The Hashtags and the Movements
The Hashtags and the Movements
In crises people tend to lack nuance, leaders included, and mobs make things worse. In the aftermath of George Floyd’s death, millions of people have marched, even more have voiced their support for the black community using #BlackLivesMatter and doing a social media “blackout” in solidarity. On one level, the voice of America is beginning to coalesce into action, but on the other, violent riots and indiscriminate destruction is pushing people apart.
George Floyd’s death presented America with an opportunity to unify around one of our most pressing problems, but as the protests have gone on, it’s been more difficult to differentiate between the protesters and the rioters, reformers and revolutionaries, between the hashtag and the movements.
At the most basic level, this is a simple distinction. The majority of the protesters, numerically speaking, have been peaceful, and peaceful assembly is a constitutional right for every American. Protesting runs through history alongside the causes of justice that have made America the freest country in the history of the world. As the nights have gone on the protests have turned to riots. Buildings, including police stations, town halls, small businesses, monuments, and statues have been defaced, spray painted, and burned. Whatever the overlap between these groups of people, protesting is a vital right in a democratic society, rioting and looting are cowardly acts of mob rule.
Between Protesters and Rioters
Matt Yglesias, an editor at Vox and a prominent voice on the left tried to make this distinction and triggered a backlash in his own tribe. Vandalism, he argues, disproportionately hurts minority communities, and while there are not many who will overtly support what the rioters are doing, there are very few who will speak against it. He arrives at a conclusion an overwhelming majority of Americans would agree with: “Police officers are supposed to enforce the law by arresting and deterring criminals while protecting law-abiding citizens.” That’s the lucid division we need to make progress.
Unfortunately, the conversation has moved far beyond the commonsense notions that protesters are good and rioters are bad, or police are a social good when they serve and protect and should be reformed when they do not. Some have defended the riots by comparing lives to property. Property can be replaced but human lives cannot. The logic, if you can call it that, implies that if we’re protesting something of greater importance, anything of lesser importance can be sacrificed for the cause.
For this to be true, the choice must be between people dying or property being destroyed. I’ll put it another way; “If we don’t destroy this property, lives will be lost.” A contextless quote from Martin Luther King, Jr. has become the clarion call for the riot defenders, “a riot is the language of the unheard.” This comes from his speech titled, “The Other America,” given at Stanford in April 1967. Read the speech to get the context for this quote. Just a paragraph earlier he says, “Let me say as I've always said, and I will always continue to say, that riots are socially destructive and self-defeating.” Only a few sentences before, “it is as necessary for me to be as vigorous in condemning the conditions which cause persons to feel that they must engage in riotous activities as it is for me to condemn riots.” The context makes a difference: it’s important to condemn the riots and the causes that lead to riots. Nuance makes a difference, and great leaders, like Martin Luther King Jr., grasped the importance of nuance and clarity. Our current leaders should follow suit.
The majority of people marching and posting want to stand against racism in America and advocate for change and reform. Many of them use the hashtag to say something like: “What happened to George Floyd, Ahmaud Arbery, Breonna Taylor, and others was tragic, unjust, and wrong. We should do everything we can to make sure that doesn’t happen again. I am not racist, and I sympathize with those who are hurting, fearful, and unheard.”
On top of that, many add that they’re against “systemic racism” in America. This has become a popular term to describe the problems in America that reside in institutions, government agencies, historic trends, and faceless bureaucracies. It’s not just that there are isolated personal acts of racism, it’s that the system is rigged, and we are all part of that system.
On a personal level, Shai Linne has powerfully articulated the aspects of being black in America that go unseen by most people. The slow grind of these experiences and the formative role they play in society between different groups is something we can and must change. As he points out in the article, racism, anger, and resentment begin in the heart. Our first response should be to take our sorrow over what’s happening in the world to God, to ask him to reveal sin in our own lives, to point out our blind spots, and to help us live like Christ.
A viral video, “Systemic Racism Explained,” argues that wealth disparity along racial lines creates a rigged system in education, inherited wealth, and job opportunity. Khalil Muhammad, a history professor at Harvard, argues that the systems of racial oppression before the Civil War have never really gone away.
Heather MacDonald has argued that systemic racism does not exist on an institutional level, especially when it comes to law enforcement. She examines the statistical data from police encounters in 2019. Last year, the police fatally shot 1,004 people, 235 of whom were black, 9 of whom were unarmed. There were 19 unarmed whites killed by police in the same year, even though, “African-Americans made up 53% of known homicide offenders in the U.S. and commit about 60% of robberies, though they are 13% of the population.” An article from the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences from 2019 that showed no evidence of anti-black bias in police shootings. There are important conversations to be had about the number of police encounters with minority groups and a heightened level of crime, but what MacDonald is arguing is that the statistics do not support the claims protesters and politicians have been making about systemic racism.
