When You Condone Chaos, You Condone the Consequences of Chaos
it's our old friend, the inevitable consequences of our own beliefs
I have neither any legal expertise to bring to bear about the Kyle Rittenhouse case nor anything particularly novel to say about it. I think that, in a just world, Rittenhouse would be convicted both for a weapons possession charge and for reckless endangerment. As much as a part of me would like to see him go down for the actual killings, those charges seem to be vastly more complicated matters, especially given Wisconsin’s particular self-defense statutes. Certainly there should be some serious repercussions for carrying that weapon illegally and firing it in a way that endangered innocents. Otherwise I don’t know what the appropriate punishment would be, and my thoughts on Rittenhouse’s trial would inevitably be more about what sane and sound gun policy would look like rather than about his specific case.
However, I do want to say this. At the time of the Kinosha riots, many many people along the left-of-center, including otherwise reformist liberals, endorsed riots to some degree or another. I know quite a few people who were willing to say that riots were just good on the merits, and there were also many saying in some terms or another that these particular riots could not be judged by progressive people due to what had inspired them. This sentiment stretches back a long way but has picked up steam in the last decade and the past year and a half particularly. Here’s a pro-riot piece and here’s a pro-riot piece and here’s a pro-riot piece and here’s a pro-rioting interview and here’s a pro-looting interview and here’s a riots-aren’t-necessarily-good-but-they-do-good-things piece and here’s a both-sidesy rioting piece and on and on. (And this is merely hilarious.) Pro-rioting sentiment is perfect for our edgelord media; it makes for good, click-farming headlines and engages in the kind of moral simplicity and righteous hectoring that defines our current culture.
Well, look: chaos is chaotic. Bad shit happens when people riot. When you create environments where anything can happen… anything can happen. Some people are going to take advantage of that opportunity to do things that you don’t like. You can’t endorse spasms of directionless violence and then complain when some of it plays out in a way that you hadn’t intended. This seems totally obvious to me, and yet so many out there want to both condone riots and condemn their chaotic outcomes. It’s like putting on music and getting mad when people dance.
The left-liberal stance towards political violence, at present, is beyond confused. At the Intercept, Natasha Lennard has published an incomprehensible analysis of the “antifascist” dimensions of the Rittenhouse case. I say it’s incomprehensible because its basic rhetorical move is to argue that the likely acquittal of Rittenhouse shows that business as usual in the law can’t work against the supposed fascist menace destroying the United States. Well, fair enough. The trouble is that she neither actually defines what an anti-fascist strategy would really entail nor what it would accomplish. (It also fails as a piece of writing, on a very basic level; “Hundreds upon hundreds of Black Lives Matter protest arrest cases, which should have been prosecuted on a state level, were deviously transmuted into federal courts” both shows a novel understanding of the word “transmutes” and a failure to understand that as written it suggests that the cases became courts, which is a metaphysical wonder.) Lennard is the perfect example of what I’ve complained about with antifa previously in this space - she would appear to have no idea what the lived experience of antifa has been in left protest movements in the past, that ambivalence and hostility towards antifa and black bloc tactics have been common in the radical left for decades. (I guess they don’t teach that at Cambridge.)
For many posers on the left antifa is less the expression of authentic political strategy and more a tool to define oneself as an aesthetic radical. If you go to various protests and riots and encounter the self-defined antifascists there, I can assure you very few of them will be remotely interested about what happens in the courts at all. Because - and I’m sorry to break this to you romantic types - most people who self-select as antifa in 2021 are just bored white people attracted by the possibility of an excuse for mindless violence. There are of course exceptions. That some among them have a coherent political justification for what they’re doing doesn’t change the fact that many have no grasp on the history or theory of antifascism, and unfortunately people in the media like Lennard forbid us from sorting one group from the other. If you want to contribute to actual change you must confront what antifa actually is outside of your romantic projection.
When fascists then act on the violent promises of their speech — by attacking people of color, stabbing leftists, or, say, storming the seat of U.S. government — credulous liberal logic does not bend: no need for robust anti-fascist action; violent fascists should answer to the law.
Setting aside the fact that this logic is actually very close to that used to strengthen the hand of the government forces that Lennard says can’t stop fascism (the law hasn’t stopped right-wing violence, so… we’re gonna more-fund the Capitol police!) there’s the typical glaring unconfronted question here: what is the “robust anti-fascist action” that would actually lead to meaningful material change for the communities that rioters were ostensibly working for? You can punch a Nazi, if you can actually find one in the wild, but you can’t punch white supremacy, the gender wage gap, or the police state. You can burn down a Starbucks but not the Pentagon. Nor is it remotely clear that the army of graduate students and Instagrammers who make up today's antifa are likely to win many fights.
Those institutions that actually hurt the oppressed you can only oppose with the slow, unsexy, decidedly uncool work of mundane political organizing, knocking on doors and putting up flyers and patiently speaking to people whose minds might be changed. The threat of investment banks is vastly larger to the average poor person of color than the threat of Boogaloo Boys, but antifa have no tools for confronting the former. There are no doubt some antifa types who do the boring activist work we need, but there are also armies of them who only turn up when it’s time to burn shit down. Does that sound like the type of people most poor communities would like to invite to their streets?
