What makes a protest a ‘protest’? Looking at protests spreading through time and geographies, there are a few common themes. An associated limited identity that ties the protesters together be it race, gender, culture or nationality; an emotional message be it justice, peace, equality; a target be it the state, a company; and a medium of expression be it words, song or action.
At a time when a fatal virus is killing people by the thousands, the antithesis to the cries of ‘social distancing’ has been met with protests the world over. From the United States of America, the epicenter, to Great Britain, the Netherlands, and even South Korea. The world is enraged over the killing of an unarmed black American at the hands, or rather the knee, of a white police officer. Seen as yet another iteration of ‘police brutality’ against black civilians, this incident triggered a kindling feeling of resentment towards law enforcement, and to the political system at large.
This protest, in its basic components, is like any other. An associated identity along racial and allied racial lines; an emotional message of justice for the victim and other victims of associated acts of brutality; a target, the perceived racist police system, but the medium, the medium is somewhat distorted. While, in its microcosm, it bears similarities to other protests, in the bigger picture, the medium has seen different manifestations. Witty and hard-hitting chants, posters, and placards, complete with uniform, an easy to remember and de-limited abbreviation of three letters, and even a hashtag, and a social media gesture to allow celebrities to vent their misplaced sympathies, this protest has the fundamentals sorted. But what was made very clear right from the outset was this agitation had an element of violence unlike any other.
This isn’t the first incident of violence at a protest on the west of the Atlantic. With the open display of expression, both socially accepted and constitutionally backed, and the pluralism of people and diversity of opinion in the US, protests are often a feisty affair. And more often than not there are people who cross the line and engage less verbally and more physically, fatalities are also an occurrence, rare albeit. However, this form of protest, despite being tipped by an escalating amount of cases of alleged police brutality, morphed quickly from resentment for the enforcers of the law to burning down their very precincts.
It wasn’t just a local protest either. In a matter of a few days, the resentment at the political system, not just the police department, spread like wildfire. Soon several cities in the United States were engulfed in protests [and flames], exhibiting not just a common theme, but a common medium born out of a common resentment. What nobody predicted, however, was how quickly this protest turned ugly. Ugly, not in terms of the source of their agitation, but in their display of it.
From burning down the workplaces of the ‘racist’ police officer, the protests sparked into riots. Other precincts were targetted, monuments vandalized, public property destroyed and people’s livelihoods [many of them black, mind you] left in ruins. The protesters, it would seem, feigned the cries of ‘Black Lives Matter’ by ensuring black livelihood didn’t. Several minority-owned businesses were left in ruin, products lifted, cash stolen and windows stoned-in. Slowly but surely, it was clear that while the puritan core of the ‘protest’ was composed of people who actually cared about ‘black lives’ the loudest voices and the swinging fists were from those who weren’t protesting racism.
Looking at the ease at which the “riots” broke, first as a backdrop to the protests and then as the defining theme of it, the objective of the violence and vandalism was not to protest police brutality but something else entirely. Something less glamours, not driven by emotion. While the core of the protest was purely about standing against racial injustice, with each concentric circle formed around armed with bricks and balaclava, the rioting ensured the scene shifted to protest the economy.
I don’t mean to deflect for the genuine cries of justice from a vast majority of those protesting, but a large part of the size and scale of the riots is due more to the economic pause than due to racial injustice.
Here, a difference between those protesting and those rioting is necessary. Those protesting are expressing a constitutional right of expression and peaceful assembly at what is a blatant act of police brutality. Most protestors are even submitting themselves to unlawful arrest without backlash, and are cordially appealing to police while being hit with tear gas and rubber bullets. On the other hand, those “rioting” and “looting” privately owned businesses are doing so less to send a message to the government and the police, but to express their own dissatisfaction with what is an effect of Covid-19. No side is composed of one ethnic or racial ground, there is a mixture of colors in both, hence this is not an “only-black” or “only-white” issue. Both racial groups are out there protesting [one evidently has more skin in the game than the other], and both racial groups are out there rioting.
Where the difference lies is a matter of priority. The people who prioritize their economic well-being more than racial equality and have been hurt by the economy and are in need of venting out their frustration are rioting and looting. Those who genuinely want to hold their authorities accountable are marching on the front lines, and not across broken glass into a Nike store to steal a pair of Air Jordans.
