As the nationwide protests over police brutality enter their second week following the horrific killing of George Floyd by the Minneapolis Police, the debate over the moral justifiability and strategic wisdom of various tactics intensifies. This week’s SYSTEM UPDATE, which can be viewed on the player below or on The Intercept’s YouTube channel, is devoted to an exploration of those questions.
Numerous black political leaders — from Barack Obama to Congresswoman Ilhan Omar — have vehemently denounced the use of any type of violence or even property damage, as data shows that looting in particular has most hurt minority neighborhoods and minority-owned businesses. Meanwhile, self-identified white anarchists and other radical protest advocates insist that denunciations of such tactics are, at best, a distraction and, more accurately, an attempt to neuter or hijack the movement into something harmless, unthreatening and ultimately inconsequential: little more than the latest “Go Vote” messaging campaign for the Democratic Party.
Before a meaningful and cogent discussion of tactics is possible, one must first attempt to define what analytic metric is primary: are certain tactics designed to express righteous rage, such as property damage or burning, justifiable even if they are not most pragmatically constructive, on the ground that people have rightly concluded that they will be ignored unless their protests create some form of menacing disorder?
And, at least as important, is the question of the underlying cause: is the driving objective of these protests the narrow, concrete goal of reforming policing in the U.S., or does it driven by broader anger over social and political inequities, of which police violence is both a symbol and the principal weapon used to shield those inequities from meaningful challenge? Did the George Floyd murder unleash anger primarily over racist police brutality, or was it the tipping point to give expression to broader rage over quarantining, tens of millions of lost jobs, and a political system that — as the COVID-19 bailout package against highlighted — reflexively acts in defense of the interests of a tiny, powerful minority at the expense of everyone else?
To explore those questions — ones impossible to define let alone meaningfully engage in the destructively polarizing and reductionist cauldron of social media — are two very thoughtful guests with quite different perspectives: Chloé Valdary, a New-York-based writer and the founder of a start-up group devoted to teaching social and emotional learning to students 14 years and older, and Benjamin Dixon, the writer, activist and host of the Benjamin Dixon Show.
Both writers have offered independent-minded and thoughtful commentary about the protests all week long, contributing invaluable insight to the discourse and fostering meaningful discussion at a time when many people in online media — due to the unprecedentedly powerful currents of groupthink and crushing intolerance for any dissent or questioning — are doing the opposite. I think this show enables a deeper and more substantive exploration of these questions than online discourse permits. It helped me grapple with these questions and I hope it will do the same for others. You can watch the program below.
(Starting with this episode, all SYSTEM UPDATE episodes will be posted in audio-only on Soundcloud each Saturday, along with the transcripts posted here; next week we will post the audio version of all back episodes).
Updated: Sunday, June 7, 11:41 a.m. PDT
The audio-only version of the latest SYSTEM UPDATE show can now be heard here, and a transcript is posted below.
Glenn Greenwald: Welcome to a new edition of System Update. I’m Glenn Greenwald.
This episode focuses on the evolving debate that is taking place around the protests that have erupted for over a week now, ever since the murder by the Minneapolis Police Department of George Floyd. And what has shaped this debate is, interestingly enough, a broad consensus across the political spectrum among all decent people, by definition, I would say, about two propositions: number one, that the murder of Floyd in Minneapolis was horrific and had no remote justification. And then number two, it is reflective of a broader pathology of police brutality and abuse of police power against American citizens across the United States, but disproportionately and specifically aimed at African-Americans.
But beyond that broad consensus, there is a lot of divergence. So a lot of debate, a lot of disagreement, even among people who share those beliefs about the tactics and principles that ought to drive this movement about what its goals are and how best to achieve those goals and to explore those extremely important but difficult questions, I’m joined by two people who have provided some of the most thoughtful and independent minded commentary and analysis over the last week of the protests and the debates related to them.
The first is the writer, Chloe Valdary, who is also the founder of a startup designed to teach students 14 years and older about social and behavioral learning. And the second is the writer and activist and journalist and host of The Benjamin Dixon Show, Benjamin Dixon.
And the reason I say that there is a lot of divergence around these issues, even among people who share those two premises, is because there is a lot of difficulty in determining even how we think about and evaluate the tactics being employed by the protesters.
And so to begin with, I think the crucial question, the overarching question is what metric do we even use to determine what are the optimal methods of these protests and whether the methods chosen are the right ones? Is it strictly a pragmatic or utilitarian calculation to ask which methods are most likely to foster concrete, positive legislative outcomes in the realm of police brutality and abuse of police power? Or is the relevant overarching primary question a more philosophical one of regardless of the pragmatism involved or the utilitarianism involved in these tactics, which tactics are morally justifiable and which ones aren’t?
And the reason those two questions, and others as well, are crucial to think about in a coherent way is because they may lead you to very different answers. For example, even if one believes, as my guests argue, that propety destruction or civil disobedience or the use of violence is strategically unwise in the sense that it’s not likely to foster positive legislative outcomes or positive changes in public opinion, it may still be the case that there is a moral imperative to that violence, to expressing that rage, to engaging in property damage. It’s often the case that people reach a point where they believe they conclude rationally that their voices simply will not be heard, will be ignored, will be marginalized, unless they force people to see things burning, unless they exhibit the level of rage that they’re experiencing to put fear in the hearts of elites and the ruling class who without it, will simply continue to ignore them.
I think there’s a good case to make that, for example, the working class in the United Kingdom who voted for Brexit did so believing or being convinced that there was a good chance that removing the UK from the EU would make things incrementally worse over the short term, but were so angry about the perception that they had been forgotten and ignored and marginalized by the EU and by euro banking and neoliberalism, that they preferred to burn things to the ground, then to have things continue with the status quo tinkered with or slightly modified. The same dynamic certainly got a lot of people either to switch voting for Barack Obama twice and vote for Donald Trump in 2016 not because of who he was and what he believed, but despite it or who chose not to vote at all, expressing anger and rage toward a political order that has ignored them and marginalized them and refuses to pay them any heed. And it’s probably a very significant factor in the election in 2018 in the country that I’m in Brazil of President Jair Bolsonaro, we personally know many people who found his ideology repellent and yet voted for him as an agent of destruction.
