Tuesday, November 08, 2016
Where to Riot: A Modest Proposal
As a non-citizen, I will, alas, not vote today. (I am in the process of applying for American citizenship, and the election is one but only one of the reasons why I am finally getting off my duff and applying. Another reason is that I teach con law, and am tired of introducing the Constitution by talking about "You the People.") In this election in particular, I have felt a mix of seriousness about and frustration with both the election and the state of discussion (or "discourse," to maintain my academic credentials) around and about it. I also take the view, which is a personal view and one that I do not insist applies to everyone, that following the moment-to-moment headlines, commentary, and pseudo-news on days like this does not necessarily demonstrate or indicate a commitment to politics as a serious and weighty activity. To the contrary, it may have as much to do with treating politics as a fairly weightless leisure activity or, in Stephen Carter's words, "[politics] as a hobby." (Others, in fairness, will spend the day engaged in more meaningful and direct political activity, such as going door-to-door or driving poorer voters to the polls, although they will be vastly outweighed by the hobbyists.) I will therefore spend much of the day avoiding television and social media. Instead, I will sit quietly and read Virgil--I have been spending the election season, which was coincident with recovering from surgery, reading classical literature--and Duncan Kennedy.
I do want to make one modest proposal, however, before the returns are in and before we know what will happen on the streets in response to the election. There has been much discussion and speculation--some serious and sincere, some frivolous, and probably some that is both--about whether one outcome or the other, or the absence of a definite outcome tonight, will lead to rioting. A while back, for instance, Sandy Levinson mused about possible "(justified) rioting in the streets" if Trump wins by a close vote. And there has been general discussion about the possibility of riots by the "alt-right" or populist supporters of Trump if Clinton wins. I don't welcome the prospect of rioting in either case. (Others are, perhaps, more ambivalent about it.) But I won't discuss the "will they (we)/won't they (we)" or "should they (we)/shouldn't they (we)" questions here. I address a more practical question: Where should one riot?
My modest suggestion is that any group deciding to riot, or encourage and organize rioting, should reject the usual rioting sites: general central gathering places, the downtown or business districts, or--worst of all--the most underprivileged and vulnerable neighborhoods, which are often where rioting occurs. Instead, if people riot--which, again, I hope they don't--they should riot in the residential neighborhoods of what we might broadly call the elites or the upper middle class.
I am perhaps less concerned with rioting in downtown or business districts as such, insofar as they are more likely to lead to property damage to insured businesses than to more "personal" damage. (I am not here making the argument, popular in some circles, that violence directed against property is not "real" violence.) On the other hand, the idea of targeting these areas tends to rely on a stereotyped vision of some idealized place that consists of nothing but the headquarters of banks, brokerage houses, and multinational corporations. Perhaps that's realistic in a few places, thus suggesting among other things the tendency of the popular imagination to view all places as cities, and all cities as large cities--and, at that, all large cities as basically four or five of the largest cities, those most likely to draw a narrow class of individuals. My downtown/business district has some local branches of banks and a couple of Starbucks. But it also contains a lot of small businesses, run by individuals whose lives and resources (and those of their employees) are closely tied to making a living through those businesses. Damage to those businesses is real damage to the well-being of workers and other individuals on the ground. Even the "name-brand" consumer businesses in my downtown are more likely to be franchises owned by fairly "regular" individuals, some of them recent immigrant families. As for the more idealized version of rioting as a kind of Fight Club scenario aimed at gargantuan consumer businesses and safely empty corporate buildings, I see little evidence that it has been effective in the past, and I question whether it is especially well-aimed. In its standard-cultural-tropeness, it also may come closer to the "hobby" model of radical political action than to a serious commitment to politics, radical or otherwise.
As for rioting in the neighborhoods of the poor and disadvantaged, a tendency that may be exacerbated by residential segregation by class and race and a lack of transportation resources, it seems really poorly aimed. And its potential harm is great, striking as it does at the homes and businesses of those who are least likely to be fully protected by insurance, who live and work in these neighborhoods and can least afford damage to them, and who depend on local businesses for food and other staples. Some of these neighborhoods are still recovering from, or will never fully recover from, riots that occurred in those areas decades ago.
