It seems a terrible thing to say that I’m copacetic (OK) with the demonstrations and riots triggered by George Floyd’s death by kneeling cop, May 25, in Minneapolis.
Well, it is a terrible thing to think – much less to give voice to – but the truth is that sometimes riots are needful.
This requires some explanation.
No one should have a problem with peaceful demonstrations, inconvenient as they may be. They are a constitutional right.
Riots are a violent disturbance of the peace, and aren’t constitutionally protected; so how can they be okay?
Aren’t we all proud of the colonial riots that lead to the Revolutionary War?
In protest of British taxes on tea, they boarded three ships docked in Boston and threw 45 tons of tea valued at $1 million in today’s economy into the bay. It was owned by the British East India Tea Company.
With this in mind, consider Thomas Jefferson’s view of government.
In correspondence with James Madison, Jefferson said societies exist in three forms: without government; with a government in which everyone’s will has a just influence and; governments of force.
Jefferson wrote that governments such as he helped establish in the United States have great good in them; but that they also have evils, principally being subject to turbulence.
“Even this evil is productive of good,” Jefferson said. “It prevents the degeneracy of government, and nourishes a general attention to the public affairs. I hold it that a little rebellion now and then is a good thing, and as necessary in the political world as storms in the physical.”
Jefferson said that governments should be “… so mild in their punishment of rebellions so as not to discourage them too much.”
He called such rebellions “a medicine necessary for the sound health of government.” Readers may access this letter by searching for “a little rebellion” on the Jefferson Monticello Web page.
America’s protests and riots today constitute a dose of Jefferson’s “ … medicine necessary for the sound health of government.”
Necessary, that is to gain the liberty denied blacks in the U.S. Constitution and its amendments, and promised in the Civil Rights Act of 1964, but which governments have refused to fully deliver.
Floyd’s death illustrates our refusal to deliver promised civil rights, a refusal so egregious that protests and riots were spawned the world around.
We are not alone in our racism. Neither is our racism reserved for blacks. We were racists in the beginning and are racists still.
Fortunately, we have made great progress, but we remain a long way from Martin Luther King’s hope declared in a speech the day before his assassination, April 3, 1968.
In words for the ages, King said: “… I’ve been to the mountaintop. … I’ve seen the promised land. … We, as a people will get to the promised land.”
Sadly, a half a century after the Civil Rights Act and King’s assassination, we are governed by a political party and a president who are traveling down a path to remove even some of the civil liberties gained in demonstrations peaceful and bloody over more than a century and a half.
President Trump has even turned our military against peaceful demonstrators.
Jefferson’s counsel rings loudly over the centuries.
“The oppressed should rebel, and they will continue to rebel and raise disturbance until their civil rights are fully restored to them and all partial distinctions, exclusions and incapacitations are removed.”
Jefferson said it wouldn’t be easy. “We are not expected to be translated from despotism to liberty in a feather-bed.”
Terence L. Day is a retired Washington State faculty member and a Pullman resident since 1972. He encourages email to firstname.lastname@example.org.