And so, it may be the case that property value being destroyed and civil disobedience and confronting the police is not a very strategically wise choice from the perspective of how do you foster the most amount of legislative reform in the narrow area of police brutality or even having short term benefits in public opinion. But it nonetheless may be the case that it’s morally justified to do it anyway on the grounds that the society simply won’t listen unless it feels in some way threatened by the disorder that will be created if the status quo continues. And I’m not saying there’s an easy answer to that question. I’m saying that that debate is actually quite difficult, but is one that has to be grappled with in order to think meaningfully and coherently about this question.
I think the crucial point to make here is that even the people who most vociferously defend the tactics being employed by the protesters – and when we talk about violence, it’s important to note that the overwhelming majority of these protests have been peaceful. And when there has been violence and the overwhelming number of cases, it’s been instigated not by the protesters, but by the police. But even those who defend the use of property damage instigated by the protesters, such as my guest, Ben Dixon, who you’ll hear from in a minute, distinguish between violence or property damage aimed at small businesses in minority communities, which virtually nobody thinks is justified or morally desirable or prudent, as contrasted with, say, the use of looting and violence and burning things in downtown areas against big multinational chains like Nike or against luxury car dealerships. Those sorts of acts of rage and the expression of anger that arguably are necessary to get the attention of the media and the ruling class, not just for a couple days, but in a way that’s enduring. That is a debate that my guests have very different opinions on among themselves, and I hope this program will help explore those.
Then there’s a second question about what is the actual cause or goal or issue propelling this movement? Is it simply the matter of the narrow issue with which it started, namely anger at police brutality aimed disproportionately at African-Americans? Or is it something broader than that? Is the anger deeper and more generalized about the political and social order? I think we have to ask the question, given how many George Floyds we’ve seen in recent years, how many incidents of sociopathic police murder of our fellow citizens, particularly people of color, that have sparked some level of protest, but nowhere near the velocity and the intensity and the duration of this one?
Why? What is different about this? Why has this sparked the level of protest that it has? Is it simply that we’ve reached a tipping point that we’ve been building up to this point? And just arbitrarily the murder of George Floyd is what finally caused the whole edifice to come crashing down in this wave of uncontrollable anger? Or is it about other levels of discontent, the fact that people have been locked up inside their homes for months, that millions and millions of people have lost their jobs as a result of this pandemic and the corona virus caused slowdown of the economy? Is it that people are simply at a tipping point, not only about police brutality, but also about the unjustness of resource allocation, watching the government continue to act for a small number of people, the interests of the most powerful and the wealthiest, while everybody else suffers, as illustrated by the “bailout package” that gave trillions of dollars to the largest corporations while giving the equivalent of crumbs to ordinary citizens. Is it the anger over the police not only as an agent of brutality against African-Americans, but as the agent of a state and a social order that is becoming increasingly unjust?
Clearly, anger about police brutality and watching yet another video of yet another African-American unarmed man not resisting having the life squeezed out of him by armed agents of the state is the initial impetus of the protest. And it’s a big part of what the cause of this protest is. But I think it has to be asked whether a big part of the cause that’s leading people to go and confront the police in cities all over America in a way that we haven’t seen for decades at this level of intensity, has other motivating factors as well that are related to police brutality and the use of the militarized police in cities across the United States, but is about deeper social and political pathologies as well.
And one final question that I think we need to ask is how can a protest movement of this sort produce positive outcomes? There is obviously a debate about whether or not any kind of violence or any kind of property destruction is justifiable. And the argument that it isn’t, that it should be condemned is coming not just from predictable liberal establishment leaders like Barack Obama or mayors of large cities, but even more radical leftist politicians like Congresswoman Ilhan Omar of Minnesota, who this week vehemently and very passionately denounced the use of property damage and looting against minority owned businesses in her neighborhood, in her community, in communities like on the grounds that it’s hurting the very people. This movement says that it wants to help.
Ilhan Omar: You see the kind of destruction that is taking place in our streets. We know those are not our organizers. We know those are not our protesters. We know those are not the people who are grieving the lives that have been taken from our community, because we all know that we have collectively fought for business development to take place on Lake Street. Every single meeting that Ray and Jeff and I have been in has been to invest in minority owned businesses in our communities, to develop this corridor and make our community a more equitable one. So when you see destruction to one of the most valued business corridors for minority communities in Minneapolis being destroyed, you know, those are not minorities that are doing that destruction. And so I wanted to make it clear, when we say outsiders, I don’t care whether that people understand it to me that it is people from outside of Minneapolis or not. What we mean is those are not our people. Those are not the people who are grieving in the ways that we are grieving. Those are not the people who are interested in helping get justice for George Floyd. Those are not the people who are interested in making sure that our communities continue to thrive. Those are not the people who are feeling the pains of African-American mothers in our community. These are not the people who are living with the fears that I live with on what to happen with my son. If you care, again, about black lives, you cannot set a fire in Minneapolis risking black lives.
Glenn Greenwald: And then on the other end of the spectrum, we have people like former President Obama in the medium post that he wrote this week, essentially saying, look, if you want to achieve meaningful, positive change, the solution isn’t to go burn things down or to engage in violence or civil disobedience. The solution is to do what we always tell you to do, which is vote, namely, vote for us, vote for the Democratic Party. And I think that what we’re seeing with that argument is the attempt to exploit the anger and passions that police brutality have generated into essentially servitude to the Democratic Party: “look, if you’re angry about these sorts of things, the solution isn’t just a lot more Democrats”, as Obama said, not just at the federal level, but the state and local level as well.
