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Thursday, December 31, 2020

Property Destruction Is a Blight on the Sacred Right to Protest

The right to protest is fundamental to our nation’s founding, but riots are not protests.

Image credit: Pixabay

“Everybody watched it burn to ashes,” said Anmol Khindri.

Khindri, a Kenosha, Wisconsin, resident, watched helplessly as his family business burned down. Rioters destroyed the business, a car dealership.

“Nobody did nothing about it—nothing,” said Khindri.

A woman who lived next door described the scene: “Flames licking the sky, and then you hear boom boom boom! Explosion after explosion after explosion.”

No help came, at least not in time. When she called 911, dispatchers told her it was too dangerous for the city’s firefighters to respond. She fled her home shortly after hanging up.

The dealership was decimated, but Khindri was far from alone. Following the police shooting of Jacob Blake, several city blocks suffered massive destruction by rioters over a four-day period in late August. The majority of the destruction in Kenosha hit family businesses and the mostly black neighborhood of Uptown.

The right to protest is fundamental to our nation’s founding. Peaceful protests, especially those during America’s civil rights era, have defined our national discourse. And like the protesters and marchers of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.’s time, many of the peaceful protesters of this summer laudably fought for true equality before the law regardless of someone’s skin color.

But riots are not protests. Property damage is not a protest. Riots and property damage are an aberration of this almost-sacred expression of our First Amendment. Yet despite rioting and property damage being despicable in every setting and context, they have had their defenders and apologists throughout our country’s history.

As horrific footage from citizen journalists went viral, two troubling perspectives began growing in prominence. The first was denying that any riots were happening at all. Instead of differentiating between truly peaceful and productive protests, and violent riots, major media outlets across the country were quick to reassure everyone that, despite what you might have heard, the violence and property destruction was “mostly peaceful.”

This trope was made most apparent by a CNN chyron, “Fiery but mostly peaceful protests after police shooting.”

These misguided perspectives not only oversimplify and conflate important issues, they do damage to the causes of justice and equality.

The second troubling perspective acknowledged that riots and property damage were taking place, but argued that property damage and violence were acceptable in light of the police killings and racial injustices happening today and in our country’s past.

These misguided perspectives not only oversimplify and conflate important issues, they do damage to the causes of justice and equality. No one should ever face discrimination because of their race, sex, or any other immutable trait. The fight against discrimination will forever be an essential tenet of individualism, and it is just as important today as it was during the civil rights movement. And just as it is important to battle discrimination in our laws and society, it is equally important to battle against the ideas that property (and property rights) can be damaged or destroyed as long as the cause is right.

Fortunately, even members of the media who attempted to deny and downplay the property damage done during riots have admitted their folly. CNN’s Chief Media Correspondent Brian Stelter, for example, admitted his network made a mistake by airing the “Fiery but mostly peaceful” chyron.

Unfortunately, many of the property damage apologists have held fast to their absurd positions.

“It’s not counterintuitive to destroy property that isn’t valued by society,” noted Brookings Institution fellows Andre M. Perry and Jonathan Rothwell on Brookings’ website. UCLA Professor Robin D.G. Kelley wrote an article in the New York Times where he asked, “What kind of society values property over black life?” Vicky Osterweil, author of the controversial book In Defense of Looting, goes even further and claims that looting is good because “looting rejects the legitimacy of ownership rights and property, the moral injunction to work for a living, and the ‘justice’ of law and order.” Osterweil even claims that the very concept of owning property is “innately, structurally white supremacist.”

This is a false dichotomy. By this logic, anyone who objects to violence and property damage must be an enemy to civil rights. But the American ideal of strong property rights, and the ability to build wealth through owning property, have been among the greatest tools of prosperity for people of all races in our country.

Khindri’s business wasn’t “just a car lot.”

Anmol Khindri and his family immigrated to Kenosha from India 12 years ago. By 2013, they had cobbled together enough money to buy a used car lot. They started with just seven cars, but by 2020 they had expanded considerably. About 140 cars were destroyed over the first two nights of the riots. By Khindri’s estimate, $2.5 million went up in smoke overnight.

A business is not just its inventory. It’s not just the bricks and drywall. It’s someone’s dream. It’s thousands of hours of hard work.

But the most traumatic aspect wasn’t about the money. “This business, it’s not just a business,” Khindri told a local reporter in the aftermath. “We built from the ground up, We built it car by car, like tile by tile.”

A business is not just its inventory. It’s not just the bricks and drywall. It’s someone’s dream. It’s thousands of hours of hard work. It’s untold stress. It’s food on the table and new ballet shoes for a daughter. It’s how communities are formed and strengthened. In other words, it is a means by which we pursue—and find—happiness.

This is a concept that crosses the political spectrum. Graeme Wood, staff writer at the left-leaning Atlantic said it well when he criticized Osterweil’s book by saying, “When I think of riots and smashed storefronts, I think of Kristallnacht. I think of American businesses built by penniless immigrants who preferred to forfeit their vacations and weekends for 30 years rather than see their children suffer as they did; I think of these businesses ransacked in 30 minutes and left in ruins. Osterweil at least has the psychology right when she says that looting can be ‘joyous and liberatory.’ I have never seen a sullen looter, but I have seen plenty of shop owners crying next to the smoking remains of their children’s future.”

