The Washington Post's Review of My New Book Contains a Direct Factual Error
The Washington Post’s review of How Elites Ate the Social Justice Movement is largely negative, which is fine - that’s the biz! But it contains a claim that is unambiguously an error of fact. The review says “to show that BLM supporters endorsed looting, he simply proclaims that ‘defending riots became something of a cottage industry among progressives in 2020,’ then cites a single example.”
Here's the relevant passage from the book, pages 83 and 84.
Author Vicky Osterweil’s book In Defense of Looting was published in the summer of 2020 but largely written before Floyd’s murder. She seized the day, saying in an interview with NPR that riots get “people what they need for free immediately, which means that they are capable of living and reproducing their lives without having to rely on jobs or a wage.” As the title of Osterweil’s book makes clear, she is not just supportive of protests, or protests that become violent, or of rioting, but of the specific behavior of looters, the stealing that takes advantage of the chaos of a riot. Edgy. Not to be outdone, the wizened liberal magazine The Nation published a piece titled “In Defense of Destroying Property,” which argued that “too many lines have been crossed, too many innocent people murdered, too many communities over-policed and otherwise neglected to expect anyone to react ‘reasonably.’” Why we would want to abandon reason in the face of injustice, I’ll never know; this attitude is a good example of the condescension that bloomed in 2020, when many left-leaning people decided that the Floyd protests were too fragile to be treated with adult discrimination and judgment.
Others were more equivocal, taking less of a pro-riot stance than an anti-anti-riot perspective. A piece in The Atlantic complained of a double standard, arguing that “only one thing is clear—there is no form of black protest that white supremacy will sanction” and comparing the rioters to those killed in the Boston Massacre. A National Geographic photo essay compared the Floyd protests to race riots past, arguing that they “suggest a new phase of opposition that is uniting groups who did not have much in common for most of American history.” In Vox, it was argued that “civil disobedience is frenzied and chaotic by nature . . . some protesters are looting out of the same anger that drives the protests, and other looters are not protesters at all.” The New York Times missive in this genre grew florid, arguing that “our country was built on looting—the looting of Indigenous lands and African labor.” In fairness, this is not untrue, but perhaps it operates on a level of abstraction so extreme that it provides us with little useful information about whether the Floyd riots were productive. There are many more examples that were published in the year after Floyd’s murder. Of course, conservatives also took advantage of the moment; to pick a representative example, a USA Today columnist argued that the protests “have given the Second Amendment a boost.”
And, a little later
…we can say with considerable confidence that political violence is not popular in the United States. In a 2022 poll, only about 20 percent of poll respondents felt that the use of violence was appropriate to achieve a political goal. Another poll from Reuters/Ipsos found that only 17 percent of Americans believe political violence is sometimes acceptable against one’s political enemy. And the polling analysis site FiveThirtyEight argued that even these numbers were likely inflated by problematically worded questions. On the subject of the Black Lives Matter riots specifically, one 2021 poll found that two-thirds of polled Americans wanted congressional investigations into those incidents. We might take these findings with a grain of salt, given that the poll was commissioned by the National Police Association. But a similar 2020 poll found that, while large majorities were sympathetic to the peaceful protests, only 22 percent felt that violence and unrest were an appropriate response to George Floyd’s death.
That all directly contradicts the claim that I cite a single source concerning support for riots in 2020. These things happen, but that kind of factual error requires correction. I have submitted a ticket through WaPo’s automated system and have been trying to get in touch with editors there about the issue. (It is the weekend, to be fair.) If you know anybody in leadership at the paper please pass this along. We'll see if they correct the error of fact.
Update: WaPo has issued a correction. I appreciate their prompt attention.