On George Floyd (And the Desolation of Mobs)

America appears to have caught fire—both literally and metaphorically.

Over the last few days it seems that everyone with a secret ire has come out either to smash windows, graffiti the white house, or throw things at the police. Somewhere in the midst of this eruption of wrath there is genuine and understandable upset at the tragic and imbecilic death of George Floyd. There are sincere desires to have a pointed conversation about the perpetuation of stigmatizing narratives.  

But there are also other, less-altruistic forces at work. Sara Groves, commenting on the riots, notes:

There is a convergence of ideologies here that is much larger than our city. Legitimate civil rights leaders have come into town, but so have other groups that are bent on destruction. There are rampant rumors about who they are, and I hope that will be clear in the days ahead. . . a white guy with a chainsaw and anarchist symbols on his hoodie cutting down telephone poles is not here to honor the name of George Floyd or see progress in systemic injustice.

I want to take this time to have a frank conversation about mobs. And by “mobs,” I do not have in mind peaceful demonstrations. Because I can already hear the distant chants of “Kill the Beast!” I’ll say it again, and even throw in bold italics because you’re a valued customer. I am not, on principle, against peaceful demonstration.

What I am vehemently opposed to are large, uncontrolled masses of angry people whose idea of protest is to slash and burn whatever happens to be close at hand. Nietzsche once said that the mob is the most ruthless of tyrants and I believe what we have seen over the past few days is a glimpse of such tyranny in action. 

So what specifically makes me nervous around mobs?

Mobs are a law unto themselves

In a perfect world, we wouldn’t need law enforcement and centralized government because everyone would be able to play nicely together without resorting to teeth, claws and nail bats. Being that we are yet far from such a world, we have standardized systems that, though flawed, can be umbrella-ed under enough checks and balances to keep the rot at bay. Or to at least can keep the rot accountable. 

But mobs don’t like the idea of checks and balances. What they also don’t seem to understand is that being part of a mob doesn’t excuse you from the consequences of your actions. It is amazing to me that even though it is generally understood that setting businesses on fire, lobbing firecrackers into crowds, and smashing police vehicles is illegal, the mob seems indignant in the face of police response. They call it police brutality. They call it the rise of a police state. What it really is, however, is the only check and balance left in the till for a horde bent on torching the place.

Have there been injuries and incidents of undue force? Undoubtedly. But you try diffusing a mob with soft words and a wiffle bat. 

See, the mob likes to see itself the harbinger of peace and civil reconciliation, but you know what no one’s talking about in all of this? Mob brutality. Let’s not forget that over the past few days, two people have been shot and killed, not by police, but by the mob. This is not the collateral damage of the mighty sword of justice. These are the senseless murders of those with equal dignity to Floyd.

Tell me, where is their justice? Where is their voice?

When the Mob’s a Hammer, Everything’s a Nail

Mobs are like planets: the bigger they are, they more force they exhibit on surrounding bodies. Their sheer power of gravity tends to pull in both the informed and the ignorant, the mindful and the mindless, the reasonable and the polarized—and impartially zealotizes the lot of them.

Are there racial tensions at work in North America? Unquestionably. Were they explicitly present in the particular event of George Floyd’s death. Maybe. But here’s the thing—we don’t know for sure. Perhaps Derek Chauvin was an extraordinarily angry person. Perhaps he forgot to take his medication. I’m not trying to excuse the man for an obvious crime; what I am trying to say is that we cannot assume every altercation between a white and black person is automatically an act of racism. 

Why? Because neither we, nor the mob, are omniscient. 

And so are we saying that the murder of George Floyd was a racially-motivated crime because the evidence unequivocally points to that conclusion? Or because the mob demanded that be our conclusion. And do we really want to sanction the mob as an infallible arbiter of motive? That seems like dangerous precedent to set.

Mobs are a Wrong Response to a Right Impulse

Where we see fellow-image bearers defaced or destroyed, the vestiges of an ancient identity shiver, suffer, and rise up in revolt. No matter how many people tell us we are no different than animals, we know this isn’t true. There seems to be an instinctive awareness that blood calls for blood.  

And so we don bandito masks and set out to find a scapegoat; a whole flock of them if possible. It started with Derek Chauvin, as it should have, but it has become apparent that the mob won’t be satisfied with him only. Now the entire police force must pay. Once the police are reduced to dust and ashes, than all whites everywhere—and their governments—must take their turn on the pyre.

The reaction is understandable, and yet at the same time, strangely insufficient. Why? Because even after the responsible parties have suffered to the extent that the mob deems appropriate, we’re still stuck with the historically recurring intrusion of injustice. Can we really reduce the problem to white privilege? Or the Republicans? Or the police? Or the government? Despite millennia of human civilization why haven’t we been able to find whoever is responsible for all this entropy and throw them off a trundle bridge? 

Unfortunately, the answer isn’t that easy. And it isn’t easy because the problem isn’t just “out there” but in each one of us. No matter what the revisionists say, the history of the world is not one long case of oppression by whites, but rather of oppression by whichever collective happens to be in power. Let me say it again—evil is not tied to skin color, but to fundamental human character. 

A Final Word to Christians

I want to close off with a few words of encouragement to my brothers and sisters.

  • Though we should never be silent in the face of injustice, we need to make sure that we aren’t being selective as to the injustices we opt to rage against.
  • As tempting as it is, we must resist the urge to ride the swell of the mob, whether in person or on social media. As Mark Studdock from Lewis’ That Hideous Strength could tell you, bad things happen to those who let themselves be carried along.
  • We need to be cautious of responding to partial, or downright misleading, information. We all know that what seems patently obvious from a video or image may require a greater breadth of context to fully understand. 
  • Make sure the repertoire of voices you listen to aren’t limited to those hashtagging like mad rabbits or mixing Molotov cocktails in their basement. Introduce a helping of the less incendiary into your diet.
  • We need to remember that God is expressly not a God of disorder, but of peace. That means that the current chaos is not from him, but from somewhere else.

I want to conclude on a note of reality. We should not assume that we can just fix what can only fully be realized in the cross of Christ. It is only in the wake of his death, resurrection, and incorruptible life that “there is no Gentile or Jew, circumcised or uncircumcised, [Black or White], barbarian, Scythian, slave or free, but Christ is all, and is in all.”

Only in the largeness of that identity will we find our true humanity.

 

 

 

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