And I think the reason why that’s falling on so many deaf ears is because people know that the places where police violence is most egregious is most rampant for so long already have Democratic mayors and Democratic governors and Democratic city councils and Democratic county commissioners and Democratic distric attorneys and Democratic state legislatures. And not only aren’t things changing, they’re getting worse. In Minneapolis, where it all started, they have a Democratic mayor and a Democratic governor and a Democratic attorney general, Keith Ellison, who’s on the left wing of the Democratic Party. And yet that’s where the violence and the police brutality begin. It’s hardly the first time that happened in Minneapolis. So I think it’s very difficult to tell people in a way that’s going to do anything other than make them turn off with cynicism, that their solution is simply to go to the polls and keep voting Democrat.
But, there’s a lot of space between engaging in violence on the one hand and voting Democrat on the other. There’s a lot of different options for fostering social change that exist and that resides in that realm. And if you’re going to take the position that violence of all kind, property damage of all kinds, not just aimed at small businesses in minority communities, but any kind of property damage is either morally unjustified or strategically unwise, if that’s going to be your position, then it’s incumbent upon you to say what tactics are gonna lead to positive social change, not at a glacial pace, but with the urgency that the crisis demands, watching our fellow citizens be killed over and over and over again by armed agents in the state with virtually no consequence.
It’s not enough to say in 40 or 50 years or 60 years, maybe we’ll have some legislative reform, given the magnitude of this problem now. And yes, there are harms that come when protesters use violence or civil disobedience or property damage and those have to be counted. That damage has to be counted on one side of the ledger. But on the other are the harms that come from the policies that are sparking those protests in the first place. And if you want to denounce the costs of one side of the ledger, it’s incumbent upon you to propound solutions that will eliminate the cost on the other.
And I think one of the things that has happened is the debate obviously has been very polarizing over these protests. Any debates over protest and riots that go on for more than a couple of days will be polarizing. And the fact that they’re largely taking place on social media after three or four months of being cooped up in quarantine has made it all the more polarizing. Still, it’s very easy to righteously denounce violence and be applauded by people. It’s very easy, at the same, time to watch videos from a distance of violence being done and cheer and feel radical about it. But I think that in order to have a coherent, cogent, meaningful debate, these more difficult questions need to be grappled with outside of the confines of social media.
And so we constructed this show with these two guests in mind that have helped me so much over the last week grapple with these questions. And I hope this discussion will help you think more deeply and more substantively and more clearly about the debates that have arisen around these protests, not just what is driving them and what tactics ought to be used, but what tactics and what goals ought to drive them for the future. Enjoy.
[GUEST ONE – Chloe Valdary]
Glenn Greenwald: Joining me now to help explore the debate surrounding the unfolding protest is somebody who has been providing some of the most thought provoking an independent minded analysis and commentary of these events over the last week. She’s Chloe Valdary, a writer and the founder of the start-up Theories of Enchantment, which is designed to teach students 14 years and older about social and emotional learning and character building.
Chloe, thank you so much for taking the time to talk to me.
Chloe Valdary: No problem. Thank you for having me.
Glenn Greenwald: Yeah, sure. So one of the things that I find interesting, I guess maybe disturbing, is that obviously if you have a week’s worth of protest/riots and very draconian and violent responses on the part of the state, it’s going to be a very polarizing debate. Because so much of it’s taking place – this debate is – on social media, it’s become even more polarizing.
So everyone’s either in one of two camps, which is kind of the yeah, burn it down, everything should burn camp or the camp that says, you know, protest are fine, but property damage and violence isn’t. I think, you know, we can see that kind of all decent people by definition have this consensus that obviously the murder of George Floyd was horrific, it’s part of this broader systemic pathology of police brutality aimed disproportionately against African-Americans.
But setting aside that kind of consensus, what is your overall view of the protest, the tactics that are being used as part of them, and the aims and likely outcomes of what we’ve seen over the last week?
Chloe Valdary: Well, as we sort of discussed before the segment started, 95 percent of the protests are peaceful, right? And unfortunately, because of the amplification effect of social media, and because I think that there is an incentive to cover violent protesters and the looting and the rioting much more than there’s an incentive to cover a peaceful protest, we’re seeing sort of an exaggerated image where there’s a greater emphasis being placed upon the violent rioters.
And that’s unfortunate because I can create a self-fulfilling prophecy. People can, It can be the possibility that people can see that violence is pervasive when in fact it isn’t, and then think to themselves that they now have a license to just go do violence.
It’s also unfortunate because if one’s goal is to honor the memory of George Floyd, then one should try to the best of their ability to embody the principles and the values that George Floyd had that George Floyd lived his life according to. And so it’s important that I ask people who are commenting on Twitter, as influencers ourselves and the media, that we tried to amplify those more peaceful voices, those more nonviolent voices, because, again, that is actually the more pervasive voice that’s present right now in the protests.
Glenn Greenwald: Yeah, I don’t think there’s any question, as you say, that the overwhelming majority of protests, and protesters, have been protesting peacefully. And to the extent that there is a lot of violence, or at least relatively speaking, violence, it seems like it’s a lot because as you say it gets amplified in social media, a lot of that is instigated not by the protesters, but by the police. Oftentimes whenyou see violence there’s an assumption of “those protests must be violent” when in fact, we’ve seen so many instances of the police using undue force or even violence against peaceful protesters.
But clearly, there is some element of the protest and the protesters that are using property damage, that are using civil disobedience and that are using violence and whatever percentage we assign to that. I think it’s very difficult to ascribe some kind of exact quantity, but whatever percentage that is, whatever component of the movement that is. Is that something that you regard as potentially justifiable or strategically constructive?
Chloe Valdary: So, my answer would be no to both of those questions.
From a strategic perspective, we know that because we’ve seen studies. There was a study actually that came out of Cambridge University, actually, I think last week, that studied the effects of nonviolent protest during the civil rights movement versus violent protest during civil rights movement in terms of its effect on public opinion and actually moving the needle.
