At the root of the Black Lives Matter movement, and the several controversies which have fueled it, lies a critical disagreement over the nature and importance of property. At first glance, in the midst of an unarmed shooting and a death by choke-hold, it may not seem like property rights stand out. But they do.
From the moment Michael Brown committed a strong arm robbery, through the looting and arson which have characterized the response to his shooting death, to the trespass and harassment which have been committed and sanctioned by protestors across the nation, the implicit (and sometimes explicit) narrative has been that property does not matter.
I responded here at PJ Media and on my Fightin Words podcast to Reason author Elizabeth Nolan Brown’s critique of a city attorney for pursuing criminal and civil charges against Black Lives Matter protestors who staged an unlawful demonstration at the Mall of America. Both Brown and the organizers she quoted repeatedly referred to the event, an admitted act of trespass, as “peaceful.”
My thesis was simple. There’s no such thing as peaceful trespass. If you’re going to encroach upon the rights of others, you are not being peaceful. You are committing an act of violence.
That in turn attracted the attention of former Twin Cities News Talk radio host Ron Rosenbaum, whose Holding Court Podcast you can hear each Thursday from 2-3pm CST. Rosenbaum objected to my characterization of trespass as violence, writing:
Really? [That] would have come as somewhat of a surprise to Gandhi, Rosa Parks, MLK, and every lawmaker in the country. Come on, Walter, you’re smarter than that.
…to call trespass an act of violence, is flat out wrong. Unless, of course, such acts include violence.
This semantic debate highlights a distinction which has become prevalent in our political discourse. Violence is seen by many as only those acts which result in bodily harm or death, not crimes against property.
The point was articulated rather explicitly by “a longtime community activist who was with Occupy Oakland since the early days of the encampment”:
“It became not a moral question, but a tactical question,” says [Jaime Omar] Yassin of the use of property damage and aggression in Occupy. “Violence is something that hurts people. Property destruction isn’t necessarily violence, and can sometimes be effective.”
In my writings and social media travels following the Black Lives Matter movement, I have encountered numerous expressions of this same claim. The protestors have legitimate gripes, the argument goes, so who cares if they block an interstate freeway or shut down commerce at a mall on the busiest shopping day of the year. Those are minor inconveniences next to being shot or choked by police.
That’s the wrong way to think about justice. If someone steals from you, we don’t ignore the crime until all the world’s murders have been solved. Nor is there anything about being a victim which grants license to victimize another. Injustice isn’t something you pay forward.
More to the point, you can’t credibly claim that “lives matter” if you reject the legitimacy of property. I tried to flesh that out in my response to Rosenbaum:
You want to draw a distinction between trespass and violence. Okay. Then draw it. What’s the essential characteristic of trespass? What’s the essential characteristic of violence? Aren’t they both an initiation of force? Aren’t they both defiance of another’s right?
Would you consider stealing to be a violent act? If somebody runs past your wife and snatches her purse, is that not an act of violence? … isn’t the mere threat of violence legally and morally considered assault?
We can argue semantics and legal definitions, or we can deal with the moral truth which underlies these terms. Each individual is morally entitled to full ownership over their life. That life takes three forms corresponding to the past, present, and future. If someone deprives you of your life, they take your future. If someone deprives you of your liberty, they take your present. And if someone deprives you of your property, they take your past. In this way, property rights prove no less important than the right to go about your day physically unmolested. Crimes like trespass, vandalism, arson, etc. prove no less important than assault, kidnapping, or murder. That doesn’t mean each carries the same penalty. But it does mean that each should not be tolerated.
What moral difference is there between taking me hostage for a week and stealing something from me which took a week to earn? I submit there’s no difference whatsoever. I submit both are violent acts.
And if we can agree that stealing is a violent act, then trespass falls into that same category. Trespass is an appropriation of someone else’s property no less so than stealing. Note in the Reason Magazine article that the organizers “said they chose to demonstrate at the mall in spite of [it being trespass] because it was the most high-profile location in the area.” In other words, they sought to steal a platform from which to attract attention. They knew they couldn’t get [what they wanted] utilizing their own lawful resources, so they choose to encroach upon the rights of others. Well, so does any thief. So does any murderer.
Any legitimate protest of real or perceived acts of police brutality must proceed from the moral principle of individual rights. It’s not enough to say Michael Brown and Eric Garner were wrongfully killed. Such claims must proceed from an articulate sense of justice.
The reason I have a hard time offering much respect to the Black Lives Matter movement is because it lacks that sense. The word “justice” is wielded to rhetorical effect, but rings hollow in a context where those wielding it commit or endorse unjust acts.
A good question for Black Lives protestors to answer might be: what does proper policing look like? When is it okay for the police to act, and why? But answering that would require them to first acknowledge the legitimacy of what police do. And that’s something too many within the movement have no desire to express, because their unspoken platform is that their ought not be any police, that notions of property ought to be abolished, and that everything ought to be available for free.