Mobbing Logic

Not to trivialize the prosecutions of January 6th, but the Democrats’ obsession with this event at times borders on a show trial. Are they trying to upstage the Republicans who’ve predictably refused to participate, or simply taking another shot at their hated Trump, the affectation that has shadowed their agenda and diverted attention away from important issues? Their claims that January 6th was an insurrection plotted by Trump and his enthusiasts contrast with a virtual neglect of the 2020 riots. Their preferred label for them is “protests,” thus absolving them of responsibility to investigate. Targeting the relatively few activists and organizers at the Capitol while ignoring the mayhem of 2020 sends a conflicting message that exit polls reveal influenced voters in the recent elections. Many Democrats—educated supporters of the base as well as inner-city blacks—jumped ship because of the party’s scripting of race. And a recent NBC poll shows a significant decline in support for Black Lives Matter (BLM).

There’s no question that peaceful protests were a significant part of 2020, but the violence that preceded them in the wake of the George Floyd killing was unmistakably prior and on a much larger scale than January 6th. And the leadership of BLM invited it. Tamika Mallory claimed that whites taught them the value of violence. But once riots begin, they take on lives of their own, erupting at random through the veneer of peace and blemishing otherwise productive gatherings. The protest sites were like war zones where violent actions exploded leaving scars and vendettas in their wake while buffeting new behavior patterns.

The Democrats should link their needed investigation of January 6th with the events of 2020 and deliver a more in-depth and transparent rendering of their significance than they have to date, After all, the extension and strengthening of the movement that developed into the January 6th mob occurred in reaction to a number of imagined transgressions, but mostly to what many claimed were the excesses of 2020.

The data for 2020 are revealing. An estimate several months after the eruption pegged the property damage at around $2 billion, significantly greater than the 1992 Rodney King riots which cost $1.4 billion (in today’s dollars). In Minneapolis alone, the epicenter of the mayhem, 1025 properties—which included churches, non-profits and police precincts—were damaged, burned or destroyed. And those that remained relatively untouched were repeatedly looted. Large swatches of minority neighborhoods were wiped out. An estimated 90% of all businesses were destroyed in the Lake Street corridor (Josh Penrod and C. J. Sinner, “Buildings in Minneapolis, St. Paul After Riots,” Minneapolis Star Tribune, 7/13/2020). This spread to 140 other cities.

The consequences over the long term could be devastating, especially for the minority areas hardest hit, according to Munr Kazmir (“How Much Damage Has Been Caused By The Protests?” Medium, 10/9/2020). A study of the 1992 Rodney King riots offers a sobering glimpse. It took the hardest-hit areas nearly ten years to achieve some degree of economic normalcy. During this time unemployment rose, there was a sharp drop in black ownership of property as well as a decline in new business opportunities, insurance premiums rose significantly for businesses remaining (many not able to get insurance), and the number of residents declined since many families felt insecure and relocated. Most significantly, violent crime rose substantially in the gutted areas (as it is apparently doing now, reflected in the spike in the murder rate).

With respect to the insurance issue, many claimed that damages—especially from looting—would be covered by insurance, thus inadvertently endorsing the actions. But small businesses tend not to be covered by large commercial policies, and monetary claims tend to be passed on to clients by the companies who in turn pass them onto customers in higher prices. Given this crunch, companies reconsider even covering communities that are susceptible to rioting (Medium).

So, how significant will these embedded damages from the 2020 unrest be in the years to come?

There were twenty-seven deaths related to the riots but only sixteen occurred as a direct result of the mayhem. Much of the violence churned up on the periphery subsequent to the unrest was perpetrated by groups unaffiliated with the original rioters. Three of these deaths were by police officers who claimed self-defense. Seven hundred officers were injured (Philip Bump, “Deaths Linked to Protests,” Washington Post, 8/26/2020).

Thousands were arrested in relation to the riots but from half to three quarters of the cases were dropped, and many of the felony charges were reduced to misdemeanors, inflaming the tempers of many citizens who were victimized. Prosecutors blamed crowded dockets (being at the mercy of District Attorneys), mostly due to the pandemic, and the difficulty of establishing cases with solid evidence due to the dark conditions at the time when most actions occurred. Many of the arrests were apparently due to overreach, made in the heat of the moment for fear of losing another opportunity (Diane Dimond, “Why Most Arrested Rioters Will Not Be Prosecuted,” Maui News, 7/2/2021).

One of the byproducts of this handling of cases was the attitude of police officers at the scene. There were many reports of police standing by while the rioters looted businesses (charges of police abdication were also made about January 6th). In the harbor area of Los Angeles witnesses reported seeing BLM vans dropping off members who proceeded to torch and destroy buildings, no police in sight. In San Pedro, a subdivision of Los Angeles, there was virtually no police presence. Citizens prepared themselves, standing their ground with weapons once the BLM vans arrived, and the community was virtually unscathed.

