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Are Riots Justifiable?

Summary:
The protests that followed the brutal police killing of George Floyd have at times become violent and caused considerable damage to public and private property. But riots are not always indefensible, and we can use three criteria to assess that question. MELBOURNE/LODZ – In late May and June, following the brutal death of George Floyd under the knee of a police officer in Minneapolis, mass protests against systemic racism took place across the United States and around the world. Floyd’s death followed many previous police killings of unarmed African-Americans who were not behaving violently. Most protests were peaceful, but some turned into riots with widespread looting and vandalism. But while protesting against

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The protests that followed the brutal police killing of George Floyd have at times become violent and caused considerable damage to public and private property. But riots are not always indefensible, and we can use three criteria to assess that question.

MELBOURNE/LODZ – In late May and June, following the brutal death of George Floyd under the knee of a police officer in Minneapolis, mass protests against systemic racism took place across the United States and around the world. Floyd’s death followed many previous police killings of unarmed African-Americans who were not behaving violently. Most protests were peaceful, but some turned into riots with widespread looting and vandalism. But while protesting against police brutality and racism is surely legitimate, can riots also be defended?

The most thoughtful philosophical defense of rioting is by Avia Pasternak of University College London. Pasternak defines a riot as “a public disorder in which a large group of actors, acting spontaneously and without formal organization, engages in acts of lawlessness and open confrontation with law enforcement agencies.” She adds that rioters typically cause damage to public and private property, as well as harming people, often in the course of clashes with police. Pasternak wrote before Floyd’s death, but her article provides a framework for assessing what took place after it.

Pasternak starts from the idea, familiar from discussions of ethics in war, that under certain conditions it is permissible to cause harm to others – even to innocent others – in order to defend oneself from an unjust attack. Commonly, three conditions are specified:

  • Necessity: there is no other way of defending oneself against the unjust attack;
  • Proportionality: the harm inflicted on others must be outweighed by the harm averted by stopping the unjust attack; and
  • Success: the actions that inflict the harm must be part of a strategy that has a reasonable chance of stopping the unjust attack.

Pasternak argues that a justifiable riot must satisfy these conditions. Following her lead, we can ask whether the riots after Floyd’s death do.

Peter Singer
Author: Ethics in the Real World, The Most Good You Can Do, Animal Liberation, The Life You Can Save

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