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EDITORIAL: Lawlessness threatens to undermine Floyd protests

The protests against police violence that have erupted around the country — including in Las Vegas — in the aftermath of George Floyd’s death at the hands of Minneapolis law enforcement stand not as a sign of the nation’s weakness but as a monument to its strength as a democratic republic that cherishes dissent and advocacy. No one who reveres freedom should scorn those who have taken to the streets to exercise their First Amendment rights to peacefully express their anger and sorrow.

It is unfortunate, then, that the violence, destruction and looting which has broken out during some of these demonstrations threatens to undermine the message that most protesters sincerely hope to convey. It’s difficult to comprehend how theft and the burning or ruin of local businesses advances the cause of fighting racially inspired police brutality — although unsubstantiated conspiracy theories abound about the role of “outside” groups and agitators attempting to foment lawlessness and unrest to advance their own nefarious objectives.

Many Americans support the right to assemble but object to the rioting and lawbreaking. Notably, this view is not shared by all activists, some of whom insist that violence can be vital — peaceful protests didn’t win the Revolutionary War, after all — to awaken the complacent and signal the depth of outrage.

“Grabbing off the TV set?” James Baldwin said during a 1968 Esquire magazine interview when the topic of looting arose. “He doesn’t really want the TV set. He’s saying screw you. It’s just judgment, by the way, on the value of the TV set. He doesn’t want it. He wants to let you know he’s there.”

This perspective may be distasteful to some, but it’s worth pondering nonetheless — not to excuse the inexcusable, but as an explanation for frustration and discontent. Its usefulness may be limited, how­ever, given that many of those helping themselves to other people’s property or torching neighborhood structures under the cover of the Floyd controversy are motivated by opportunism and impulsiveness rather than lofty notions of social justice.

Indiscriminate violence rarely brings about sustainable reform — and thoughtful protesters understand that it’s hard to claim the moral summit when you argue that noble goals justify any means. ”So let’s not excuse violence, or rationalize it, or participate in it,” former President Barack Obama said Monday. “If we want our criminal justice system, and American society at large, to operate on a higher ethical code, then we have to model that code ourselves.”

The videotape of Mr. Floyd’s senseless death should sicken any human being. Peaceful marches deserve support. But those planning to go further than that while also expressing a desire for vigilante justice should stay home rather than dishonor the victim’s memory.

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