For the past two months, the world economy has stopped. Given the contagious and fatal nature of the virus, major governments around the world have enforced lockdowns at the cost of their immediate and short-term economic growth. While doing this to save lives, most businesses built on front-facing consumption, with regular revenue and tight cash flows like restaurants, cafes, and gyms were forced to shutter.
In April, the New York Times reported an estimated 5.5 million restaurant jobs had been lost nationwide. The unemployment rate in the United States unsurprisingly shot up to almost 14.7 percent, with the divide by race quite different — 14.2 percent for white Americans and 16.7 percent for black Americans, according to Quartz. While there can be blame imparted on the US government’s handling of this crisis, an economic fallout was inevitable, if not domestically, certainly as part of the world economy dependent on China.
During this time employment dependent on the cash flow of companies. Regardless, those that had enough liquid cash to tide them over for a few months of little to no consumption would be extremely judicious in their decisions. Most, if not all, would cut the most replaceable variable costs. Letting go of bottom-line unskilled workers, decreasing the supply of goods with low-shelf life, and selling off fixed assets would be the go-to options. In this domino effect, most of the people out of the labor force were unskilled, retail-level, employees of private companies.
According to at the US Bureau of Labour Statistics’ unemployment data for April, 18–19-year-olds saw the highest unemployment rate at 34.3 percent, broken down as a whole, and not according to age and race. The next was 20–24-year-olds at 25.7 percent. In fact, every age group saw a marginal increase in unemployment from March to April, but for the three youngest age-groups i.e. 16 to 17-years old, 18 to 19-years old, and 20 to 24-years old, it was the highest at 11.2 percent, 21.5 percent, and 17 percent respectively. May saw the three age groups lead the unemployment charts as well. As is evident, the brunt of the unemployment was concentrated between 16–24-year-olds working in customer-facing, or supply-chain dependant jobs which were the first to be shelved when the lockdown began.
Owing to this economic situation, as the data suggests many young people were, in the past two months, either let-go or forced to take a severe pay cut. It's no surprise that looking at the pictures and the videos of the riots, a vast majority of those looting were of this age bracket. With no source of income and no hope of a hiring spree on the horizon, there was a deep-seated resentment growing. Resentment at the private companies which have enough cash-flow to take a hit and still get back on their feet. Resentment against the political class for having engineered this lockdown, even if it was for community safety. Resentment against everyone who can engage in ‘consumption culture’ when the economy reopens. In short, resentment towards those who survive the economic crash, irrespective of race.
While the horrific video of blatant police brutality did usher many people to take to the streets of Minneapolis, and other cities throughout the US, the anger which took the form of rioting and looting of private property was less to fight against racism and more to express struggle over their own economic situation. Further, the ability for it to spread throughout the country was because of the bleak economic situation that people ended up in.
*I must admit, for this point, I do not have official data to back up my statements, hence using a probability.*
The retail outlets targeted also fits this economic narrative. Social media was flooded with pictures and videos of retail stores like Starbucks, Nike, Subway, and even corner grocery shops looted, vandalized, and stoned in. These outlets not only employ a significant amount of unskilled front-facing employees but would’ve had to let them go during the pandemic. This workforce would most likely have been within the aforementioned age bracket worst hit by the economic situation.
I’m not arguing that the protest is an economic protest disguised as a racial one. Like I said earlier, there is a stark difference between the motivations of those protesting and those rioting. The core of the protest is to fight against racial injustice, which is a justifiable claim, to say the least. However, the riots and the looting, which people on both sides of the aisle, are a consequence of the bleak economic situation prevailing in the United States and much of the world. This economic aftermath cannot be understated as an underlying reason for the protests and the violence spreading so rapidly, across the nation and the world. Like most motivations that cannot be drilled down into emotional messaging, the economics of the protests are often ignored. Because it's never glamourous to protest the economy, in fact these protests are often ridiculed.
While you scroll through social media and feel solidarity with those posting pictures of black squares, know that there is another factor at play. The factor of green rectangles.
Edit: Some points are made without data, hence I’ve mentioned them as a probability. If anyone has the statistics around the employment of the people protesting and rioting, I’d love to have a look.