In the November issue of Harper’s Magazine, Yale Professor David Bromwich authored an essay titled “Is America Ungovernable?” The scope of the essay is wide, but it primarily focuses on the protests against police brutality in the wake of George Floyd’s murder, and the response of the Democratic party and liberal media. His central thesis comes from the second-to-last paragraph: “Democrats … must step forward to criticize the destructive behavior publicly, and rally the party to the cause of the rule of law.”
The piece itself is well written and its arguments finely crafted. The problem is that his arguments are built on a faulty premise: namely, that the liberal media selectively reported on this summer’s protests. In reference to the supposed mass violence this summer, Bromwich writes, “Conservative papers such as the Washington Examiner and the Daily Mail are online, too, and they say out loud and freely display the things the Times and Post hint at.” I think it is important to offer a fact-check on this premise, and observe whether it holds in reality.
Is Bromwich’s account of violence at protests accurate? He paints a compelling picture of “rubble … piled high” and “gutted shops, broken windows, stolen goods.” If this was reality, then the situation would be truly dire. If we move past anecdotes to data, however, 93 percent of Black Lives Matter protests have been non-violent, according to a report by The Armed Conflict Location and Event Data Project. Of course, Professor Bromwich could argue that his problem is only with the seven percent that were destructive, but his piece moves between the term riot and protest at will, and never mentions that the violence he condemns only occurred at a small percentage of riots. Such a conflation is dangerous, at a time when 42 percent of people, according to a Morning Consult poll, believe that “most protesters are trying to incite violence or destroy property.” These distortions bolster right-wing claims that Democrats support violence and anarchy, decreasing support for the BLM movement and increasing support for Republicans like Trump.
Even if we only look at the few violent protests, however, Professor Bromwich’s argument about them is false. He claims that along with increased condemnation, increased policing is the solution to the violence: “The truth is that Democratic mayors have played a dangerous game in ordering the police to stand down.”
There are multiple flaws with this claim: First, the ACLED study cited above found that, whatever neutrality the mayors presented, the police’s response to the protests were already disproportionately harsh and violent. If this sounds contradictory, consider that mayors often lack control over their police forces, due to the outsized strength and size of police unions.
More importantly, the claim that more intense policing would subdue the riots is specious. Many, from police chiefs to government-commissioned studies, claim that harsh police response escalates the violence of protests. Indeed, given the many protests where police can be seen on video initiating violence, it is not too far-fetched a claim to argue that a harsher, more authoritarian Democratic response would have only increased the violence and destruction Professor Bromwich so fears.
But even if all of his concerns were true, his call to action doesn’t make sense. At the end of the piece he pleads with the Democratic party, claiming that they “must step forward to criticize the destructive behavior publicly,” lest Donald Trump exploit it to rally his campaign. He cites mayors who have not spoken out against rioting, but major party leaders already have. President-elect Joe Biden has repeatedly denounced the violence at the protests. So have Barack Obama, Jim Clyburn, Kamala Harris and a number of other significant Democrats. In other words, the action that Professor Bromwich demands has already taken place. What, then, is the aim of this essay? To quote a conservative canard: “Facts don’t care about your feelings.”
I have a question for Professor Bromwich. If you really wish to stem further violence and destruction, and if you still believe in “unending peaceful argument,” why not direct your essay at the police, those who commit racist brutality and those who enable it? After all, as you say: “Self-government means, originally, one person governing the actions of one person.” Why not, then, convince the police to govern themselves, rather than giving the Democrats responsibility for their misconduct?
GEORGE NIGHSWANDER is a junior in Jonathan Edwards college. Contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org.