Of course, rioting can fall on the continuum from flat-out immoral to justified. I certainly sympathize with the grievances of the people who rioted following the assassination of Martin Luther King Jr. more than I do with soccer hooligans or Tulsa lynch mobs. But regardless of justification, rioting is incredibly destructive, mostly in the neighborhoods where the rioters live. In my own city, Washington, D.C., the major retail corridors that were destroyed in the 1968 riots have only really begun to recover in the last five years (and one of them still hasn’t). Who suffered because of that? The store owners, obviously, and their insurers. But the people who suffered most grievously were the mostly black people who lived in those neighborhoods. The commercial craters left by the riots attracted crime, raised unemployment and left the residents of the neighborhood nowhere to buy the necessities of life. People who had just started to get a toehold in homeownership saw the value of their homes depressed for decades.
The public disorder of the 1960s also helped undermine exactly the sort of public policy programs — a more rehabilitative criminal justice policy, greater social spending — that the riots were supposed to prove the need for. As David Frum writes in “How We Got Here,” the nation hardened its attitudes between 1965 and 1974; law-and-order conservatism became the norm for American men and women with all levels of education. What happened between 1965 and 1974 to explain that? Highly televised riots are part of the answer.
Therein lies a tragic truth about rioting: It doesn’t work. The left can try to treat a crime wave as a call for social justice, but that voice will be drowned out. The disorder will only fuel calls for order. Many residents understand this: Civic leaders in Baltimore, and Freddie Gray’s family, were out this week calling for calm, while people sitting at computers many comfortable miles away were declaring the riots legitimate.