How not to win support

It’s good to see people waking up to the problem of unjustified force by police, but whenever an idea starts appealing to a crowd, you know some things will go wrong.

Some people seem convinced that blocking traffic and invading and disrupting private property will win support for better police accountability. If people encounter protesters blocking their commuting and shopping, they’ll realize there should be more controls on the power of cops. Oh, really? I can’t imagine that winning support for anything except getting the police to clear the way and arrest people.

People with dark skins bear a disproportionate burden of police harassment, false arrests, and unjustified violence, but it’s not exclusive to any group. It’s appropriate to point out that “black lives matter.” However, this line has been repeated so incessantly that something else is clearly at work. When I went into Boston earlier this month, some people were riding on the subway to a protest against police violence. One (light-skinned) woman was making a sign while sitting on the subway; it was something like “Black lives matter. White allies speak out, even in white-only spaces.”

I don’t read this exactly as “Only black lives matter,” but rather as “If I stay in my white-only space, it can’t happen to me.” She wants to imagine a world in which she’s “privileged” and none of these bad things can personally happen to her; then she can generously ally with the people who are at risk, as long as they keep their distance.

These seem like two opposed trends. The people who block streets and shopping malls seem to be acting from anger that they want to take out on anyone convenient, whether they win any support or not. The “it can’t happen to me” people want to win support but need to convince themselves that nothing bad can happen to them.

Effective opposition to unwarranted force requires attention to, and effective presentation of, both principles and facts. The principle is that no one should be an initiator of force; the one who uses force on people who aren’t violating anyone’s rights, or responds with severely disproportionate force, is in the wrong. The facts are the many instances where cops are the initiators of force and anyone might be a target. Sometimes the facts aren’t as they first appeared, and it’s important to separate truth and error.

There are signs that things may improve. I hope people don’t ruin it with stupid tactics and pretenses.

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