WASHINGTON — At the beginning of the summer, it seemed to many commentators as if the riots flaring across the country were beside the point. It’s obvious why people thought it was more important to talk about the death of George Floyd under the knee of police officer Derek Chauvin than the problems of the shopkeepers in various commercial strips that had been looted or burned. Besides, bringing up the riots was apt to invite fierce criticism from people asking why you were comparing lives to property.
Now of course black lives matter, and more than any building. But it’s not as if there is some obvious trade-off between black lives and buildings that leaves us no choice but to accept looting. The truth is closer to the opposite: Rioting is a political, moral and economic disaster for everyone, and especially for communities of color. While some politicians, including Atlanta Mayor Keisha Lance Bottoms and Joe Biden, have made this point, much of the commentariat maintained a decorous silence about what was going on or retreated to euphemisms about mostly peaceful protests. And the longer both the disorder and the denial have gone on in places such as Portland, Oregon, the greater the danger that the riots would, in fact, become the point — for some participants and for an electoral majority.
As this has become clear to commentators, this has opened up political space on the left to say what everyone should have boldly proclaimed all along: Riots damage lives as well as buildings.
For when businesses burn, what is destroyed is not merely a collection of cinderblock and linoleum. Someone’s patient daily labor ensured that shelves were stocked and toilets cleaned, floors scrubbed and invoices paid, that fretful bank managers were reassured and peevish customers sent away happy. All those years of peoples’ lives, embodied in a physical location, should never be dismissed as mere inanimate “property.” Especially if those doing the dismissing have never staked their own life on some similarly unglamorous enterprise tied to a humdrum physical location — and, most particularly, if what was lost can’t really be replaced.
“Oh, but insurance will pay for the damage!” Well, owners of low-margin businesses don’t always carry generous commercial policies. Some let their coverage lapse when the pandemic closed their shops, and some discovered that insurance wouldn’t pay even the cost of demolishing the burned-out hulk of their store. And if insurance does pay enough to rebuild, there is still no guarantee their business will recover, because commercial zones are a whole much greater than the sum of their parts.
When looting and arson leave some owners unable to rebuild, and others reluctant to try, even those who want to rebuild will often worry about attracting customers to locations surrounded by burned-out hulks. This ultimately carries us beyond the suffering of petit-bourgeois store owners and into the ocean of trouble that afflicts communities when the businesses they depend upon disappear.
Five years after the death of 18-year-old Michael Brown, there were still boarded-up stores in Ferguson, Missouri. Yet Ferguson had comparatively good conditions for recovery: The damage was isolated to one city, the broader national economy was strong and getting stronger, and there was plenty of state, federal and private money to assist with rebuilding.
When external conditions aren’t good, recovery can take much longer. The riots that followed the assassination of the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. occurred in cities that were already hollowed out by suburban exodus. Many well-insured businesses used their insurance payments to move to suburban shopping malls; underinsured businesses closed. As late as 2007, when I first moved to D.C., there were still major retail districts that were just recovering from the 1968 riots.
The people who suffer when retail strips shut down aren’t the affluent, the class of people who can assume that insurance solves all problems. Those people move. It’s the ones who depend on the social capital of a neighborhood, rather than the financial capital of a market, who ultimately are hurt the worst. A disproportionate number of those people are black and brown. Research suggests the 1960s riots decreased black employment rates well into the 1970s, with the effect growing larger over time. And so, instead of expressing righteous rage at collective injustice, rioting ultimately becomes an instrument of suffering and systemic inequality.
The urban business districts of 2020 are also facing a dire external threat, which riots stand poised to exacerbate. No one should treat “Riots are bad” as a counterargument to “Black Lives Matter.” Rather, it is a counterpart — the smaller part, perhaps, but nonetheless a vital one.