The criminal legal system cannot be trusted as a bulwark against fascism. In the courts, anti-fascists must use the tools available to fight the far right. We must, in a manner of speaking, take the law into our own hands.
… what is the relationship between these three sentences? The courts don’t work, but we must do antifascism in the courts? Is there a missing “but” somewhere? Most importantly, take the law into your own hands how? With what tactics? Waged by whom? For what purpose? So much attitude, so little sense.
Well, yes - sites of lawlessness and violence are good places to break the law and commit acts of violence. Perhaps the thing for thinking people to do, then, is not to pretend that such scenes are good for getting justice or anything else. Perhaps we should not give violent right-wing actors the cover of lawlessness and the excuse of mass violence, which they will inevitably use for their own ends. And people who never experience more disorder than they find in line at Whole Foods should probably stop romanticizing that which is inflicted on the poor neighborhoods they ostensibly have such humanitarian concern for.
You endorsed chaotic violence. In that state, someone you don’t like engaged chaotically and violently. You said “riots are good.” But people get killed in riots! Now two people are dead, another is maimed, and the guy responsible may very well walk, as his actions took place against a backdrop of lawlessness and gunfire that gave him the legal arguments he needs to be acquitted. What else did you expect to happen, in that scenario? How did you think this would all go, this peacocking endorsement of violence for its own sake? Reap what you sow. Reap what you sow.
As someone who would define their politics as antifascist (or at least anti-capitalist and anti-authoritarian) and lives in the Minneapolis neighborhood that was burned down last year, I can say that it was not fun or exciting. It was not fun to watch people from the suburbs drive 60mph down my street to join the riots. It was especially not fun to go online and see all the people celebrating the fact that my neighborhood was on fire.
It was not fun seeing people with no connection to the area describe property damage as unimportant. Never mind that most of these buildings were populated by immigrant owned businesses employing people in the community. Never mind that those buildings won't be rebuilt for at least another year, which means the people who owned those businesses need to either find a new building or new career, the people who worked there have had to find new places to work during a pandemic.
They may have just been buildings, but sometimes buildings mean a lot to people. They're places for the community to congregate and gather. This is especially true for the sizeable East African and Native American population of people who live here, who watched their community spaces get burned down with glee by people who had never even heard of Longfellow until they rolled up at midnight to smash shit.
It's easy to be pro-riot when it's happening far away to people who may as well be imaginary. We all love to see a Target get smashed, yeah?
Of course, the fallout from that Target and other big chain stores being smashed is that a lot of people in the community suddenly no longer had employment during a pandemic. Not to mention that of the 6 grocery stores that served the 30k people who live in Longfellow, only two remained standing after the first night, which means a lot of people lost their easy access to food, toiletries, etc.
I am not a fan of the guy who lives opposite me on my street who has had a Trump sign in his window since the summer of 2015. But that dude was out there every night protecting our neighborhood grocery store. Yeah, he probably was living out some deranged cowboy fantasy where he'd get to shoot some looters, but he was doing the work to protect people and build community during a pretty alarming and sometimes terrifying time.
But, yeah: not very fun! And the result of all that chaos after this most recent election is a much more moderate City Council, a Mayor with increased executive power, and a police force that feels like they won their war against the city.
Someday I want somebody smarter than me to do a deep-dive into how pandemic quarantine affected who was at street protests in 2020. So much of my social circle, liberals who were 2016-radicalized but (I assumed) never true radicals, shocked me by going out night after night into a liberal west-coast city and getting into cop chases, getting arrested, being in the crowds that threatened to burn cars and courthouses. They posted unceasingly on social media about their solemn duty to do this, on the same feeds that a week ago had been nothing but frantic finger-pointing at conservatives who were selfishly killing innocents by attending weddings and protesting lockdown restrictions. These were people who were simultaneously losing their minds in lockdown (as I was, as so many were), who were depressed and often newly unemployed, but who had wedded themselves to a political performance that required competing to see who could lock down hardest and publicly bear it best.
…Then, suddenly, a politically-sanctioned excuse - no, an imperative - arose for leaving your house, being among people, meeting your friends, and doing something that felt necessary and productive and brave, following weeks of feeling scared, helpless, claustrophobic, and unmoored. Suddenly it was ok to be outside in a massive crowd because you were allowed to believe the virus was less important than this, when you weren’t allowed to believe that about anything else. I can’t believe that’s coincidence, at least not in my (very far from Minneapolis) city.
It has shades of the Nazi-punching craze of 2017-2018, when many young academics with anxiety in my acquaintance circle started taking self-defense classes and posturing as “neighborhood protectors.” You’re a pacifist until a politically-sanctioned imperative to hurt people comes along and gives you the excuse. The difference is, none of them ever actually punched a Nazi; and pandemic lockdown was an event of mass psychological upheaval in the U.S. that I can’t think of a parallel for.