WASHINGTON, D.C. — For months now, driving through Washington, D.C. has stirred a strange, sad, dystopian feeling. Empty downtown streets lined with shuttered small businesses and wandered by drug addicts, the mentally ill and occasional masked workers. It didn’t seem like it would get worse, but then it did.
On Friday, Saturday and Sunday nights, rioters tore through the city, looting shops, spray painting buildings, vandalizing the monument to the man who ended slavery, defacing the memorial to the actual anti-fascists of World War II, and setting fire to an historic church on one of the holiest days of the year.
To drive through Washington on Monday afternoon was to see black, white and Hispanic workers and owners cleaning up shattered glass, boarding over windows, and scrubbing curses and anti-cop graffiti off the walls and doors of their businesses. As I took pictures of the vandalized facades of an office building a few blocks from the White House, a middle-aged black man power-washing the walls next door walked over to say hello.
“This your place?” he asked, gazing at the 114-year-old Georgian facade now decorated with “fuck cops” and other related slogans.
“No,” I shook my head. “My friend bought it just a few weeks ago.”
“They’ll be back tonight,” he replied, raising his eyebrows and nodding in resignation. A few minutes of conversation later, he went back to cleaning his walls and I continued my tour.
Our city got off lucky, compared with the rest. Before Tuesday’s sun rose in St. Louis, a 77-year-old retired police chief was murdered while checking in on his friend’s shop. He’s just one of a host of the black Americans killed in the riots across the country, including a Homeland Security officer in Oakland, a 22-year old looter in Omaha, a young and peaceful protester trying to get away from an increasingly disordered crowd in Davenport, and a Louisville chef who dreamed of turning his outdoor BBQ stand into a restaurant. They were killed by bullets from rioters, police and frightened, threatened civilians alike. And not a one of them was killed for George Floyd.
In America’s cities, buildings have been burnt to the ground. People’s life work and savings dashed by explosions and destruction. Cars have rammed into police lines. People are afraid. And no amount of further destruction is going to help. The positive message that we once rallied around — that just one week ago held the nation captivated in sorrow — is scattered in the ashes.
“There was a car fire last night just outside my living room window,” one downtown resident told me when I check in. “It lasted three hours with multiple explosions.”
I’ve lived in Washington for half my life now. I’ve worked in its bars and restaurants, attended its churches, fallen in love with my neighborhood and bought a house. Washington is my home. It’s a home for my neighbors too, some with a similar background to mine — in their 30s, college educated and born elsewhere — but others who went straight to work after high school and have lived here from the bad old days through the renaissance of the past 20 years. Not one of my neighbors has expressed anything but disgust at the murder of George Floyd. None that I know are rioting either, and this morning from my porch I could see six American flags, two sports pennants and a rainbow flag with “Black Lives Matter” taped to its face — all waving peacefully in the humid spring breeze.
The same peace was not present here 52 years ago, when the riots of 1968 ripped through our city, burning nearby businesses to the ground, chasing the black middle class and nearly all white and Jewish people from the city, and leaving piles of rubble that would lie undisturbed into the next century. Unlike today’s riots, these were a mass uprising of working American black people, and yet like today’s and tomorrow’s riots, they completely failed to cure the problem of human weakness and sin. How could they?
While we can pray to God to help us exorcise hate, fear, intolerance, pride and wrath from our individual hearts, sin is here to stay. So long as society must charge citizens to enforce order, empowered with authority’s monopoly on the legal use of force, the wicked and the weak will abuse that power. The alternative is no police, and with it the very type of street justice we now see delivering verdict and sentence on our fellow Americans under the cover of darkness.
That doesn’t mean nothing can be done to curb police brutality. The complete lack of a commanding officer on the scene of the Floyd murder, combined with the tacit-to-active agreement of Officer Derek Chauvin’s colleagues, compounded by histories of use-of-force complaints about a number of the involved officers, point to serious breakdowns of discipline, training, supervision and culture in the Minneapolis Police Department.
