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Editorial: Violent protests undermine their cause, whether it's just or not


This screenshot from WCSC-TV shows Abraham Jenkins standing on top of a Mount Pleasant police car during the May 30, 2020, riot in Charleston. Screenshot

By his attorney’s telling, Abraham “AJ” Jenkins was not one of the petty criminals who took advantage of the confusion last year as King Street erupted in Charleston’s most violent rioting in decades following a peaceful protest over George Floyd’s murder by a Minneapolis police officer.

In a sentencing memo filed last week, Cameron Jane Blazer argued that her 26-year-old client didn’t loot businesses, because “his complaint was against the police, not local store owners or restaurateurs.” He didn’t lie to the police, or try to minimize what he did. Her eloquent narrative for the federal judge who sentenced Mr. Jenkins to 18 months in prison described an idealistic young man who believed his violent actions were necessary to advance the cause of justice.

“May 31 did not start with a formal plan,” Ms. Blazer wrote. “There was no meeting of an organization. There was a sense of urgency. Of grief. Of exhaustion. Of anger.

“When Abraham ‘AJ’ Jenkins headed down to Marion Square, he expected to see hundreds or thousands protesting the violent, extra-judicial killing of George Floyd. But as he walked through the crowd, he saw lackluster energy. Chants that faded out. A lack of focus. He wanted to catalyze what he saw as a complacent, disorganized group. He jumped atop a parked Mount Pleasant police cruiser, stomping, yelling, leading chants. He knew he was taking a risk, openly damaging a police vehicle. But he felt it was a risk worth taking to draw attention to the pervasive problem of extrajudicial killings of black people in America.”

We have no idea whether that’s an accurate description or an attorney’s attempt to reimagine her client’s motivations in hopes of getting a lighter sentence. But if it’s accurate, then it is actually more disturbing than the idea of common criminals taking advantage of a protest movement to act like criminals.

In Ms. Blazer’s telling, a young man who was justifiably frustrated and angry over the state of policing in America believed that the way to bring about change wasn’t simply to march and chant during a peaceful protest. It wasn’t even to trespass or block traffic. It was to commit acts of destruction and violence, to endanger the lives of police officers, and of others who happened to be nearby. To spray a fire extinguisher toward one group of officers and later throw it at another group of officers. To throw a flaming rag into the back of a Charleston police cruiser, setting the vehicle ablaze.

This disturbing narrative comes amidst mounting evidence that this is not the dangerous belief of a handful of misguided individuals but the dangerous belief that is being increasingly embraced across our nation by people protesting police violence — and not just those who call themselves antifa.

We’ve seen this anarchistic approach to real and perceived injustices before. It drove the Black Panthers and Weather Underground and other militant groups in the 1960s. And yes, we saw it in Washington in January, when Americans who were convinced that a terrible wrong had been committed stormed the U.S. Capitol, injuring police, looting and ransacking our seat of government, and interrupting our nation’s orderly transition of power.

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Unlike the people who protested the murder of George Floyd and the unjustified killings of other unarmed black people, the Washington rioters were protesting an injustice that did not occur. But their certainty that violent protest is justified was no more dangerous and wrong than that same belief by Mr. Jenkins and all the other protesters against police violence who engage in violence in response.

Like the storming of the capitol, this dangerous and immoral approach misunderstands how government and politics work in our nation, and certainly here in South Carolina. It is doomed to failure.

Black people and a smattering of white liberals had been protesting police killings of unarmed black people for years to no real effect. George Floyd’s murder set off much larger waves of protests in the middle of a pandemic and attracted Americans of all races and ages.

Americans weren’t energized because of the violence that occasionally accompanied these protests. They were energized in spite of that violence. Middle-aged moderates and conservatives didn’t applaud Derek Chauvin’s murder conviction because they enjoyed seeing violence against police officers. They applauded in spite of that violence, which they rightly condemn, as do many liberals, both black and white.

Unlike the peaceful and violent protests against the 2020 election, which were built on a lie, our nation needs the anger and protests over the sometimes careless, sometimes deliberate killing of unarmed black people to change behavior and laws. We need them to lead to reforms that punish cops who cross the line and that weed out the tiny minority of cops unfit to wear a badge.

For that to happen, everybody who wants change must work to maintain and grow that broad coalition of support — which is built through peaceful means — rather than undermining it.

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