So from a strategic perspective, this study found that nonviolent protesters actually moved the needle from a media perspective, because when you have the dichotomy of a violent state repression with a peaceful, nonviolent protest, the scales tilt in the favor of the nonviolent, peaceful protest. So even as you’re describing, you know, a lot of the violence that we’ve seen in the past few days have been sparked by the state, even if you want to take that into consideration, we have a historical precedent that shows us that in terms of moving the needle forward and moving the public opinion toward tilting toward justice, it’s actually that dichotomy of nonviolence versus a violent state actually moving forward because of that stark image.
And this is what many people in the civil rights movement understood. This is why they tactically decided, for example, not to fight back when they were desegregating diners, knowing that they would be attacked violently by folks, you know, pulling their hair and beating them up.
People actually practiced being beat up, being beaten up and not fighting back. So as to impart create that image, because they knew that that image would move the needle forward.
So from a strategic perspective, I don’t think it’s wise, but from a moral perspective, I just think that if a movement is internally and philosophically inconsistent, it will not be successful. So, again, this goes back to what is it that we’re fighting for? What is it that we’re trying to sustain? If you’re trying to fight for the protection of the livelihood of all human beings, then I don’t think it makes sense to say that in the name of protecting life, I’m going to go destroy the livelihood of others. And also, quite frankly, you know, there’s an argument that could be made while this is, you know, these these buildings that are being attacked are in large part corporations, they can rebuild, they can, you know, easily replenish these these these stores.
But the fact of the matter is that it’s often Middle-Class Black people that are working in these stores. And if these are essential businesses that were open during Colvard 19, like Walgreens, for example, that was destroyed, I believe, in the Indianapolis riots. The fact of the matter is that where that is that they were poor to middle class blacks working there who now no longer have a job, who now no longer can get prescriptions from this Walgreens. And so now you’re talking about increasing poverty within the black community. You’re talking about decreasing the livelihood of workers who worked in these places.
So from a moral perspective, I think it’s inconsistent. You do not you do not protest injustice by doing things that whether you know it or not, will actually lead to more injustice on the part of the community that you actually claim to be protesting on half of. And quite frankly, there are people who are taking advantage of this, who don’t care about George Floyd, who just want to go steal Nike shoes and steal surfboards. And it’s it it’s has nothing to do with George Floyd. So from a moral perspective, from a strategic perspective, I just I don’t think it it it it’s consistent in any way, shape or form.
Glenn Greenwald: So let me let me just latch onto that last dichotomy that you drew, because I think it’s a really important one, between people who are focused on the what we can call the narrower issue of stopping police brutality or responding to the George Floyd murder and murders like it on the part of armed agents of the state, versus people who are just kind of acting out of nihilism, just kind of, you know, almost enjoyment in doing damage and destruction for the sake of doing it almost like some kind of adolescent joy.
I wonder, though, if there’s not a middle ground of people who are acting out of some broader cause than just protesting police brutality, who are simply angry at the political order. Angry at the political system. Feel very unheard and marginalized and invisible. People who feel like, look, we voted for Democratic mayors in Minneapolis and Democratic governor in Minnesota and Democratic mayor in New York. And we’re still seeing immense police brutality and nothing really changes who are simpl, maybe it’s not even necessarily a thought out rational response, but maybe nonetheless still a morally justifiable one of like, look, we feel like unless we burn things, we don’t get heard.
And so, yes, you’re right. There’s some collateral damage, if you want to use that phrase, if you look at it through the prism of a battle. But we don’t feel like we’re going to get anywhere unless we do this, like we’ve been forced into this by a system that doesn’t care about us and that doesn’t respond to things like voting and and peaceful protest. What do you have to say to people who are who are reacting with those sentiments?
Chloe Valdary: So I would say I understand. And especially this has been exacerbated by the effects of covid 19 with with so many people in poverty and so many people unemployed. And so I definitely I think I understand the where it’s coming from, that middle ground, where that sentiment is coming from. But I still think you have to be strategic as an activist and as a protester, and you have to think about the potential consequences of your actions. And the fact of the matter is, when there is rioting and when there is looting, there is a backlash. And that backlash often takes the form of, you know, what we’re seeing with this president, a law and order, you know, total approach to things which leads to even more state repression and more state violence.
So the question is, is what you’re doing actually going to result in what you are aiming for? And I don’t see that happening. I don’t. And again, that’s not to be dismissive of that feeling of deep despair. But I do think that, quite frankly, we have seen, via the ballot box, movement in terms of criminal justice reform over the past few years, in terms of even on a local level, police precincts changing. We saw Killer Mike talking about this with regards to Atlanta, right? So I think that there there have been incremental changes that we have seen implemented via the ballot box. And obviously, we have we have far more to go. But again, you have to be strategic as an activist and you have to be strategic as a protest.
And you have to say, first of all, how is the media going to portray this? Is there an incentive for the media to to very negatively portray certain things that you take upon yourself? And how do you want to comport yourself as a protester so that the values that you believe in will actually be taken up by the society at large and will be sustained?
And so if the argument is I’m going to let my despair take over and I’m just going to say, you know, who cares, I’m just gonna go crazy, I’m mad as hell and I can’t take it anymore, right? What damage do you do in the long run by just giving in to that despair? Becausewhat is the ultimate message of that? If you give in to the despair, why would anyone try anything ever again if you if your message ultimately is to give in to the despair and then that becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy. It’s simply not sustainable.
I think that we are capable of being stronger than this, emotionally. Again, to echo back to the civil rights movement. These are individuals who literally practice being beaten, because they knew they were going to be beaten up physically. They literally practiced being beaten up, in advance, so as to practice nonviolence. That’s a spiritual depth and that’s an emotional depth that is, quite frankly, somewhat unfathomable, but possible, right?
And so I’m just looking back at these, you know, the great forefathers of American liberty, when I think about people during the civil rights movement, and I’m telling myself we are capable of so much more as activists and as protesters and so on. I think it’s incumbent upon us to study the men and women who came before us and to continue in their footsteps.
