Riotous Fantasies and State Repression

“Our great cities of Minneapolis and Saint Paul are under assault by people who do not share our values, who do not value life and the work that went into this, and certainly who are not here to honor George Floyd. So if you are on the streets tonight, it is very clear: You are not with us.”

– MN Governor Tim Walz

We should be very wary of claims that the riots in Minneapolis and elsewhere are being incited or led by coordinated groups, be they white nationalists, Boogaloo Bois, drug cartels, terrorists, or an organized radical left.

Hard evidence of any of these claims is entirely absent at this point. In their place are heaps of circumstantial anecdotes about out-of-state arrestees, highly organized actions, the online chatter of racist groups, etc. All of these make good material for conspiracy theories, and thus justifications for violent state action.

Moments of social upheaval are always partly chaotic – with grave costs to businesses, institutions, and individuals as pent-up rage, frustration, and anxiety is channeled by people with little power or resources otherwise. History provides countless examples, and social science literature has endlessly examined this phenomenon. There is no need to reach for ideas about organized outside agitators to provide explanations.

Conversely, riots also often give evidence of highly sophisticated strategies and tactics among community participants. For instance, after the 1980 anti-police riots that began in London and swept the UK, extensive interviews found that young, multi-racial participants coordinated their actions against the police with extraordinary precision and flexibility that they developed over the course of the days of unrest.

The fact that there are a number of arrestees from outside the state of Minnesota (how many, or what percentage has still not been verified) is not evidence of conspiracy. A number of people and tiny groups may have come to join the protests or to cause mayhem, or whatever else, but there is no conceivable way that the thousands of people who have been in the streets of Minneapolis over the last four days have now been replaced with rioters and looters bussed in from elsewhere. And if that were true for Minneapolis, is it then also the explanation the anti-police rioting that has broken out in Atlanta, Los Angeles, New York, Portland, Eugene, Louisville, Charlotte, Dallas, Houston, and scores of other locations since yesterday?

The real political danger of conspiratorial thinking – which has come to define our age – is that it is replacing not just empirical facts but critical thinking itself. When Donald Trump tweets that the riots are being led by Antifa, we know that it is bullshit. We should approach the statements by state and local officials in Minnesota who are peddling their own conspiracies about drug cartels and white supremacists with the same level of skepticism, and demand clear, hard evidence.

Demonizing the rioters, making them out to be phantasms bent on evil, and using the memory of George Floyd in doing so, is the surest way to justify brutal state repression on the streets. That forces of the state want to quell unrest, take back sovereign political power from the protestors, and restore the status quo should be an obvious enough fact. To achieve this goal they will ultimately do whatever it takes. Conspiracy theories bypass much harder political and social questions about the riots, and will make their jobs that much easier.

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