The Black Lives Matter protest movement that took shape after Michael Brown was killed in Ferguson, Missouri, draws strength from the strategic premise that where police can commit abuse with impunity, civil unrest will follow; and that unrest is perhaps the only way citizens in those communities can impose genuine scrutiny on law enforcers.
To that point, the movement has united broad swaths of the left, which is amplifying protesters' demands for accountability. But it has also sown division by raising the question of whether the the looting and rioting that erupted in Baltimore, Maryland, on Monday evening—the scourge of these protests—is a natural byproduct of the abuse, or a condemnable phenomenon that’s worthy of criticism in its own right.
The schism is evident in the response to Stephanie Rawlings-Blake, Baltimore’s black mayor, who called the rioters “thugs” and pleaded for calm. In what must be read as a response to Rawlings-Blake, among others, The Atlantic’s great essayist Ta-Nehisi Coates explained why he’s not impressed.
When nonviolence is preached as an attempt to evade the repercussions of political brutality, it betrays itself. When nonviolence begins halfway through the war with the aggressor calling time out, it exposes itself as a ruse. When nonviolence is preached by the representatives of the state, while the state doles out heaps of violence to its citizens, it reveals itself to be a con. And none of this can mean that rioting or violence is "correct" or "wise," any more than a forest fire can be "correct" or "wise.
There are people who could really use to absorb this critique—most particularly, the white conservatives who vilified Rawlings-Blake with a lazy, ungenerous interpretation of her initial, clumsy remarks on how the criminal element first gained a foothold among the peaceful protestors.
But if you’re Rawlings-Blake, or a Baltimore community leader, let alone a member of Freddie Gray’s family, Coates’ polemic, and a profusion of similar sentiments, are beside the point. Coates has combined a poignant tu quoque fallacy with a metaphorical account of events that treats rioters and their victims as little more than reagents thrust into contact with one another by larger forces.
Most of the people whom Coates has critiqued, such as the mayor, surely share his view that what happened to Gray is a travesty, if not with his argument that it was a consequence of a political decision to prioritize “the protection of police officers charged with abuse over the citizens who fall under its purview.” To ask them, in essence, “What about Freddie Gray?” is to misunderstand how Rawlings-Blake and those who share her views conceptualize—and compartmentalize—the issues of police abuse and the violent unrest that often follows.
The rioters in Baltimore didn’t direct their actions exclusively at agents of the state. In addition to targeting at least one widely televised police car, they also vandalized property, some of which is surely owned by supporters of the Black Lives Matter movement, and assaulted fellow citizens, including journalists. These crimes aren't comparable to unjustified police killings, but they are crimes—not uncontrollable, natural phenomena.
There is no contradiction between believing that Gray was murdered and believing that beating up innocent bystanders is wrong. To suggest that Rawlings-Blake is engaged in some kind of con is to make a category error on two levels: First, by treating the two forms of violence as if they could, practically speaking, be combatted with similar levels of effort; and second, by drawing a kind of equivalence between the rioters and lawless police officers.
Relative to the extremely thorny problem of police abuse, putting down a riot is easy. If it seems convenient for people like Rawlings-Blake and President Barack Obama (who also called the rioters “thugs”) to train their acute efforts on the rioters, that’s in part because it is convenient—which is to say, it's easier to address immediately. It doesn’t mean they’ve lost sight of the bigger challenge of reforming police practices, and if they have lost sight of that challenge, it isn't because they were distracted by a few days of unrest. Nor does it mean they believe that police killings of poor blacks are somehow a less pressing concern than the crimes that have occurred amid the protest movement. It only means they’re exerting influence right now where they can have the most immediate effect, which in no way detracts from the urgent quest to determine how, and why, Freddie Gray died.
To treat abusive police and violent protesters as combatants at war means tolerating an untold level of collateral damage, and thus weakening the moral distinctions between abusive police and the people they're supposed to serve. Those distinctions exist because police get away with doing terrible things at the expense of black communities. And that makes fostering the distinctions absolutely essential.