Always at the Abyss
I’ve just about had enough of this:
Hundreds of people swept through the Magnificent Mile and other parts of downtown Chicago early Monday, smashing windows, looting stores, confronting police and at one point exchanging gunfire with officers, authorities said.
More than 100 people were arrested as of 9 a.m., according to Chicago Police Superintendent David Brown. Thirteen officers were injured during the unrest, including a sergeant who was hit by a bottle. A civilian and private security guard were shot and wounded.
It took police officers roughly four hours to get the downtown back under control, leading to finger pointing across the political spectrum and calls for the Illinois National Guard to once again help quell unrest in the country’s third-largest city.
Downtown Ald. Brian Hopkins, who said he was on Michigan Avenue from midnight to 4 a.m., described a scene in which officers were overwhelmed by looters and apparently did not have much of a plan for restoring order. He criticized Lightfoot for failing to develop an effective strategy following recent looting incidents in May and June.
The spark that lit this particular fire seems to have been the police shooting of a 20-year-old man. While I am more than willing to criticize the police when they do wrong, the initial reports are that he was shot after shooting at the police during a chase. This is not an unarmed child being killed like Tamir Rice. This is not a retreating man being executed like Laquan McDonald. A full investigation should be done — whether the chase was necessary, whether he had a chance to surrender, etc. But the initial reports do not indicate a shoot that was unjustified. Moreover, the people who pillaged downtown Chicago last night knew less than I did when I typed those words. There is simply no justification for this sort of mayhem.
Ever since protests and violence erupted after the killing of George Floyd, there has been a reluctance by politicians to condemn the worst aspects of it, lest they be perceived as attacking the ultimate goal of police reform. Even worse, the media have been reluctant to report on it, as our friend Kristin noted two months ago. Last week, the New York Times detailed some of the horrors of Seattle’s infamous autonomous zone and it’s a harrowing read:
Faizel Khan was being told by the news media and his own mayor that the protests in his hometown were peaceful, with “a block party atmosphere.”
But that was not what he saw through the windows of his Seattle coffee shop. He saw encampments overtaking the sidewalks. He saw roving bands of masked protesters smashing windows and looting.
Young white men wielding guns would harangue customers as well as Mr. Khan, a gay man of Middle Eastern descent who moved here from Texas so he could more comfortably be out. To get into his coffee shop, he sometimes had to seek the permission of self-appointed armed guards to cross a border they had erected.
“They barricaded us all in here,” Mr. Khan said. “And they were sitting in lawn chairs with guns.”
The thing I’m wondering is why is this being reported now, over a month after the Mayor broke up the CHOP after a series of fatal shootings involving the CHOP’s “security”. Even now, some business owners are afraid to speak out, lest they be targeted by the rioters and thugs, most of whom have never been punished for their acts.
This reluctance to condemn, this refusal to delineate between protesting and rioting, the occasional willingness to even justify violence and destruction bears some responsibility for what happened in Chicago last night. Not all, obviously. By failing to condemn rioting, by failing to report accurately on looting, by even justifying violence, supporters of the protests are engaging in the exact kind of thinking that has led to the riots in the first place.
Let me back up a moment and look at this from some height.
We are a critical juncture right now when it comes to policing. On the one hand, we have the police themselves and their supporters — in both parties — proclaiming that nothing is wrong. This is just a few bad apples and we need to absolutely support the police or chaos will ensue. And on the other hand, we have people saying the policing is so fundamentally broken that we need to abolish it and…well, I’m not sure what happens after that.
Reality is, as always, somewhere in between. We have very serious problems with policing in this country, mainly a lack of accountability (which I’ll get to in a moment). But as we are seeing in the massive spikes of violence this summer, from the press finally reporting on the reality of the CHOP to last night in Chicago. We still need a police presence. We cannot simply abandon our cities in the hopes that things will work out. It’s another example of how when it comes to the “necessary evil” of government, one side wants to pretend it’s never evil and the other side wants to pretend it’s not necessary. It can and often is both.
But there’s an even large point here and one that the last two decades and this year in particular have driven home for me. And that is that the veneer of civilization is much thinner than we realize. It doesn’t take much for human beings to revert to their primal nature. The problem is not just liberal wags pretending that destroying businesses and looting are a form of protest because “it’s just property”; it’s also conservatives tut-tutting about “inner city culture” (usually in thinly or not-so-thinly veiled racial terms). Because, in the end everyone is just a few steps away from looting a store. And everyone is just a few steps away from kneeling a non-compliant suspect to death. You may think that a college education, a suburban home and 2.5 kids have civilized you to the point where you’d never smash a store window and steal stuff. You may think that you’re woke enough that you’d never sit on a man’s neck for over three minutes after he stopped breathing. But it would not take much to push you out of the light. It would not take much for you to do something unspeakably violent and destructive.
I talked about the looters. And it’s easy to look at that that and see people giving in to their worst nature. But we now have hundreds of video-documented incidents of police engaging in reciprocal violence. Directed not just at looters but also at protesters, media and bystanders. We have years and years, piles and piles of complaints from people of brutality, violence and abuse. Derek Chauvin, before placing his tibia on the neck of George Floyd, had 18 different complaints filed against him. Were they all bullshit? Were they all lies? Or did they indicate something deeply wrong both with him and policing, long before he sent Floyd to oblivion?