Glenn Greenwald: So just to push a little bit on that argument about this strategic wisdom of various tactics. You know, it is interesting and it is true that the spate of murders against African-Americans and the resulting anger over it has resulted in tangible progress. As you mentioned, one of the probably most important things is movement to elect as district attorney people who are opposed to the criminal justice system and the philosophy that has undergirded it for decades, Probably going back to the riots of 1968, when Richard Nixon was able to ride into the White House on this law and order platform against people who were, in his view and in the view of his followers, creating an unacceptable form of civil disorder, things that are with us through today.
The other side of that argument, though, is that we have had this whole series of, you know, obviously Ferguson being kind of a classic case, the Freddie Gray protest, the riots in Baltimore, so many incidents over and over and over again. And in 2015, The Washington Post, spearheaded by their reporter Wesley Lowery, won a Pulitzer Prize for creating a database to document all instances of police violence against citizens. And they just updated that data in the wake of these latest protests. And this is what they concluded: “Despite the unpredictable events that lead to fatal shootings, police nationwide have shot and killed almost the same number of people annually, nearly 1000, since the Post began its project [back in 2015]. Although half of the people shot and killed by police are white, black Americans are shot at a disproportionate rate. They account for less than 13 percent of the U.S. population, but are killed by police at more than twice the rate of white Americans. Hispanic Americans are also killed by police at a disproportionate rate”.
I think there’s a lot of people who would look at that data and it’s consistent with what they see anecdotally and say “if there’s progress that comes from being Incrementalists and from being nonviolent and from using the ballot box, it’s just coming too slowly”. Given, yes, there’s cost on this side of the ledger from, you know, lost businesses and the like. But the cost of having people continue to be murdered who are innocent and unarmed is too grave to go this slowly. Is that a valid strategic point?
Chloe Valdary: I think I think it’s an interesting one. I just don’t see any proof that from a strategic perspective, rioting and looting, because, again, we talk about the precedent with Richard Nixon, makes things go faster, number one. And number two, I saw this morning that when it comes to across the political consensus in terms of trying to trying to promote legislation that would change some of the things that we’re talking about and increase a greater accountability for police officers, there’s there’s a specific – the title of it is is escaping me – but there’s a specific piece of legislation that was passed by the Supreme Court in 1967 that sort of gives cops carte-blanche, the ability to simply engage in acts of brutality with the citizens, having no recourse, because basically the Supreme Court ruled that you have to have a precedent…
Glenn Greenwald: You mean like a qualified immunity, basically.
Chloe Valdary: Yes, qualified immunity. And I’m now in the wake of – and again, this goes back to the fact that 95 percent of the protest, I think this goes back to the fact that 95 percent of the protests are peaceful – there is a near unanimous consensus across the political spectrum that what happened to George Floyd was unjust.
And now you have in both the pages of The New Republic and the pages of The Wall Street Journal, conservatives and liberals calling for an end to this piece of legislation on the part of the Supreme Court. The Supreme Court is now hearing cases and and considering recalling that sort of act.
And so I think that this speaks to the fact that peaceful protests do seem to lead to or do seem to advance justice. And you can argue, that it is incremental. And I think that that would be a valid argument. But I just don’t see how the violence and the looting, number one makes things go faster. And number two, brings about the values that one wants to see sustained in the society.
And I think that’s the larger issue for me, because, again, if you tried to promote justice by ruining the lives of other human beings, then there’s a question to be asked there. Like, is your philosophy consistent? Because if your philosophy isn’t morally consistent, then someone can easily just call you a hypocrite, essentially, and ask you on what basis do you argue for justice on this hand when you are not willing to pursue justice across the board and pursue justice in a consistent way. And I’m very much worried about that retort. And I’m concerned that that’s that’s a valid argument. And then the the the system becomes unsustainable again, because you’re you’re on the one hand claiming that you believe in justice for a particular person, but you’re not willing to be consistent in the application of that.
Glenn Greenwald: Yeah. And its interesting, I think that that argument applies at least as much, if not even more so to those who say these protests are about and should be about more than just the narrow issue of police brutality, because police brutality is just kind of a reflection of the way in which our social order is constructed to impose injustice, to preserve unjust allocation of power. So if you see this broader aim of the movement of, you know, being more than just about police brutality that argument that you just made probably applies with even greater force.
Just as the last question, and I have a bunch of things I’d love to ask you, but just to keep this to a manageable time. So I want to ask you about the composition of the protest movement. It’s actually something that’s been very interesting to me. One of the things you see is these protests aren’t confined to particular neighborhoods. They’re not, you know, just in downtown neighborhoods with white lefties. They’re not just in African-American communities, with African-Americans. It seems to me a very kind of racially diverse, socioeconomically broad protest movement.
And one of the things that has done, I think, is inspire a lot of people. The idea that, look, there’s solidarity among all kinds of people in support of a similar cause, which doesn’t happen very often in the United States and on this scale.
But then you also have this kind of tactic where it seems like people are trying to pit protesters against one another with this kind of rhetoric of, hey, look, you have these do you like leftist interlopers coming in and exploiting the disorder for their own ends. And there may be truth to all of this, but I’m just wondering, how do you, what is your kind of broad takeaway about the nature of the protesters, the way in which this coalition has been assembled and come together very organically? Is it something you regard as inspiring or is it something that is disturbing you in terms of the different factions kind of exploiting one another’s agendas.
Chloe Valdary: Look, I think I think that, first of all, I think it’s very early on in this protest movement right now. This is a very new, and as you said, organic protest movement. And I believe in the process of, you know, thesis antithesis synthesis.
So I think inevitably in the early stages of a protest, you’re going to have internal factions somewhat competing against each other. I think that’s a normal course protest go through. And so I don’t really I’m not that pessimistic because of that fact. I think I’m I’m overall very much pleasantly surprised, quite frankly, to see across the board a near unanimous, again, you know, regardless of of one’s political orientation, regardless of one’s socio economic status. I’m seeing white conservatives on my Twitter for the first time speak about prejudice in a way that I have never seen them speak about it before. I mean, Rush Limbaugh was on the Breakfast Club the other day. This is like this is like something something strange and curious is happening. There’s an inflection point in America. And I I, quite frankly, believe in the potential of this country and its citizens to rise to our higher self. So I’m very much encouraged and overall really inspired by what I’m seeing in terms of the near unanimous consensus with regard to the protesters.
