Protest rights don’t mean “Do what I say or I’ll hurt you.” Our system doesn’t work that way, or at least it isn’t supposed to. We pride ourselves on the right to say no. We vigorously defend the right to hold views we don’t agree with. Sometimes this is a good thing, sometimes not, but that’s how our values work. Protest rights were fundamental to the ideas this country was founded on. So how can the uniquely American tradition of protest turn on us and our just society? It happens when protest rights are exploited for the benefit of those who distrust this country and would rather tear it down for their own benefit than make it better. The best example we have has been in the headlines all week in Ferguson, Missouri.
Do protest rights and politicians encourage violence?
We don’t worry about wealthy people looting their local mall when taxes go up. When they are on the receiving end of violence they don’t destroy their neighborhoods. They work within the system because they trust it and yes, because they can afford to make it work.
Sometimes distrust of how things are supposed to work means that working within the system seems out of the question. That doesn’t mean justice is impossible, though distrust of our institutions and laws has been actively encouraged by Barack Obama, Eric Holder, and members of Congress who help cultivate the belief that our society is unfair and unjust. Those in a position to influence opinion shouldn’t exploit incidents to stoke the flames of inequality and racial discord, even when it reaps political rewards (see: Does Our Government Use Race to Create Hate Crimes?).
A just society doesn’t judge on race, but protesters do
Few with a public voice have the courage after incidents like the Michael Brown shooting to challenge the view that racism is the norm in America. Charging racism out of habit is a cowardly retreat. It is just as out of place in a just society as deciding that only one outcome from the grand jury deliberating Darren Wilson’s fate will be tolerated.
There is no longer such a thing as a justifiable white on black police shooting. The dialogue on race has deteriorated too far since Obama took office. There is too much for public figures to gain from making sweeping, negative generalities about racism and unfairness (see: Racism: Does the Worst Kind Come from Democrats?). For example, calling for “demilitarization in Ferguson,” a California Congresswoman suggests that everything about America is inherently racist:
The deaths of Oscar Grant, Trayvon Martin and Michael Brown serve as sad examples of the senseless murders of young African American men. As the mother of two black men and the grandmother of two black boys, I know that prejudice is endemic in our institutions, in our society and in our nation.¹
Is prejudice really endemic and institutionalized, or is racism too important to the well-being of extremist activists and far left politicians to take an ideological leap to a better, more tolerant society where race is not something to be valued as leverage?
Protest rights in Ferguson: exploitation first, a just society last
Even Occupy Wall Street protesters deserved a pass no matter how lame-brained, shiftless, and greedy the expression of their protest rights. The situation in Ferguson, Missouri is different. Ironically, the money spent preparing to defend against violent protest, looting, and retaliation for a refusal to indict could be spent on the sort of things those who riot in the streets expect from society. After all, how do activists in big cities respond to violence? They turn it into excuses to spend more money and absolve their flock of responsibility.
When protest rights in Ferguson turned to violence it probably never occurred to those breaking store windows and fighting police that their liberal supporters claim the problem comes from dashed hopes that our laws and institutions would protect them. Do they understand that they are the ones society needs to be protected from?
The only thing worse for protest organizers, activists, and protesters than not indicting Darren Wilson would be getting a criminal indictment. There would be no reason to tear up the town and hope that the violence and hate spreads. No reason to protest. No reason to use the perceived failure of a just society as an excuse to do injustice. That doesn’t mean an indictment won’t lead to rioting. Violence is an excuse in itself, especially for protesters who know how much society fears and condemns it.
Our first African American president teaches that when the laws don’t suit your needs you should ignore them. For Obama that means presidential fiats. For the people in Ferguson bent on violent protest it means the threat of looting and riots when the system doesn’t behave as they wish. Both are expressions of frustration. That doesn’t mean that seeking political gain by turning people against society and its laws is the right thing to do.