This role for the police contrasts sharply with what many of them did later. Caught up in the whorl that inevitably accompanies unrest, where protestors and rioters were not always easy to separate, they cracked down with a vengeance, often on the wrong perps, perhaps exacting revenge in response to the allegations of their handling of the early riots.

It’s hard not to conclude that these excesses and laxity of enforcement provoked the right. The persistence of BLM protests continued into Fall, giving way to MAGA demonstrations as the election approached. Large groups of Trump supporters began to hold rallies, clashing with counter-protestors, and these culminated in the Million MAGA March on November 14th (Vince Dixon, “How Arrests in the Capitol Compare to that of Black Lives Matter Protests,” Boston Globe, 1/7/21). The leaders were essentially the same ones that would push rallies into riot on January 6th.

The instigators, mostly militias, were a relatively small group of activists who were intent on destruction, especially the Oath Keepers, the Proud Boys, the Boogaloo Boys, the Groyper Army, and the Last Sons of Liberty, though they perpetrated little actual violence (Matthew Rosenberg, “Rioters Who Stormed the Nation’s Capitol,” New York Times, 1/7/2021).  Their motives bordered on lunacy. Seizing the capitol—and a few authority figures in the bargain—to force a cancelation of the election results was surreal theater. It had virtually no grounding in real issues that could convert to real solutions. Converging on buildings symbolic of our democracy drove home their desire to eliminate the system, but they had no conception of a replacement.

The residual cohorts were defaulted supporters of the general drift of things, but mostly intent on venting their frustrations about a slate of concerns, many not directly related to the event at hand. Many of these were from rural red states and felt they’d been left behind, airbrushed from the system. Short on perspective, they were driven to seek surrogate enemies, or form dangerous identifications with toxic heads, especially Trump. Many were reshaping reality to fit their phantasms—like QAnon—divorced from some larger political logic. They were conditioned to deny facts—reinforced through the social media bubbles of misinformation—and absorb the imaginaries of alternative universes, like the Zombie Outbreak Response Team, proselytizing the impending apocalypse. Others were like sightseers, wanting to merge with the protest fervor and be part of something even if they were not sure what it was. They conjured some larger counter-cultural family grouping—reminiscent of the 1960s—in dress and gestures, mimicking comic book heroes in the form of “Kek” and “Pepe the Frog.”

The mere presence of these residual supporters boosted the instigators and made the event. A riot can’t develop without a large body count.

The 2020 event was sort of a reverse of January 6th, erupting from a specific instance of social injustice and continuing through variations on the anti-racist agenda. BLM already had a structure in place to maximize the bodies on the line, but the event soon exploded it as a host of players—from many political persuasions, some supportive and some not—converged on the scenes. Groups on the left with a different slant on anti-racism saw a chance to vent their vision of change, particularly the small “a” anarchists who hoped to capture the protest energy to challenge the state of political authority. And some were not directly inspired by the dominant race narrative, but the explosion of activity ignited others’ awareness of being excluded. Groups on the right—especially the supremacists—saw the chaos as an opportunity to hijack the event and discredit the anti-racist cause and turn the tables on the ideological framers. Some of these pandered capital “A” Anarchism, committed to maximum destruction. The anti-fascist group Antifa surfaced to contain and cancel violent excesses on the right.

The presence of so many players in conflict distorted the issues and perpetuated the violence, converting the flare-ups of protest into riots, inviting vigilante responses, and unfortunately tarnishing the event.

If the onset of violence at the 2020 event would’ve been contained early, some form of coalition could conceivably have been shaped in accord with MLK’s consensus-building model. This outcome could’ve enhanced prospects for productive debate on the slate of the anti-racist movement’s issues, possibly leading to a saner institutional application of their core ideas, and contributed to a workable, long-term strategy for the Democrats that would’ve taken them off the defensive and moved matters beyond the rigid polarization we’ve been victimized with. It would’ve also given them a clearer ethical edge. It’s hard to imagine January 6th other than what it was, an egregiously irrational outburst (the impulse of the far right is toward aggression).

Our limited-democratic, polarized system conduces to mob logic. There are a lot of angry people out there flailing away in hopes of securing some semblance of truth. Failing that, they jump at the chance to vault themselves onto center stage and act out their desires to possess it, gestures that frequently transit to violence. They see no other option since the regular legal channels of representation aren’t open to them. Years of being denied access to middle class, property-owning existence forced blacks to engage in direct action, go right to the symbolic visible source and literally destroy it, the property-owning neighborhoods. It’s the upgrading of MLK’s strategy with violence, converging on the sites where the abuses occur, diners that exclude, buses that prioritize space, etc. Years of being excluded from access to the American Dream brought the far-right sympathizers to the Capitol, the perfect site to signal the denial of representation.

Mob actions should generate more than firm crackdowns on alleged perps. They should lead to an opening of venues and lines of communication that contribute to debate and free speech. This could prevent violence and lead to a possible reform of the party system, and ideally an expansion of new ones…

John O’Kane teaches writing at Chapman University. His recent book is Toward Election 2020: Cancel Culture, Censorship and Class