Glenn Greenwald: Well, like I said, you’ve definitely helped me in in terms of grappling with a lot of these issues. We’re going to post your Twitter feed, which I really encourage everybody to follow. It took me a week of trying to figure out where Chloe kind of resides on the spectrum of this debate. And I still haven’t been able to do so, which I’m really happy about. I doubt I ever will.
Chloe Valdary: Success!.
Glenn Greenwald: Exactly. I regard that as a success as well. And I’m sure you can see why. So thank you so much, Chloe, for four weeks worth of analysis. And that has really helped me and and for taking the time to talk to me. I appreciate it a lot.
Chloe Valdary: Pleasure. Thank you for having me, Glenn.
Glenn Greenwald: Stay well.
[GUEST TWO – Benjamin Dixon]
Glenn Greenwald: Joining me to explore the debate over the unfolding protest is the great journalist and commentator and activist, the host of The Benjamin Dixon Show, Ben Dixon. Ben, thank you so much for taking the time to join me.
Ben Dixon: Glenn, thank you so much for having me, it’s always a pleasure.
Glenn Greenwald: Yeah. So before we get to what we’re here to discuss, let me. On the most important point, compliment you and congratulate you for this incredible distinction of being the first two time guest on SYSTEM UPDATE in its short history. It’s a great honor. I don’t think there’s a plaque or something that goes with it, but we’ll find out.
Ben Dixon: I am indeed honored. I will look for the plaque in the mail.
Glenn Greenwald: All right, great. So about the debate that’s taking place surrounding the protests, there is obviously a pretty spirited discussion among even the participants of the protests among African-American politicians and journalists and commentators and the like, which seems to be falling along the lines of everybody agreeing that the underlying causes, just namely protesting police brutality against African-Americans in particular, and then having a debate about what the proper tactics are.
And what I wanted to ask you is, as you think about that debate and the way that it ought to be conducted, what is the most important metric for you? Is it the question of whether things like property damage and civil disobedience and violence, whether that’s morally justified or not? Or is it whether those tactics are strategically constructive or counterproductive? Or is there some other metric that you think ought to be kind of the primary one in guiding how we think about these discussions?
Ben Dixon: So thanks for that question. I think that cuts to the core of the issue for me. I think the number one tactic that is being used by the ruling elite in this country to neutralize this movement is to invalidate it in the minds of the participants, right? If they can invalidate the protest in the minds of the participants, then they can neutralize a protest and kill it dead on arrival. And they’re doing that by doing everything they can to it, calling it a Russian hoax, right? Or it’s something that’s backed by Putin. Saying that these are outside agitators, which is direct language that we heard in the 60s with regard to Dr. Martin Luther King. And so what’s going on is a lot of people are trying to even yesterday, they tried to make it seem as though someone had been murdered, when, in fact, they weren’t. And that person was was assaulted, but it was in self-defense.
There’s several layers of propaganda that are going around. And I think at the core of it, it’s all to invalidate the anger of the people who are protesting both online as well as in the streets. And so I think that’s the number one thing that we have to look out for.
In terms of like property damage, I think if we take the sum total of everything that was lost this weekend, we still won’t be able to compare it to the damage that the police state has done across this country, particularly to the black community.
We definitely can’t compare to the damage that’s been done by Wall Street and we most certainly can’t compare to the damage done by this country domestically as well as internationally.
Glenn Greenwald: Yeah, I mean, I don’t I don’t think anyone can reasonably dispute that. I’m wondering, though, because, you know, when you say it that way, implicit in that claim is almost an argument that, well, maybe it would be better to be without the property damage, but it’s really not a big deal. Is there a valid argument that actually protests without property damage, withouth violence, without seeing things burning, without putting fears in the heart of people who otherwise would feel immune to them, is actually an important and even necessary ingredient for the protest to succeed.
Ben Dixon: I think we’re seeing that now. And I think it’s unfortunate. I want to preface this by saying this is unfortunate. It’s unfortunate that we have to demonstrate in this manner before someone actually pays attention. Here’s a best case example for that: when Colin Kaepernick took the knee, everyone lost their mind. The president of the United States called him a son of a bitch. I mean, it was just egregious. Police officers across the country saw it as a complete affront to their dignity as police officers. And now there was protesting in the streets and stuff is being burned. Now police officers are putting out picture pictures of them kneeling, right?
So, why didn’t you listen when we were kneeling, right? The reason they didn’t listen when we were kneeling is because it’s nice and comfortable within acceptable parameters of protest in this country. But they tried to invalidate that protest.
So no matter what protest we give them, whether it’s silent, whether it’s peaceful, whether it’s unpeaceful, they will always try to invalidate it. And so it is an unfortunate reality that in the United States of America – and maybe it’s true, maybe it’s a universal truth. I don’t know. I’m not I don’t know if I’m ready to say that it is a universal truth that destruction has to be a part of your protest to be effective – but in the United States, they are signaling to us that they don’t really care unless a building is on fire.
Glenn Greenwald: Yeah. You know, it’s interesting. I drew this analogy earlier, and the more I listen to the discourse, the more I think it. It reminds me of it. And I’m sure there are a lot of other examples, but this is one that resonates for me, which is the struggle for Palestinian independence to be free of Israeli repression and occupation, where no matter what the Palestinians do, if they march, you know, too aggressively, they’re called instigators. If they boycott, they are called anti-Semite. If they engage in any kind of violence, even against occupying armies, which everybody would think would be perfectly justified if an occupying army came, they’re called terrorists. It’s as though no form of protest, as you were just saying, other than meek acceptance, you know, kind of like impotent acquiescence, is considered valid.
