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I’m a “racist” because I don’t want protesters to burn down my city

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At some point last night I stopped reading my emails. There was so much hate coming in and I just didn’t want to deal with it anymore. I was a “racist” because I was not in favor of burning down cities. I should take my “white entitlement” and shut up because I am against setting fire to buildings.

What was the cause of such opprobrium? We all knew there was going to be a violent demonstration in downtown Oakland last night. San Jose had already exploded earlier in the day, and that was, of course, the followup to three consecutive nights of violence in Minneapolis. Before dark came to Northern California, the news outlets reported that downtown stores in Oakland—my gym, banks, restaurants, my local CVS drugstore, Peet’s Coffee and Starbucks—were boarding their front windows up with plywood. The protests were to start at, roughly, 8 p.m. but by late afternoon, the streets down around City Hall already were thronged with demonstrators as well as Oakland police and dozens of Alameda County Sheriff’s deputies. Oakland, sadly, has a history of violent demonstrations dating back to “Occupy” days, and, after the events surrounding the death of George Floyd, everybody was aware that it was going to happen again. As one person tweeted, “If the demonstrations in San Jose were so bad, imagine how they’ll go down tonight in Oakland.”

Well, this morning, as the outcome in Oakland becomes clearer, the news is bad—but it could have been worse. The damage appears to have been less than in some past protests. There were store burnings, including a Starbucks, a Chase bank, and a Mercedes dealership, but nothing nearly as widespread as we saw in Minneapolis. In the night’s most shocking and cowardly development, assailants in a speeding car shot and killed a security guard protecting the Federal Building downtown.

My “crime” was, as I said, praying for peace. Please demonstrate, I tweeted; it is your right, and we all share the same horror at what those officers did in Minneapolis. But please, I exhorted readers, don’t burn, loot, pillage, vandalize or wantonly smash windows. What’s the point? The collective response to me was along the lines of “No justice, no peace,” or, “Sometimes we need to smash things to be heard.” Several people accused me of valuing “property” over “black lives.” Another roundly cursed me when I challenged her characterization of the evening as “an insurrection.” When I replied it seemed more like “a riot” to me, the anti-white expletives came flying. That’s when I shut down my computer and instead read a good book. I don’t need that mental stress.

At one point I was going to point out that Blacks aren’t the only oppressed minority. As a Jew and a gay man, both those groupings have suffered their share of discrimination and violence. I don’t care to play the game of “who suffered more?”, only to put these things into context. Nor do I feel “entitled” as a white man. Yes, I’m Caucasian, but my life has been a continual struggle against financial insecurity; no one ever gave me anything for free; what little I have, I worked hard for.

But then I thought back over history and realized that Jews and gays both resorted to physical violence when events demanded that reaction. Ancient Jews, led by the Maccabees, fought back against the Romans; more contemporary Jews famously fought the Nazis in Warsaw; and today, of course, Israel’s Jews fight Arabs who attack them. Gay people rose up against the New York City cops at Stonewall, and, after Harvey Milk’s assassin, Dan White, was basically let off in his trial, San Francisco’s gay community burned police cars and wrecked City Hall, in the famous White Night riots.

So I can’t take refuge in my Jewishness or gayness in urging peace. All I can say is that I did not participate in those White Night riots. I have never participated in violent demonstrations, including during the Vietnam War, when I marched plenty in anti-war protests but never raised my hand against anyone or anything.

Do I prefer “property” over “black lives”? No. It’s not a binary choice anyway, and it’s misleading and intellectually dishonest to portray things that way. I might have asked my twitter interlocutors, “What has violence ever gained the Black community in America? Name me one time when violence increased your freedom, or gave you more justice or opportunity?” None come to my mind. The Black community, or certain elements within it, have been demanding violent revolution since I was a teenager. I met Stokely Carmichael because my nextdoor neighbor, a white Jewish girl, was dating him, and I thought he was great. Well do I remember the militancy of the Black Panthers, whose ideological goals I, and most other Jews, embraced. But tell me a single thing that the Black militancy of the 1960s and 1970s accomplished.

I suppose you could call my politics “Obama-style Democratic.” Obama is a gradualist, not a revolutionary. He understands that violence only begets more violence. When someone on the Left commits violence, it gives people on the Right the excuse they need to retaliate. We see this in Donald Trump’s entire political career: “when the looting starts the shooting starts.” The Right, I am convinced, is sicker and more pathological than the Left, but anyone who thinks that violence is the answer is a lunatic.

So if some people on twitter want to insult me as a “racist” because I urge peace, fine. I couldn’t care less. What I do care about is my city—poor, beleaguered Oakland. Sometimes, it’s hard for me to remain a Democrat, when I look at these extremes on the edges of my party, with whom I have such profound differences. I had the choice, in 2016, of becoming one of those “Obama Republicans” who voted for Trump. But I will never do that. I believe in the values of the Democratic Party, even if it’s not moving as swiftly as some want it to; and I understand that everything in life is a tradeoff. The Democratic Party never was as strong on LGBT issues as I wished it to be. But I didn’t abandon it, nor did I destroy property in my frustration.

It’s hard, these days, to maintain one’s sense of proportion, to keep oneself from being sucked into the ideological maelstrom of extremism and anger-fueled acting out. But I know that violence is stupid and unproductive or counter-productive. It also helps Trump, and that’s perhaps the hardest thing for me to understand about the violent protesters. Do they not know that they’re working, in essence, for his re-election? Do they perhaps think, in some twisted form of logic, that a Trump re-election will increase the odds of a successful Leftward revolution in America? I know it won’t. I think they know it won’t, in their heart of hearts. My sympathies are with them, the protesters, but at the same time I want the police to arrest the violent perpetrators and throw the book at them.

  1. Nancy Weil Brown says:

    I do not think deploring violence is racist. If you only objected to violence when committed by black people, that would be a different story. I think people weaken their arguments and drive people away from understanding another’s point of view when they start using insulting language and labeling others as something negative, and that’s why I think you don’t deserve the nasty responses you got when you wrote what you were thinking. On one level I will never understand destruction of property as a means of changing society. Yet, I wonder how much difference peaceful demonstrations have made in recent years. It’s impossible to ignore the property destruction so, that, at least, becomes something that scares the public and could possible lead to changes in laws and in the hiring practices and training of first responders like the police. This is from one of my favorite of Langston Hughes’ poems. I think it explains, without supporting or arguing against what’s happening today. This was written in the mid-1950s:

    What happens to a dream deferred?
    Does it dry up
    like a raisin in the sun?
    Or fester like a sore—
    And then run?
    Does it stink like rotten meat?
    Or crust and sugar over—
    like a syrupy sweet?
    Maybe it just sags
    like a heavy load.
    Or does it explode?

  2. Thanks Nancy. I just returned from a walk through downtown Oakland–my neighborhood. It’s sad and horrible to see all that destruction, especially the vulgar graffiti about cops. All I could think was: This completely de-legitimizes the protests. The vandals co-opted George Floyd’s death to promote their own rightwing agenda. And by the way — from what I can tell — most of the vandals were white.

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