Vandals smashed out the windows of a family-owned chain restaurant Saturday night and otherwise caused mayhem in Denver. Marc Sallinger of 9News captured some of the violence on camera and then showed the aftermath. One of the owners who arrived to clean up the damage told Sallinger, “I don’t even know where to start.” Video shows a man with a push-broom sweeping broken glass along the sidewalk. It’s a wrenching sight. Doesn’t his life and livelihood matter too?
Governor Jared Polis sensibly condemned the vandalism, writing on Twitter: “Just as we all condemn inexcusable acts of terror against a family-owned restaurant, acts of criminal terrorism are just as wrong against corporate chains and public buildings. An attack against any of our lives and property is an attack against all of our lives and property.”
Similarly, Mayor Michael Hancock Tweeted, “What happened in Denver and across many other cities last night was not protest in the tradition of Martin Luther King, Jr. or John Lewis, and it does not reflect who we are as a community. I am encouraging every elected official in our city—legislators, city council, school board and our clergy and civic leaders—to make clear in statements today that anarchy and vandalism dressed up as a protest will not be tolerated in Denver.” Elsewhere Hancock condemned the rioters.
Predictably, various leftists immediately trolled Polis for this. One person accused him of being silent on “police brutality”—which is ridiculous given that Polis often has condemned police brutality and supported and signed one of the most expansive police-reform bills in the nation—and of instead “speaking up for a building.” Another said, “People’s lives are in danger by the hands of police; I’m sure they don’t care about property.” Another: “Looting and rioting are voices of the outraged and unheard ignored for far too long.” Another: “Property can’t feel terror.” Another: “Property doesn’t matter as much as any single human life.”
Two main messages come through from Polis’s critics: Property is not as important as people—something that of course Polis never denied—and the destruction of private property somehow advances the goal of police reform. The first claim is correct but incomplete and the second claim is totally false and morally detestable.
Obviously the destruction of a given building cannot be compared to the unjustified killing of a human being. No one disagrees with this—but apparently straw buildings are as popular as straw men. Obviously the police killing of Elijah McClain is not in the same moral universe as the smashing of store windows. Again, no one questions this. I don’t think any reader of my article about the killing of McClain can miss my moral outrage about it.
Why is destroying people’s property wrong? Property is the means by which people produce the values they need to stay alive and to thrive. A person’s property is an extension of the person’s body. As I control my hand, so I control (at further reach) my computer keyboard, my garden, and my front door. To see the principle in its most vivid form, observe that some people replace missing parts of their bodies with prosthetic limbs and other parts, which they own as property. So an attack on a person’s property is literally an attack on the person’s life, with the severity of the attack depending on the importance of the property in question.
No, destroying one item of a person’s property usually will not kill the person. But it does destroy the part of the person’s life spent earning that item of property. And, if you destroy enough of a person’s property, you destroy the person. Property broadly conceived includes not only the buildings that keep us and our other belongings safe from the elements but the clothes on our backs and the food that we put into our mouths. And the Denver restaurant owners purchase the clothes on their backs and the food in their pantries by means of operating their business, which the rioters temporarily destroyed.
Nikole Hannah-Jones of New York Times Magazine claimed, “Violence is when an agent of the state kneels on a man’s neck until all of the life is leached out of his body. Destroying property, which can be replaced, is not violence. To use the same language to describe those two things is not moral.”
Oh, really, destroying property is not violence? How soon some people forget. Here’s what happened within the past century in Denver when Black people moved out of “their” area, as historian Robert Alan Goldberg describes: “On July 7, 1921, a bomb ripped the newly acquired home of a black family at 2112 Gilpin Street, and four months later the house was bombed again. In December, 1926, bombs were hurled at E. E. Carrington’s home at Twenty-second Avenue and Vine Street; a second attempt a month later drove the family from the neighborhood. None of the bombers was ever apprehended.” Should we say these bombings were no big deal so long as no one got hurt? (See also my article on the Colorado Klan, based largely on Goldberg’s work.)
In 1880 a white mob beat residents of Denver’s Chinatown, killing one man, and destroyed much of their property. CPR reports, “Rioters assaulted Chinese men, threw belongings out of windows and used wooden beams to destroy frame buildings.” Obviously the murder was the worst offense, but should we dismiss the property damage as “not violence,” no big deal? Absurd. CPR adds, “No Chinese residents were paid for property or business losses.”
Of course today business owners can file insurance claims. But all that does is spread out the costs among other business owners, who must then pay higher premiums. And insurance hardly ever covers the full losses, including productive time lost and emotional heartache.
Moreover, the destruction in Denver city streets only delays economic recovery, depresses productive activity generally, and deters people from opening up new businesses. Those who care about the people of Denver do not smash up Denver.
The notion that somehow destroying the property of innocent people somehow atones for police abuses or somehow is excused because of police abuses is absurd. It is, indeed, a variant of the very tribalistic thinking behind racism and all forms of bigotry.
As a practical matter, rioting, looting, and vandalizing (as opposed to peaceful protesting) does nothing to advance the cause of police reform and does nothing to improve Black lives or any lives. Such violence distracts from and delays meaningful reform and hurts people. No doubt Black people are among the victims of the vandalism. To the nihilists who destroy innocent people’s property, no lives matter.
“No justice, no peace,” we hear. Civil disobedience works, we hear. These things are true; civil disobedience is effective in at least some circumstances. But there is a huge difference between violating unjust laws and hurting innocent people. The latter is not civil disobedience, it’s just crime. Hurting innocent people by destroying their property is not a form of righteous protest and is not a form of civil disobedience. It’s just nihilism, destruction for the sake of destruction.
Good for Polis and Hancock for condemning vandalism in the streets of Denver. Now let’s hope they lead the way toward more effectively protecting people’s property, their livelihoods, and their lives.