In late May and June, following the brutal death of George Floyd under the knee of a police officer in Minneapolis, mass protests against systemic racism took place across the United States and around the world. Floyd’s death followed many previous police killings of unarmed African-Americans who were not behaving violently. Most protests were peaceful, but some turned into riots with widespread looting and vandalism. But while protesting against police brutality and racism is surely legitimate, can riots also be defended?
The most thoughtful philosophical defense of rioting is by Avia Pasternak of University College London. Pasternak defines a riot as “a public disorder in which a large group of actors, acting spontaneously and without formal organization, engages in acts of lawlessness and open confrontation with law enforcement agencies.” She adds that rioters typically cause damage to public and private property, as well as harming people, often in the course of clashes with police. Pasternak wrote before Floyd’s death, but her article provides a framework for assessing what took place after it.
Pasternak starts from the idea, familiar from discussions of ethics in war, that under certain conditions it is permissible to cause harm to others — even to innocent others — in order to defend oneself from an unjust attack. Commonly, three conditions are specified:
1) Necessity: there is no other way of defending oneself against the unjust attack.
2) Proportionality: The harm inflicted on others must be outweighed by the harm averted by stopping the unjust attack.
3) Success: The actions that inflict the harm must be part of a strategy that has a reasonable chance of stopping the unjust attack.
Pasternak argues that a justifiable riot must satisfy these conditions. Following her lead, we can ask whether the riots after Floyd’s death do.
It is easy to see these riots as seeking to prevent unjust attacks on African-Americans, of the kind shown with horrifying clarity in videos viewed by millions. But in democracies that offer peaceful means of bringing about change, are such riots necessary?
Such change was the goal behind Black Lives Matter, a nonviolent movement founded seven years ago, after George Zimmerman was acquitted of all charges in the killing of Trayvon Martin, an unarmed African-American teenager, in Florida. It gained national attention in 2014 following the deaths of Michael Brown in Ferguson, Missouri and Eric Garner in New York City, both at the hands of the police. Yet police are continuing to kill people of color who pose no threat to them. It is therefore at least arguable that conventional democratic channels have failed, and that the necessity condition has been met.
Is the harm caused by the riots disproportionate to the harm caused by the unjust police killings? Damage to property ran into hundreds of millions of dollars, but how do we compare that with the loss of life that spurred the protests?
Hafsa Islam, whose family owned a restaurant that was burned down in the Minneapolis riots, gave one answer: “We can rebuild a building, but we will never reclaim the life George Floyd didn’t get to live.” The issue isn’t quite so simple, though. The same riots also started a fire that destroyed a housing development that was being built to provide 189 affordable housing units for low-income and homeless older people. It would have been ready later this year.
Most likely, some people will remain homeless for many more months or even years than would have been the case had the riot not occurred. That is a significant human cost, as well as a financial loss. Even if we consider only loss of life, however, the balance sheet does not clearly favor the riots. Ten days after the riots began, at least 13 people had died, many of them Black. A handwritten sign posted at the memorial service for David Dorn, a Black retired police captain shot by looters at a pawn shop, read: “Y’ALL KILLED A BLACK MAN BECAUSE ‘THEY’ KILLED A BLACK MAN???”
Defenders of political riots may seek to disclaim responsibility for the damage caused by those who loot stores or burn down low-income housing. But even if the vast majority of participants in a political riot do not support such acts, such harms must be considered in deciding whether riots are justifiable. The very nature of riots makes them virtually impossible to control, and the foreseeable risk of serious harms makes them difficult to defend.
Finally, when peaceful protests have failed, how likely is rioting to succeed? Opinions differ, but Omar Wasow’s carefully controlled study of the 1960s riots that extensively damaged many American cities suggests that they contributed to Richard Nixon’s narrow victory over the more progressive Hubert Humphrey. If so, the riots helped to reinforce the power of the police and thus to perpetuate the abuses that triggered the 2020 riots.
Martin Luther King, Jr., in a speech condemning riots, nevertheless described them as “the language of the unheard.” The way to reduce the damage caused by further riots is to show that we have heard. We can do that by supporting Black Lives Matter and working to ensure that police treat the health and safety of everyone, regardless of race, with the greatest possible respect.
Peter Singer is a professor of bioethics at Princeton University. His books include “Animal Liberation,” “Practical Ethics, One World Now,” and “The Life You Can Save.” Katarzyna de Lazari-Radek, an assistant professor at the Institute of Philosophy at the University of Lodz, is co-author (with Peter Singer) of “The Point of View of the Universe and Utilitarianism: A Very Short Introduction.” Project Syndicate, 2020