The question of systemic or institutional racism is a window into the schism between the different groups, many of whom are going to the same marches, posting the same hashtags, and saying the same things about George Floyd’s death. Their solutions, however, could not be more different.
If you’ve watched the video of George Floyd’s death, you’ve been asking yourself the question: how do we make sure this never happens again? Police reform is the obvious solution. The hashtag crowd might approach this question a response like: “Police should not abuse the power we have given them to keep us safe.” As a minimum, I don’t think this is a controversial point. No one is defending the officers in Minneapolis or the father and son who killed Ahmaud Arbery in Georgia. There are very few people who would deny that there are cases in which minorities are treated differently because of the color of their skin. Everyone knows there are going to have to be changes to make a substantial difference.
This could be and should be a highly unifying message for the country. Racism is a sin, it is wrong, and it should have no place in our society. But does this go far enough?
The movements that organized and participated in the protests and the riots are harder to define. Black Lives Matter, Antifa, and other groups are all playing a role. The crowd masks many of the leaders and organizers, trumpeting parts of their messages and sharing portions of their concerns. Many of these organizers don’t want to be associated with rioting, but others do. Antifa, for example, is a movement organized around violent resistance. There are some racial justice groups who are too. There are many who aren’t. But the movements walk a fine line with the public voice. They want to give a voice to their cause, and for that, they need the hashtag crowd to trumpet their slogans, but they also want to move the masses. They want the crowds to awaken to what they’ve been missing.
What do the protesters actually want? What does Black Lives Matter want? The organization has yet to release a list of policy demands, as they have several times in the past, so policymakers have had to take action based on the messages on social media and the cries of the protesters.
One of the fundamental differences between the movements lies in how they see the nature of America. Many who use the hashtag believe that we need better versions of our existing structures. America may fall short of its ideals, but the ideals are fundamentally sound. My contention is the movement disagrees. Many of those who are protesting believe we need to change the ideals. America isn’t just falling short, it’s aiming at the wrong things.
The literature of the movement is refashioning the history of America along the lines of class struggle and oppression with racism as the original sin. Goong beyond that, race is being redefined as more than a biological or ethnic fact; it is a set of ideological principles. When Biden said, “If you have a problem figuring out whether you’re for me or Trump, then you ain’t black,” many cringed. Others argued that he was telling the truth, drawing a distinction between the politically black and the racially black. When the 1619 Project - the New York Times series premised on the belief that America was founded in 1619 on the ideals of slavery and oppression - was published with major factual errors, some sought to correct them, others stuck to the narrative.
These radical movements offer an ahistorical vision of history. Unwilling - and often unable - to reconcile their worldview to fact, they chose to impose their narratives on the world from the top down. With groups like Black Lives Matter, it’s not that all of their history is factually inaccurate, it’s that they offer a monolithic vision of history as oppression. This hangs an albatross around the neck of every person who lived before them regardless of what they might have done.
One thing stunned me this weekend. In London, near Whitehall, there are statues of Abraham Lincoln, Mahatma Gandhi, and Winston Churchill. All of these statues were vandalized by rioters. But, if you’re protesting racial injustice why would you deface a statue of Lincoln? If you’re protesting peacefully, why would you spraypaint Gandhi? If you’re anti-fascist, why would you deface Winston Churchill?
Other groups see history through a slightly different lens. Racism is not the only kind of oppression. Groups like Antifa oppose white supremacy, but they also oppose authority and institutions. Antifa is the worst of campus culture writ large. They believe in the use of force to silence other voices, resent authority, and want to tear down the social order. Through this lens, authority is oppressive because it limits their own self-determination. Any historical figure then, regardless of what they fought for, imposes a tyrannical power over those who would recreate their own reality.
Somehow, these movements and many others, have fused around a few common goals. Some in the BLM movement believe that the police are a racist institution and are therefore oppressive. Some in the Antifa and anarchist movements believe that the police are an authoritative institution and therefore oppressions. These groups all believe that oppressive institutions should be overthrown by force. As a result, you have the general public, most of whom do not share these ideologies, but who believe racism and police brutality are bad, being co-opted by the movements and harnessed to give their radical proposals an inflated voice.
“Defund the police” is the new motto of the mob. It’s been painted on buildings and streets, tweeted by activists and members of the press, and will consume the media attention for the next week. The Minnesota city council voted to remove funding for the police. New York City Mayor Bill De Blasio said he would redistribute funds from the NYPD into other agencies. This impulse stems from the death of George Floyd and others, but it has also grown in the aftermath of the protests. A majority of people believe the police’s response to the rioters has done more damage than the riots themselves.