In an interview with The Federalist, Khindri’s brother Sam said, “This is not the America I came into. What did we do to deserve all this? I’m a minority too. I’m a brown person. I have nothing to do with this.”

Perhaps the most eye-opening aspect of Osterweil’s line of thinking came out in an NPR interview in which she claimed that looting was “basically non-violent […] It’s just money. It’s just property. It’s not actually hurting any people.”

Not only is none of that true, it’s completely callous and indifferent to human life. Non-violent protests don’t force people to spray-paint signs like we saw on buildings in Kenosha, pleading for rioters not to set any more fires: “Please, Kids Above.”

Rapper Killer Mike said it best just days after George Floyd’s death: “We have to be better than burning down our own homes, it is your duty to not burn your own house down for anger with an enemy.”

To the pundits and academics saying the riots were a desperate act by oppressed minorities: What justifies the destruction of businesses owned by immigrant families?

The Khindri family was far from the only minority-owned business to incur the misplaced wrath of rioters this summer. Run a Google search and you’ll find hundreds of stories of Black, Latino, and Asian businesses looted, burned, and destroyed.

Not that it should matter what a business owner looks like. But when so much of the riots’ destruction hurt minority businesses, homes, and neighborhoods, it exposes the lie that these crimes were justified on the grounds of racial oppression. These riots were not protests of injustice. The protesters and advocates truly fighting for criminal justice reform, police reform, and equality before the law all did so peacefully—not with bricks and Molotov cocktails.

Finally, we can reject the argument that the destruction of other people’s property is justified because rioting “works” to achieve needed policy reforms. It doesn’t. Princeton professor Omar Wasow spent 15 years researching violent and non-violent protests during the civil rights era.

Wasow’s research found that nonviolent protests were more effective in garnering public support for much-needed civil rights goals. For instance, in 1964, Republican Barry Goldwater, who ran on a “law and order” platform, lost the presidential election in a landslide to the “champion of civil rights,” Lyndon Johnson. Wasow credits the major nonviolent protests led by Martin Luther King the previous year, such as the Birmingham campaign and the March on Washington.

Violent protests, on the other hand, tended to have the opposite effect: a stronger public sentiment for an intensifying police response to crime. Wasow cites the Watts riots of 1965 (among others) for tipping the 1968 election for the “law and order” candidate for president, Richard Nixon.

Owning property—and having that property protected from destruction—is one of the most proven ways to lift individuals, families, and nations out of poverty.

If rioters in 2020 wanted less policing of their cities, they did a whole lot to ensure that the larger public would feel exactly the opposite. But you didn’t need a sociological study to tell you that.

Owning property—and having that property protected from destruction—is one of the most proven ways to lift individuals, families, and nations out of poverty. According to the World Bank, one of the few things almost every poor country around the world has in common is weak property rights. Why?

Peruvian economist Hernando de Soto painstakingly studied property rights and poverty in Third World nations and found that where there are strong protections of property rights, there was less poverty and a more stable middle class. Where stable governmental systems could assure clear ownership rights and where those rights were protected by the law, people could use the value of their homes and businesses to build wealth, lifting them out of poverty and into the middle class. But where ownership rights were insecure, whatever wealth may be in a poor person’s home or business was too tenuous to build upon, and the poor would remain poor no matter what the larger economy may look like.

As de Soto put it, in the West, “the legal property system became the staircase that took these nations to their full productive potential.” In other words, prosperity does not create property; instead, prosperity is the result of property being fully respected and actualized.

When we rightly complain about the lingering effects of racial discrimination, consider the causes, and how government has enabled it. From the moment that African Americans arrived on American shores, their property, labor, and—most importantly—their lives were stolen. As the years passed, discrimination— and purposefully discriminatory laws—denied many Americans an equal opportunity to create wealth through home ownership and employment. But the answer to these problems isn’t to take away the property that people (including minorities) own, either through outright destruction, or sapping the economic vitality of city neighborhoods. If property and businesses become insecure, any hope for better times will be in vain. If we don’t protect property, poverty and disparity will grow.

Our nation’s sordid history of slavery, Jim Crow, and the ongoing legacy of those injustices can never be cast aside or overlooked. But it’s important to recognize how critical the concept of property, and the property rights protected by our Constitution, are to lifting up Americans of every race, sex, and creed.

The miracle of this country is that our natural rights are, as Jefferson wrote, unalienable; they are for everyone, even if the term “everyone” has needed to expand in meaning over the past 230 years. That is the genius of our system: it is capable of self-correction—“more perfect,” as the Constitution’s preamble so beautifully phrased it.

Government’s—and our—obligation to protect people and property is paramount. We are not giving up on that vision. Not now, not ever.

This article originally appeared in the Winter 2020 issue of Pacific Legal Foundation’s quarterly magazine Sword & Scales.