But local reforms are not the goal of the evening’s riots. A quick survey of the slogans and parting artwork exposes the same radical movement with the same radical demands we saw in 2015 and 2016, pursuing the same suicidal tactics we lived through in 1968, barreling toward the same inevitable end of it all: A majority of both Republicans and Democrats supporting the deployment of the National Guard, and a completely natural decrease in public sympathy and support for the causes espoused.
The radical nature of these disturbances is lost on so many of America’s elite, who lack the requisite five years of memory to recall the last time Black Lives Matter exposed itself as the anti-police, anti-capitalist movement it is, storming Democratic stages, shouting down speakers, and providing name-brand, corporate-sanctioned cover for escalating violence — culminating in the murder of five Dallas Police officers.
And this time, far from its previous confinement to liberal tech companies and the Democratic Party, its righteousness is preached by George W. Bush, Nikki Haley, and a host of other happy travelers eager to signal their own shared virtue before King Mob’s throne.
On Tuesday, after days of renewed and escalating violence, destruction, and Klan-like church desecration, #BlackoutTuesday blocked out Instagram, a social media platform that beats even Twitter in the shallow vanity of its daily offerings. The pressure to join in was immense. “You know the industry,” one woman in entertainment media explained to me. “If I didn’t, they [the social justice warriors] would just descend.”
“Damned if I do, damned if I don’t,” a woman in the beauty industry complained.
The American Right to protest went only one way, though. To defy social protocol and share images of boarded up and smashed windows with patronizing criticism of the latest Instagram fashion was a terrible transgression. “Are you trivializing the legitimate grievances of the protesters,” one longtime family friend asked, “by comparing the vandalism of windows to centuries of systemic racism?”
“Property can be restored and is insured,” a college buddy wrote. “Black lives cannot be replaced… #blm movement is very needed, until such time that things change.”
The fashionable sentiments of its defenders are neither rare nor ill-willed. Citing the collective sin of America to make excuses and provide justification for wanton destruction in an unrelated, plurality black city with a black female mayor, black female police chief and majority black police department, though, is deeply wrongheaded. As is the idea that anything positive can be reaped from this madness — a tragic lesson the King Mob has taught us again and again, and will continue to long into the future.
The “attempt to derive a positive philosophy from this assemblage of negatives leads to absurdity and contradiction at every turn,” the great British philosopher Roger Scruton wrote just months before his February passing. “The problem, however, is that contradiction is not regarded by the mob as an obstacle, but merely as further proof of the great conspiracy by which we are surrounded — the conspiracy enshrined in the old majority culture, which told us that we must accept human nature, find our fulfillment within its bounds, and not engage in a futile metaphysical rebellion.”
The “mob,” he observes, “is by nature innocent: It washes its own conscience in a flow of collective indignation, and by joining it you make yourself safe.”
Both the absurd contradiction and the washed consciousness of this collective indignation reach all the way to the top of Washington’s Catholic clergy, from where Archbishop Wilton Gregory protested the president’s planned trip to the St. John Paul II National Shrine, saying he finds “it baffling and reprehensible that any Catholic facility would allow itself to be so egregiously misused and manipulated in a fashion that violates our religious principles, which call us to defend the rights of all people even those with whom we disagree.”
“Even with whom we disagree.”
Baffling indeed. And hardly a display of courage. When the secular elite are in the court of King Mob, it would take courage to stand outside. Courage like the kind displayed by an elderly black woman who co-owns Brooklyn’s Valentine Deli — a deli that was ransacked in the name of Black Lives Matter. The kind displayed by the members of Minneapolis’s African Americans Heritage Gun Club, who are defending small businesses from the destruction perpetrated in the name of this movement for justice.
On his last day on earth, George Floyd was granted no peace. In Wednesday’s long-due announcement of charges against those involved, there may yet be justice. But on our streets this week, there will be neither justice, nor peace, and from the street’s courtiers in power, no truth. It’s a delicate thing, these three, and one we, a human and therefore imperfect society, have been working toward for 2,000 years. None can exist in the absence of any other — and all are banished from the Kingdom of King Mob.