World On Fire

firefighters working to put out fires started during protests


Trevor K. McNeil & D. S. Mitchell

Better Angels

Humans are complex. Neither angels nor devils, but something in between. As with many things it is a continuum. Abraham Lincoln understood this perfectly and touched on it when he referred to “the better angels of our nature.” As with human nature, so with human action. Which assists in understanding our history of civil disobedience. Particularly when it happens to turn ugly. Such as when legitimate protests based on genuine grievances turn into deadly riots.

Rebels With A Cause

Henry David Thoreau was a vocal abolitionist, anti-expansionist and a  conductor of the underground railroad. In 1849, Thoreau, an infamous proto-anarchist, published his essay “Resistance to Civil Government”.  “Anarchist” in this case meaning classical Anarchism. A political ideology that accepts rules, but opposes the notion of rules in a top-down coercive system, where using lethal violence, or the threat thereof, to keep the populace under control.  Thoreau advocated “resistance to an unjust state.” He said, “I ask for, not at once no government, but at once a better government”.  Thoreau said “the government that governs best is that which governs least.” Though notice the phraseology. Government. To govern. There being a vital difference between a government and an administration.

 Historical Perspective

America has a long, rich history of civil disobedience. “Fight the Power” being the unofficial national motto. Setting the American Revolution aside, one of the places this first came into focus was in lower Manhattan in 1863. From July 13th to July 16th, during the throes of the American Civil War, hundreds of citizens, many of them immigrants took to the streets to protest the draft that would send them to fight the Confederacy. What started out relatively peacefully soon grew into a large violent, three-day riot. In the end an estimated 120 people lay dead.

Friendly Fire

Exactly 23 years later, in the City of Chicago, good intentions and legitimate grievance would once again inadvertently cause bloodshed. On May  4, 1886, pro-labor demonstrators met at Haymarket Square to peaceably protest the killing of several labor activists, demonstrating for an eight-hour work-day, by city police the day before. When a force of several hundred police arrived someone in the crowd of protesters threw a bomb into the advancing police line. The police began shooting into the crowd sparking a riot. When the smoke cleared 11 people were dead. More than a 100 persons were injured, and upwards of 100 people were arrested.

Rodney King Riots

A major incident I was alive to see were the Rodney King riots. For those too young to remember, in 1992, four LAPD officers went on trial after being caught on video using excessive force while arresting an African-American motorist named Rodney King. The officers were acquitted, sparking one of the worst riots America had seen since the Civil Rights era.

A False Image

Despite the media available at the time, the general narrative about the riots is extremely faulty if not outright false. Was there looting, certainly and vandalism galore. Except that it wasn’t all African-Americans who were on the street, and certainly not all of them were rioting. One of the most heart-wrenching bits of video footage being a black man armed with a hammer shouting at the rioters to stop their foolishness. The most sincere and touching moment occurred when the victim, Rodney King, stepped up to a microphone and said, “Can’t we get along?”

Excessive Force

Also, they weren’t covered as much by the news but there were white rioters. Including Sublime frontman Brad Nowell who chronicled the experience in a song. One of the last lines is “if you looked at the street, it wasn’t about Rodney King/It’s about this fucked up situation and these fucked up police.” For a bit of historical reference, the LAPD in the 1980-90s were infamous for corruption and excessive force. As well as having an official policy of  “command presence”.

Behind By A Century

The current situation playing out on our TV screens is upsetting. The issues are complex. First and foremost the lack of police accountability. The police officer at the center of the killing of George Floyd was Derek Chauvin. Chauvin, was the lead officer. He was in charge. It turns out, Derek Chauvin, has had numerous complaints by citizens of using excessive force. Yet, he was still working. Not only working but, he was a training officer. This is common in the inner cities of America. This is just one of the ways systemic racism is perpetuated.

A Really Bad Cop

The fact that Chauvin chose to keep his knee on the neck of George Floyd for 8 minutes and 46 seconds is good cause for civil outrage. Civil outrage and civil disobedience is called for, and the purpose clear. The main confusion, particularly among police and pundits, is whether the people speaking eloquently on the issues, or the one smashing windows and burning things down, are the real face of the protesters. Millions have hit the streets supporting ‘Black Lives Matter’. The United States has seen three weeks of protests against the murder of Black citizens at the hands of police. As both things often happening at the same time, it is hard to separate “agitators and provocateurs” from “protesters and demonstrators” as they merge in great numbers on the street.

Jumping To Conclusions

As hard as it sometimes is, I think it is important that we keep an open mind.  A friend called me recently, and during the call she said, “I was all with the ‘Black Lives Matter’ protesters until they started burning buildings and destroying property.” That gave me pause. I wanted to jump on it, screaming, “When does the loss of a few buildings  correlate to the loss of thousands of Black lives at the hands of police or southern vigilantes?” Instead, I held my tongue for a minute or two, as she continued, “I just don’t understand why they think burning down a police station is called for?” Trying to hold back is hard  sometimes, but I could see she had been listening to FoxNews and Rush Limbaugh and was ready to defend her position.

Time To Interrupt

I finally said, interrupting, her, “Sometimes I think that we need to measure the value of lives against the value of property. And from my heart, I believe that there are unseen motives behind the accusations against protesters. I think we need to wait and see. We need to wait to find out who is really behind the window smashing and the fire setting.” With that speech complete I said, I was “going for a run” and after a quick good-bye disconnected.

Agitators vs Demonstrators

So, the question becomes, who are the “real” ‘Black Lives Matter’ protesters and who are the trouble makers who damage and burn property? Are they one and the same? President Trump and Attorney Bill Barr have accused Antifa of causing the mayhem and violence. Antifa is a loose knit left-wing group. Recent arrests are proving those accusations false.


In recent days, a young white man with an arrest history of petty crimes has been arrested related to the fire bombing of the 3rd precinct police station in Minneapolis, MN and the arson of the Autozone two days later. No information has been published as to ties he may have to any political groups. In California, two men with ties to the far right-wing extremist group, Boogaloo, have been arrested in the murder of two law enforcement officers. Boogaloo’s stated mission is aimed at fomenting a 21st century civil war between blacks and whites. These arrests do not mean that all fires and damage related to the protests were caused by adolescent petty criminals or right wing extremists. What it does is bring up the question of who wants to smear the protests, and those are many.

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