Nikole Hannah-Jones on the definition of violence

Nikole Hannah-Jones, author of the lead editorial for the NY Times’ 1619 Project was interviewed on CBS News today about the “appropriate or inappropriate way to express dissent.” The CBS interviewer pointed out that former President Obama had said there was no excuse for violence and then asked how we should interpret acts of looting.

“We need to be really careful with our language,” Hannah-Jones replied. She agreed it was “disturbing” to see destruction of property and looting but drew a line between that and the loss of human life. “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. And to use the exact same language to describe those two things I think really is not moral,” she said.

She went on to say, “When we have people who say that people should respect the law, they’re not respecting the law because the law is not respecting them.”

In reaction to the clip, someone on Twitter argued that destruction of property shouldn’t be so lightly brushed off.

I agree that human life is more valuable than property. To be blunt, George Floyd’s life was worth more than some broken windows or stolen merchandise. But there are at least two obvious problems with this argument. The first is that while human life is worth more, this isn’t a case where we have to make a choice between one or the other. Tragically, Mr. Floyd is dead. It appears he was suffocated by police and they should be held responsible. Meanwhile, looting is still a crime and we still expect people not to steal property that belongs to others. Those victims of crime also deserve protection from the law.

But the second and more important point is this: The lawlessness that is being unleashed on our cities is doing far more damage than property loss. It’s not just glass windows that are being broken, it’s bones. Last night three police officers were run over in New York. In St. Louis four police were shot. In Las Vegas one police officer was shot in the back of the head and is currently on life support. His name is Shay Mikalonis.

Last night in St. Louis a retired police officer, 77-year-old David Dorn, was shot and killed while guarding a pawn shop from looters.

“He was murdered by looters at a pawnshop. He was the type of brother that would’ve given his life to save them if he had to. Violence is not the answer, whether it’s a citizen or officer,” they wrote.

St. Louis Police Chief John Hayden said Dorn was murdered during a looting while “exercising law enforcement training.”

By Hannah-Jones own definition, that was real violence, not mere property destruction. Someone’s life, a black man it’s worth noting, was leached out of his body by the lawbreakers looking to steal property from others.

And that’s really the point. George Floyd’s life was worth more than a Target but not more than David Dorn’s life or Officer Mikalonis life. Nikole Hannah-Jones should show them the dignity of the same public condemnation of the very real violence done against them.

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