In various ways, both on the left and the right and--at least in an abstract and perhaps not deeply felt (or, in a bad-faith way, actively denied) way, in the liberal and maybe the conservative center--many people believe that the causes of the current election and its discontents, and the causes of the discontents that led to the current election, can be laid at the feet of those people who have the most actual control over and power in the current political, economic, and cultural system. That doesn't just mean the 1 or 2 percent, the Kochs and Soroses. (In any event, they are most likely to be fully insulated in their homes and neighborhoods by public or private security forces and by geographical isolation.) It means something like the top ten or twenty percent of income-earners in the country. It comprises those individuals most likely to have effective political representation; to be contributors to, workers in, or complicit in big-money politics and the party establishments; to work as professionals in those institutions that reinforce or reify the current system, among which I would include the academy; and to be most effectively insulated from the costs and harms of that system and its unequal allocation of power and representation. Insofar as one might want to "bring the war home" to those who are most responsible for the current state of affairs, to force the relevant individuals and institutions to internalize the full consequences of a system whose benefits they richly enjoy and whose costs they effectively externalize, and to make more urgent the need to restructure a system that draws dissatisfaction and anger on the part of the dispossessed, those on the left and right and at least some in the center ought to consider the value, if there are riots, of literally bringing those costs "home" to the class that bears the most responsibility for an ineffective, gridlocked, more or less oligarchical and/or elite-favoring system.
If that's right, then people planning to riot or organize riots might start their planning work by looking at the many websites that provide a look at individual zip codes by household income and other socio-economic factors. The median household income in the United States in 2014 was $51,939. National averages are problematic because of variance by state and locality, but according to this measure the top 20 percent in the United States has a household income beginning at $111,000; higher up the steep curve at the top end of the distribution, the average household income of the top 10 percent begins at $155,000. I would go with the top 20 percent, but I acknowledge that there is room for debate. Whatever your starting point, if you're going to riot, or organizing a riot, or more or less gently excuse or welcome such rioting, why not start with those neighborhoods? Isn't it better and more politically relevant and responsible to riot in Park Slope, or Hancock Park or the west side of LA, or Mountain Brook in Birmingham, or Walnut Creek in the Berkeley area, or Hyde Park in Austin, or in my downtown historical district or the "north of the river" area in Tuscaloosa, than in some neighborhood whose residents are least likely to either be responsible for the current power structure or able to handle the costs of the rioting?
Social media provide a positive benefit here. They make this kind of organization more possible, and also facilitate a kind of shared civic involvement in this radical direct action. Let's say you consider such rioting "justified." One could use social media generally, or institutions like the hashtag, or sites like change.org and other popular petition-gathering and organizing sites, to start a movement in which you acknowledge your privilege, and your complicity in and the advantages that you receive from an unjust political structure, and invite rioters to start with your high-income zip code. Just imagine the wonderful hashtags that you could use on Twitter in inviting the rioters to visit your neighborhood! "#PleaseRiotInMyNeighborhood," "#I'mWithThem," "#IGaveAtHome," "#ThePurgeStartsHere"; these are just a few suggestions. Users of social media are nothing if not inventive and clever about these sorts of things.
Of course there will be some regrettable inconveniences. But if you are one of the people in an affected neighborhood--and I take it that many readers of this blog, including legal academics generally, will be in that class, both by virtue of the individual income of the legal academic and the likelihood that he or she is in a dual-professional-income household--you should be better able to deal with those inconveniences than others. It is easy enough to keep one's children in a safe place; they probably already enjoy disproportionate educational and other institutional advantages over others, and you probably already read to them and engage in other forms of close parental involvement in education, so they can most easily afford some time off from school; and you are probably well-protected by insurance. (In some cases, you could also retreat to a vacation home or second home.) And surely you can bear any harms more easily than genuine small-business owners whose resources are all tied up in their business--and much more easily than those who live in poor and disadvantaged areas.
It's just a modest proposal, to be sure. And, of course, there may be few or no riots. Certainly I hope that is the case, whether the riots are "justified" or not. Still, it makes a lot of logical, political, and moral sense to me.
And with that, I return to Virgil and Duncan Kennedy and wish everyone well on this election day.
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