But surely these people can’t be advocating for defunding the police. How would that help the situation? The answer is, it depends on what you mean by “defund the police.” Like so many aspects of these protests - and the media coverage - words are not being used for what they mean. One of the co-founders of Black Lives Matter, Alicia Garza, said, “When we talk about defunding the police, what we're saying is 'invest in the resources that our communities need” on Meet the Press. However, the petition on their website called “Defund the Police,” says, “We call for a national defunding of police.”
In the Washington Post, Christy Lopez argues that “defunding the police” doesn’t mean what you think it does. It does not mean “police will disappear - or perhaps ever,” it means “Defunding the police means shrinking the scope of police responsibilities and shifting most of what government does to keep us safe to entities that are better equipped to meet that need.” It means we should stop relying on police “to secure our public safety.” It means acknowledging that police have been the “primary vehicle for using violence to perpetuate the unjustified white control over the bodies and lives of black people that has been with us since slavery.” In the meantime, she concludes, we should work to reform the police, because “we cannot stop regulating police conduct now because we hope someday to reduce or eliminate our reliance on policing.” In other words, “defund the police” does mean “abolish the police” even if it cannot be done overnight.
Others have differentiated between defunding, abolishing, reimagining, and reforming. The way this motto turns will have a huge influence over the conversations in the coming weeks. Even high profile Democratic leaders have begun to distance themselves from the demands to “defund the police.” Senator Cory Booker said he understands the sentiment behind the slogan but will not be using it. Because of Biden’s ambiguity on the topic, police organizations across the country have started distancing themselves from him.
These movements thrive on the fog of misinformation and the ambiguity of the social media age. If you only take a piece of the data, you can make it say whatever you want. Remove the context and assemble the points that fit your narrative and you can find support for whatever you want to say. If you line up all the videos of the police attacking protesters, you can blame the protests on the police. If you pick all the videos of African-American looters, you can blame the destruction on them. If you only show videos of people marching, you can say that these have only been peaceful protests.
The Tyranny of the Poles
If the hashtag and the movements have constructed a continuum of opinion in the U.S., the question is, which way are people moving? It’s human nature to move back toward the center over time, and this is probably what will happen in the coming weeks. But this won’t satisfy the mob. The movements don’t want to lose public support. They don’t want to be differentiated from the mainstream. They want to lurk behind the ambiguity of the crowds. In the end, they can’t hide; the mob never knows when to stop. Consider two parables from this weekend:
During a demonstration on Saturday, organizers called Minneapolis Mayor Jacob Frey up to the stage and asked him if he would commit to completely defunding the police. After he squirmed around the question for a few moments, the leaders forced him to answer the question, yes or no. He said no. As soon as the words left his mouth, the mob turned and expelled him from the protest, shouting expletives and throwing bottles of water. As he walked through the thousands of people shouting “shame” - people he has done everything in his power to support and enable in the last 3 weeks - he had to have been wondering how the tables turned that quickly.
In Washington D.C. protesters added, “Defund the Police” to the already inscribed “Black Lives Matter” on 16th Street. Mayor Muriel Bowser would not comment on whether or not this new addition would be removed. One slogan - one which the majority of Americans support - wasn’t enough; the mob had to go a step further.
One of the most disturbing trends is how quickly our political leaders have acquiesced to the loudest and most extreme voices. Certainly, President Trump has dragged the GOP toward a more populist-nationalist platform, but the same thing has happened all over the political spectrum.
Yuval Levin points out the hypocrisy of the leadership class during this double crisis: “The hypocrisy involved in welcoming lawlessness as a response to lawlessness—along with smaller hypocrisies, like abandoning months of (often justified) scolding about social distancing in the midst of a pandemic when the crowds packed tightly in the streets are politically convenient—can’t help but undermine our confidence in one another in America.” He looks back at the example of Abraham Lincoln to offer guidance for our present moment, one not entirely unlike the build-up to the Civil War. Lincoln observed that people can be united around their ideals and aspirations or their anger and base instincts.
We expect that our leaders will strive to unite us around the “better angels of our nature,” but many have settled for entertaining our demons instead. What we need for our leaders right now is courage. It won’t be popular to differentiate between the movements or to stand up to the mob. The future of our country depends on leaders who will go deeper than the hashtags and who will care more about plans conceived in peacetime than hasty demands chanted at a riot. We should look to those who believe that the structure is sound but show us a new way to live up to the things we believe.
What I hope, and believe, will happen in the coming months is that the center will re-emerge and there will be constructive debate and competing plans for the future laid out. The hashtag may not be entirely right and the movements may not be entirely wrong; neither of them can be completely defined without caricature, but there is a significant difference between them and it will take courageous leadership to differentiate between the two. To move forward, American leaders need to be able to distinguish between the protests and the riots, reforming the system and tearing it down, using words for what they mean and using them to co-opt the crowds into their agendas, between the hashtag and the movement. It’s the only way to lead, and it’s the only way to heal the country.
Cole Feix is the founder and president of So We Speak.