.” Regarding those excess deaths and felonies, I wrote:
Think about that for a moment: 900 excess homicides and 34,000 excess felonies. Those are huge numbers! Moreover, while the authors don’t provide any details about the victims, given the demographic make-up of the cities themselves and differential crime rates in general, we can be quite sure that those victims were disproportionately African American and, to a lesser extent, Hispanic. Nor is the direct suffering of those victims and their families the whole story. Those excess crimes coming on top of the riots that preceded them have undoubtedly harmed all of the residents of those cities, including the African American and Hispanic majorities, by depressing property values and discouraging investment and job creation.
After three more months of violent anti-police protests in cities all over the country, I returned to the implications of that Harvard study in a piece that was published on September 17:
[S]ince Floyd’s death [violent anti-police protests] have been occurring at an average rate of six to seven per day. (A recent study found that there were almost 600 violent protests in the U.S. between May 26 and Aug. 22, and that total doesn’t include the new round of violent protests that occurred after Jacob Blake was shot in Kenosha, Wisconsin, on Aug. 23.) Like the previous protests, the violent protests since May 26 will lead to excess murders and excess felonies, and in much higher numbers than in the handful of cities in the Harvard study. They will also lead to much greater economic losses. And we may be sure, the burden of these ill effects will be borne primarily by African Americans.
Which brings me to Vox founder Ezra Klein. Like most commentators on the left, he wasn’t worried about the violence that was taking place at anti-police protests across the country. He never expressed any sympathy for the victims of that violence, and it doesn’t seem to have even occurred to him that the protests might lead to the loss of hundreds or even thousands of black lives. Instead, he saw the wave of protests as a good thing for the country, and, not incidentally, as a good thing for the Democratic Party. On June 6th he recorded an upbeat interview with Ta-Nehisi Coates. In the published transcript Klein denigrated the idea that the protestors should stop resorting to violence and suggested that, if there was any violence to be deplored, it was the violence of the police and other law-enforcement agencies:
There is now, as there always is amid protests, a loud call for the protesters to follow the principles of nonviolence. And that call … comes from people who neither practice nor heed nonviolence in their own lives. But what if we turned that conversation around? What would it mean to build the state around principles of nonviolence, rather than reserving that exacting standard for those harmed by the state? …
Police certainly betrayed the law in killing George Floyd. That unleashes protests which break the order. And that, then, is used by a lot of conservative politicians — guys like Tom Cotton — to create a justification for police to break the law again in order to impose his version of order.
A few weeks later, even as the violence expanded to more and more cities across the country, Klein continued to celebrate the protests and the therapeutic effect he believed they were having on the American political landscape.
Polarization, party sorting, and identity politics are central villains of our time. Politicians lament them. Pundits loathe them. Book after book has been written blaming them for society’s ills. … But the past month of sustained, mass activism against police brutality offers evidence for the defense — that sorting around identity can be inclusive, that polarization can be productive.
The historically multiethnic nature of the Black Lives Matter protests, and the rapid change in polling around racial issues, is partly the result of decades of polarization that have put African Americans in coalition with Hispanics, Asians, and white liberals. The Democratic Party is increasingly a coalition of people who experience racism directly or base part of their identity on opposing it ideologically. This is something new in American politics, and it carries within it real reason for hope.
That was then. Now, a year later, it is clear that my prediction that a spike in homicides would follow all those violent protests was right, and, to judge by his recent Tweets, Klein is finally having second thoughts. Why? He has noticed that–just as I predicted–a lot of people are being murdered, and, to his credit, he acknowledges that that’s a bad thing:
Violent crime is spiking. Homicides in cities were up by 25-40 percent in 2020, the largest single-year increase since 1960. And 2021 isn’t looking any better.
This is a crisis on its own terms.
And he acknowledges that–as I also predicted–the spike in homicides is likely to harm African Americans and the poor by driving away middle class families and businesses:
[V]iolent crimes [sic] supercharges inequality. Families who can flee, do. Business [sic] close or never open. Banks won’t make loans. Property values plummet. Children are traumatized, with lifelong impacts on stress and cognition.
But what really seems to bother him is the effect these developments will have on the Democrats’ electoral prospects:
[F]ear of violence undermines liberal politics. Just look at America post-9/11. Or after the crime surges of the 70s and 80s and 90s — strongmen politicians win, punitive responses like mass incarceration and warrior policing rise, social trust collapses.
We’re not there yet. Larry Krasner survived his primary challenge in Philadelphia. But we are seeing other signs. Atlanta Mayor Keisha Lance Bottoms isn’t running for reelection after being attacked by challengers as soft on crime.
Chesa Boudin is facing a recall effort in SF.
Violence is the second most important issue to Democrats in the NYC mayoral primary. — behind coronavirus but ahead of housing affordability and racial inequality.
The politics of this could really tip, and not just in cities — if these numbers keep getting worse, then as with Nixon and Reagan in the 70s and 80s, it could bring “law and order” conservatives (including Trump) back to power in 2024.
Well, yes, all of that is true. And, if you’re a Democrat, no doubt all of that matters. But surely the innocent lives lost and the innocent lives ruined matter more, especially given that a hugely disproportionate number of those lost and ruined lives were black lives. Klein and all the other talking heads who celebrated last year’s violent anti-police protests should stop worrying about the harm the anti-police protests and the crime spike may do to Democrats’ electoral chances. Instead, they should be focusing on the harm the protests and the crime spike have done to many innocent people already, and on the harm the protests and the crime spike will undoubtedly do to many more innocent people in the future. They could begin by apologizing for celebrating the violent protests when they should have been condemning them. And they could put aside their partisan concerns for a while and start thinking about what can be done to help reduce that future harm as much as possible.