But one of the things I wanted to ask you was, you know, several times in both of your answers, you made reference to “they”. You said “they” are trying to invalidate the protests. “They” are trying to discourage the protesters from believing that what they’re doing can succeed.
And I want to zero in a little bit on who exactly “they” are, because some of the people who have been most critical of the protest are leading African-American politicians in the United States. You have the mayor of Atlanta, Mayor Bottoms. You have Ilhan Omar, who was very angry about some of the damage being done in her community to businesses, minority owned businesses, that she said she worked hard to build up. And then earlier today, on Monday, Barack Obama wrote a medium post, and I’m curious as to what you think about his argument, where he wrote “The small minority of folks who have resorted to violence in various forms, either out of genuine anger or mere opportunism, are putting innocent people at risk, compounding the destruction of neighborhoods that are often already short on services and investment and detracting from the larger cause”. He then went on to say, the real solution essentially is to vote, “But the elected officials who matter most in reforming police departments in the criminal justice system work at the state and local level”. And his argument essentially was, if you want to change things, you need to go and put Democrats in those positions and then you’ll get actual results, not through violence and property destruction.
What’s your view just generally over the fact that the people who seem most vociferously to be condemning some of these tactics are African-American leaders, and the specific argument that the real way to change is working through the democratic system?
Ben Dixon: It was a Democratic mayor, Minneapolis, Democratic governor of Minnesota. Trayvon Martin was killed underneath Barack Obama by Mike Brown, was killed underneath Barack Obama. Democratic leadership, across this country, Keisha Lance Bottoms, here in Atlanta. You know, we’ve seen some of the most egregious videos come out from this protest where people were peaceful and attacked by the police officers came from the city of Atlanta, a black mayor, a Democratic mayor, and the officers who were fired in the incident were black.
This is a saying we say in the black community, “everyone’s skin to us isn’t kin to us”. Just because they have our skin color doesn’t mean they had the same allegiances and the same motivations as we do. The ruling elite, when I say they, I say the ruling elite and that’s inclusive of Barack Obama all the way to Michael Bloomberg, people who have a vested interest in protecting the system exactly the way it is.
The Democratic Party has as much vested.. I mean, you really think about it, what Democrat has come out in complete support of the protests or least the cause of the protest, right? How many people are really putting it on the line? Not really hardly anyone from the Democratic Party. You’re getting a lot of platitudes.
That’s because this protest undermines their authority as much as it does Donald Trump’s. And this is why I said on Twitter, and I firmly believe before this is over, you’re going to see an alliance between Donald Trump and the people who say they hate him more than they hate the devil himself: The Democratic Party. They are going to align to crush these protests because it is a threat to both of their party power structures.
Glenn Greenwald: Yeah. I mean, we saw, you know, the Occupy Wall Street protests in 2011, which were much less menacing to stability and to the political order, but nonetheless became, at least in several different cities in New York and Oakland and Los Angeles and other places, somewhat threatening. And they were destroyed principally by Democratic mayors. Michael Bloomberg destroyed it in New York. And this is a much more serious uprising. And so I don’t think there’s any question that you’re going to see this kind of unity, even if they’re not rhetorically admitting that.
But let me ask you about one of the tactics that I find really pernicious and actually potentially most effective in terms of delegitimizing the protest, turning the protests, you know, into this feeling of impotence, which is trying to divide the protesters one against the other.
So you see a lot of these videos were African-American participants in the protests are telling often white protesters who are also participating that their tactics aren’t appreciated, that if they come into those neighborhoods and use violence or property damage, that it’s going to fall on the black on the back of African-Americans, doing this divide and conquer where, you know, there should be no white supporters of this cause because presumably, if you’re white or not black, any kind of ethnicity, you don’t really have an interest in standing up to the police state. You know, you’re just supposed to stay at home. And if you go and join you are kind of an opportunist or or worse. What’s your view of that tactic?
Ben Dixon: Yeah, so there’s multiple layers of disingenuousness in those arguments, and there’s only one layer that I think there has some validity to it. And the layer that I think has some validity to it. I’ll start there: is the protest, if you want to burn something down, why burn down marginalized communities, you know? I’ve seen it here in Atlanta where they try to make it sound like they were burning down marginalized communities, but they were in Buckhead. Buckhead is a pretty exclusive neighborhood, right? We saw a video last night of protesters burning down luxury cars, OK? So it doesn’t make any sense to your cause if you’re burning down poor neighborhoods, OK?
Now, in terms of all the disingenuousness, this there is a divide and conquer tactic, right? Is trying to weaponize identity politics, to divide us black from white. The truth of the matter is they’re black anarchists, there are black members of the black bloc. There are black members of, well ANTIFA is not a real organization, but is as a mindset, there are black people who identify with ANTIFA. And so there are plenty of people.
And this is what I’m asking everyone to consider. Do we have a reason to burn something down? And whether or not you know, whether or not I’m condemning it or condone it is immaterial right now at this present moment. Do we have a reason? And if you saw that video, I mean, how else, what else are we supposed to do? Just last week, Brianna Taylor, we saw, we got word of Brianna Taylor being killed, gunned down, shot eight times, in her home. This happens across the country, most of the times with impunity. They are never charged. And if they are charged, they often get off. Very rarely do you see a cop get convicted.
And so what I’m saying is, is we have a valid reason to be in the streets. When tens of thousand people take to the streets, something is going to happen. And we’ve seen this is the next level of disingenuousness. That chaos that ensues is has been started by the police on so many occasions. Now, I’ve been in several protests where the black block and ANTIFA were staring the police officers face to face. And I could see black bloc, ANTIFA, but they were ready to set it all. And I was a little irritated back then. But what kept it from setting off was the fact that the police officers never responded. As soon as the police officers instigate something that gives the people who are there to really burn some stuff down, that gives them legitimacy. They’re like, OK, it’s on. Let’s go.
And I have video at the video, social media, where it is the police officers time and again, startin the chaos that ensues. So in terms of the political strategy, it is a very effective strategy. But I think that we as a collective consciousness have kind of moved past that or we are in the process of moving past that, where we have the arguments to really kind of neutralize that.