This is one of the things people refuse to understand about the protests: it’s not just about George Floyd. Nor were the protests six years ago just about Michael Brown. Nor the protests 25 years ago just about Rodney King. It’s about a long-standing culture of law enforcement violence that has gone unchecked. You can argue that police brutality isn’t as bad as looting, sure. You can even argue that it is sometimes necessary with dangerous criminals. But looking the other way and saying, “we need to support cops” when that violence is clearly massively unjustified…it’s no different than looking at stores being destroyed and saying, “It’s just property.”
Over and over again, we see the thinness of the veneer of civilization. Let’s look even beyond policing and rioting. The Bush torture regime saw American soldiers — who had almost defined themselves by humane treatment of prisoners — literally beating people to death. And their actions were defended by many of the same people condemning the looting. Under the Obama drone program, an American citizen and his son were killed without trial. And their actions were defended by many of those who condemned torture.
What these things all have in common is not that people are bad; it’s that people are human.
My view of human nature is we are good but fallen creatures. In many ways, our nature is to be good and kind and honest and compassionate. And you’ll never need to look far to find people acting that way. But, because we are rational creatures and because we are better at rationalizing our behavior rather than questioning it, we find it easy to talk ourselves into being cruel and greedy and vicious. If we see something that we want — power, money, sex — we can easily convince ourselves to do something unethical, illegal or even violent to get it. If someone in authority tells us that our bad behavior is OK — a politician, a reporter, a parent, a commanding officer — then we find it extremely easy to put our moral sense on hold and indulge our inner medieval villager.
This is why corporations pollute rivers — the money at stake lets them convince themselves that it’s no big deal. This is why politicians engage in corruption — the money and power available lets them convince themselves the everyone is doing it. This is why people torture — the animalistic pleasure in inflicting cruelty lets them convince themselves it’s needed to get intelligence. This is at least part of why people loot — the sight of all those things they could never afford lets them convince themselves that it’s justified to get back at the Man. And its part of why cops engage in brutality — the sheer enjoyment lets them convince themselves it’s necessary to lay down the law.
What keeps our baser natures in check? Customs, rules and laws. Restraints that society places on our behavior to keep us away from our worst nature. Some of us don’t need them. Most of us rarely need them. But these things are necessary if we are to maintain the civilization we have so painfully and arduously built up.
The struggle of civilization and one of the main purposes of government is to help guide us to our better natures; to put guardrails on the road of life to keep us from letting go of the wheel until we plunge into the abyss. Government is an imperfect and deeply flawed vehicle for this. The government is, as Mencken wrote, just a collection of men and often inferior ones. But if it is necessary evil, it is a necessary evil. We need laws. We need people enforcing those laws. We need respect for the rule of law. Abandoning areas of our country to lawlessness, giving even the vaguest impression that lawlessness is acceptable, even being unwilling to call it what it is lest one be politically incorrect…these are recipes for disaster.
But when I say, “respect for the rule of law”, I mean it both ways. The government has to respect the rule of law too. For too long, we have looked the other way when cops beat, brutalize, harass and even kill. Every time the police kill someone, even when that killing is clearly unjustified, an army of commentators will emerge to defend the actions. Violations of our basic civil liberties are overlooked. People rot in jail for years awaiting trial, have their houses turned upside down on bogus warrants, watch their children get burned alive in raids and get shot to death when they mistake a mistaken midnight drug raid for a break-in. We launch anywhere up to 100,000 SWAT raids a year, most of which are not justified. This is also a form of lawlessness. We should not be holding government to a lower standard than the people; we should be holding it to a higher one.
The reason the restraints of customs, rules and laws are so important is because once we start drifting out of the lane of civilized behavior, we do not find ourselves coasting on a gentle shoulder; we find ourselves going off a cliff. If you say that some torture is OK, you can’t be surprised when a prisoner is beaten to death. If you say that some looting is justified, you can’t be surprised when entire stores are gutted. If you say sometimes police need to be rough with suspects, you cannot be surprised when the Chicago PD has a literal torture center.
This is, I will note in passing, one of my biggest problems with the Trump Administration. The Administration is gladly, cheerfully violating all kinds of norms and even laws constraining the behavior of government. And this is being cheered on by supporters because they think it offends the sensibilities of the Inside-the-Beltway Hoity-Toity Pinkies-Up crowd. But removing constraints on the awesome power of government — even silly “well, that just isn’t DONE” pearl-clutching kind of social restraints — is dangerous. Because government teeters on the abyss too. And it doesn’t take much for even the most enlightened government to veer off the road and into the abyss of tyranny.
Government is necessary to restrain the worst part of our nature. We need to remember that. Because humans, in the end, are not angels but flawed dangerous products of evolution. But rules, norms, laws and accountability are also a necessary restrain on the worst part of government’s nature. We need to remember that too. Because government, in the end, is not a tin god. It is just a bunch of equally flawed humans with power, money and guns.
The ultimate lever on behavior — whether by citizen or government — is accountability. For the citizen, that accountability comes in the form of arrest, fines and jail — probably too much accountability, to be fair. But for the government, accountability has been too long in coming. The solution to our present crisis is not to remove the accountability placed upon citizens, to justify it when they engage in violent behavior; it is to tighten down the controls upon government, to no longer let it get away with violent behavior.
The Mayor of Chicago, finally, is sounding the right notes on the looting. It will be a difficult needle to thread to quell the violence and get the police to do their jobs while also increasing police accountability. But…that’s why politicians get paid the big bucks. It’s time to quit screwing around with this and pretending that the violence erupting in certain cities is some kind of fashion statement. Excusing or forgiving violence — by police, by protesters, or by anyone — tears at the extremely delicate fabric holding society together. And it’s already pretty frayed.