Kenosha Shooting Riots -- Elected Leaders Must Oppose the Growing Lawlessness

A man on a bike rides past a city truck on fire outside the Kenosha County Courthouse during riots following the police shooting of Jacob Blake, Kenosha, Wis., August 23, 2020. (Mike De Sisti/Milwaukee Journal Sentinel/USA TODAY/Reuters)

Pernicious consequences arise from mob rule.

A  clear and metastasizing disdain for law, order, and reason is growing unchecked in parts of our country. We are seeing what happens to a society without order or trust. Mob rule, lawlessness, and distrust are taking root. Burrowing surreptitiously, at first, into the national conversations over race, radicals have revealed themselves as interested not in racial justice but in revolution. They seek changes that are as revolutionary as they are dangerous.

As Wisconsin seems to be the epicenter of so much these days, its experiences are telling and alarming. The recent riots in Kenosha have been frightening. In response to the police shooting of a black man, rioters set 34 fires, destroyed 30 businesses, burned American flags, and wreaked havoc with the police. Early reports suggest that vigilantes have opposed them with force. At a recent protest in Madison, an organizer declared: “This is not a peaceful protest, so if you came out here for a peaceful protest, you missed it.” Police reports immediately after the first round of riots in Madison indicate that over 75 stores were damaged or looted. One store saw looters steal 90 percent of its inventory. In response to events in Kenosha, rioters in Madison smashed windows at the state capitol, the courthouse, and (once again) businesses up and down the street.

Looting and rioting have stained many of our great cities. Seattle even endured a so-called autonomous zone for nearly a month in which rioters, unchecked by any legitimate government authority, invaded, annexed, and controlled portions of the city. They even hung a banner on the police station that read: “THIS SPACE IS NOW PROPERTY OF THE SEATTLE PEOPLE” (as though it had previously belonged to some other people).

Shamefully, too many of our elected leaders have refused to oppose or even strongly criticize this lawlessness. Seattle’s mayor called the Antifa riots a “block party” instead of what they truly are — an armed rebellion. Portland mayor Ted Wheeler was a pathetic prop for radical rioters until they (ironically) deemed him a fascist and heaped trash at him. When he could be bothered to discuss it, Wisconsin’s attorney general simply remarked last May that looting is “destructive of property, of businesses that people have spent years building, and of public safety,” before he bemoaned that the looters “have, unfortunately, diverted some of the public discourse away from where it belongs.”

Some leaders have been quick to blame law enforcement even as they turn a blind eye to lawlessness. Before all the facts even came out from the Kenosha shooting, Wisconsin’s Democratic governor issued a press release stating: “While we do not have all the details yet, what we know for certain is he is not the first Black man or person to have been shot or injured or mercilessly killed at the hands of individuals in law enforcement in our state or in our country . . . we stand against excessive use of force and immediate escalation when engaging with Black Wisconsinites.” The governor tossed Wisconsin’s law enforcement under the bus.

But turning a blind eye to lawlessness harms us all. Mob law is no law. During the chaos that inevitably reigns during mob rule, the innocent suffer along with the guilty. Once whipped into a frenzy, mobs rarely exercise sound judgment; they exact their revenge indiscriminately. A mob is just as likely to take out its vengeance on the meek as on those it considers blameworthy. Indeed, minority-owned small businesses have been hit especially hard by the riots in Milwaukee and elsewhere. Perhaps that is why 81 percent of black Americans actually want the police to spend the same or a greater amount of time in their neighborhoods.

What’s more, lawless actors radicalize others. Those who are lawless in thought are likely to become lawless in practice after observing unconstrained mob rule. Seeing that the coast is clear, they participate. Pernicious long-term consequences also arise from mob rule. Our institutions require the public’s faith. When law-abiding people see their lives endangered, their property destroyed, and their families insulted by those who willfully violate the law without consequence, they lose faith in government and our institutions. They opt out of the system, stop caring, and stop participating. And sometimes they take the law into their own hands — with equally troublesome consequences.

But perhaps that is what the radicals want. Their ends are revolutionary; their means, outside the law. For the rest of us, there is much work to be done to improve, but a number of actions can help. In the short run, our leaders must unequivocally declare that those who break the law will be held to account. And then they must follow through. No stand-down orders. No refusals to arrest or to prosecute. No half-hearted “shame on you” tweets. Rioting, looting, destruction of property must not be tolerated. Neither must vigilante justice. “Equal justice under law” makes no exceptions for political expediency.

Leaders also must be rational and even-handed when they speak publicly. They must collect information before rendering judgment against anyone. We’re often told that words have consequences and that leaders should be careful with their words. That’s true. Leaders’ words do have consequences. They can inflame passions and demoralize those who seek to protect us.

There are likely to be a number of immediate changes the political parties can implement together. Conservatives and liberals share common ground on many areas of criminal-justice reform; we’ve seen Democrats and Republicans work together in many states to pass such legislation. Others should pursue it, too. In the process, we may learn a thing or two about other policy changes that would be helpful.

On a broader level, we must examine what we teach our youth about America and its values. There are some who would teach that America’s history is evil, corrupt, and infected to the core with racism. That’s wrong. And it leaves the next generation waiting for a reason to riot. We’re not perfect. No country is. But we are the freest and most prosperous people in the history of the world. Our governing institutions, our economic system, and our belief in the God-given worth of every individual have created that freedom and that prosperity. Our institutions have made it so that people can seek policy change and better their conditions. We must protect those institutions by cherishing them.

We face serious threats as a nation. But we will overcome them. We have before. In 1838, Abraham Lincoln spoke out in his Lyceum Address against “accounts of outrages committed by mobs [that] . . . pervaded the country, from New England to Louisiana.” He called on the country to revere the law and to choose reason over emotion. His words call out to us again. Our leaders must heed them, return stability, and unite us.

Ryan J. Owens is a professor of political science and faculty affiliate in the Law School at the University of Wisconsin-Madison, and the director of the university’s Tommy G. Thompson Center on Public Leadership.

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