Well, you have a lot of people who are now saying, you know, trying to walk hand-in-hand with police officers. There’s enough people who understand that that is a propaganda tool now for us to kind of strike at the core of that. You can’t put somebody on television holding a police officer’s hand, kumbayah, and make all of us feel calm and satiated. No, we understand the game now. And so it’s a collective process that we’re moving. I think that we’re almost there where we can finally see all of the different machinations of the ruling elite that they use to invalidate the protests in our mind. And we’ll just see. We’ll see how this the rest of this goes.
Glenn Greenwald: Let me ask you about that, because earlier you referenced Martin Luther King and he and his philosophy of nonviolence is one that’s typically invoked both by white liberals and African-American politicians to kind of evangelize the idea that any form of violence, any form of property destruction is something that he would have disapproved of.
What do you say about that? Is it that that philosophy of nonviolence didn’t take the cause of racial equality far enough? Is it that it’s kind of obsolete? Is it that his assassination demonstrated that maybe it was insufficient? What is your response when people invoke that, those teachings?
Ben Dixon: I think it’s primarily a misinterpretation, an intentional misinterpretation, of Dr. King. His nonviolence was strategic. It wasn’t that violence wasn’t necessary. It was that we couldn’t win with violence. We couldn’t get our agenda accomplished with violence. America is showing us something totally different right now. It is saying we will not pay you any attention until you burn something down. And that’s not our fault. It was up to me… Glenn, if it was up to me, I would be somewhere writing a book right now, sipping a mimosa, doing all the cosmopolitan things that we have all been accustomed to and programed to desire and want.
But America is signaling to us that we will not give you any attention. We will not pay any attention to your grievances unless you are burning something down. So the strategy inherently has to change.
And then even still, I want to correct myself a little more. It wasn’t until they saw the violence of Bloody Sunday that well-meaning liberals were actually kicked into gear to say, OK, we have to do something. So it really is a condemnation of the United States of America that in order for us to have any type of meaningful change, violence has to be attached to it. And maybe that’s the curse of America being such a violent nation.
Glenn Greenwald: So it’s just the last question. You know, one of the things that is raised as an argument against the use of disorder in civil disobedience and violence and like, is the specter that it was the 1968 riots in the sense of general instability that elected Richard Nixon four years after the Democrats crushed the Republicans in the greatest or one of the greatest landslides in presidential history. And the concern that if there is this ongoing sense of lawlessness and violence, that that could open the way for Donald Trump’s calls for a law and order and militarism and the like to resonate politically and elevate the chances that he could win over Joe Biden. Is that a concern for you? And more broadly, what is it that you hope to see or think is possible to see in the way of positive outcomes from what’s happening?
Ben Dixon: So, no, it’s not a concern because I have to use a comparison: when people make the argument against raising the minimum wage and they say that it’s going to cause the price of a hamburger to go up, the price of hamburgers is going up anyway. The price of hamburgers goes up every year without fail and they’re still paying people 7,25 dollars an hour, right?
Same thing is happening here whether or not this is taking place in the streets, Donald Trump is an authoritarian. Donald Trump is forever trying to increase the quote unquote, law and order. The United States in general, I can’t just lay this at Donald Trump, the Republican Party in general, and you see the Democratic Party, their power is secured based on law and order, the draconian police state that we have.
Those things are happening. The budgets of these police agencies are growing exponentially. They’re getting bigger weapons, bigger tanks, bigger shields. They’re getting more tear gas. They have more gear than our doctors have to fight covid-19. So all of our fears about an increase in ever increasing police state, yeah, it’s warranted, but it’s happening regardless.
I mean, you know if it was Hillary Clinton in office, chances are George Floyd would have died anyway.
Glenn Greenwald: As you said, Ferguson happened under President Obama. The police force looked extremely militarize to me during those eight years.
Ben Dixon: I mean, Ferguson. I will never forget the image of the young black man with dreads, he had on a teal shirt, he was holding his hands up and you had like five fully armed military looking police officers coming at him with their guns raised. So, I mean, we have been militarized for a very long time. And I think that’s a byproduct of our our imperialism abroad. In terms of what I would like to see, I think we have to continue applying pressure.
I want to state: the only thing I really, really care about, Glenn. Just me personally, my personal sense of humanity. Is I don’t want see anybody get killed. I do want to see you know, I was very glad to see the sword guy – If you looked up on Twitter hashtag sword guy – I mean, he really got his butt thoroughly beat down and it looked like he was dead. He wasn’t. And I’m glad he wasn’t killed.
Glenn Greenwald: Yeah. He was tweeting that night. He tweeted that night.
Ben Dixon: He was tweeitng that night. He got a serious ass whipping, but he was not killed. And I’m very grateful that he wasn’t killed.
I don’t care about buildings. The buildings are insured. Buildings are a symbol of this empire. This capitalistic system. If those get burned down. If that’s the only thing America is going to pay attention to, then what other choice do these protesters have? In terms of results? We have to strike at the core, the police state. These budgets. 2017 was the most recent data that I have. I know there’s some new data, but 4.89 billion dollars were spent in New York City alone for policing, 4.8 billion in one city.
These police agencies across the country are hyper militarized. They are overfunded and we have a police state. Some of these officers need to be digging ditches. Some of them need to be doing something else. Maybe don’t don’t send them to the school to teach – I was gonna say school teachers – don’t send them to schools that teach. But they need to be doing something else other than erecting and protecting a police state. And we have to strike at the core of it, right there. That’s what I would like to see happen.
Glenn Greenwald: Ben, thank you so much for your great work over the last week in talking about this. I think it’s illuminated the issues for a lot of people, including me. And I appreciate your taking the time to talk to me again on the show. Thanks very much.
Ben Dixon: Thanks so much for having me, Glenn.
Glenn Greenwald: All right. Stay well.
Ben Dixon: Take Care.