After the recent death of a black man brutalized by a policeman, protests broke out in Minneapolis and other cities around the country. Most protesters, although understandably angry, were nonviolent. But violent attacks on people and property also took place. Stores were looted and burned, a police station was torched. At least some of the looting was done, not by protesters who got carried away, but by thieves taking advantage of the disorder created by the protests.
Some protesters dusted off the old slogan, "No justice, no peace." This slogan sounds plausible. Justice and peace are indeed connected. But the slogan gets the basic relationship between peace and justice backwards. The words should be in the opposite order: "No peace, no justice." Although some injustice is inevitable, the absence of peace multiplies opportunities for injustice.
People are most likely to be treated unjustly, not during peacetime, but under the extreme conditions found during revolutions and wars. The horrible treatment of the former slaves was initially made possible because the Civil War never really ended but just continued underground in the South. The worst practices of the Nazi holocaust against Jews were during World War II. The U.S. "relocation" of Japanese Americans, during the same war, was later officially recognized as a gross injustice.
Law can resolve conflicts whose outcome might otherwise be determined on the streets or in battlefields. Law and war are both expressions of political power and (as Mao Zedong put it) all political power grows out of the barrel of a gun. But law strives to inflict its sanctions only on individuals who break the rules of the game, whereas wars rain down their bombs indiscriminately on the innocent and the guilty alike.
Justice was hardly done to the shopkeepers whose buildings were recently looted and burned. Many of these shopkeepers were members of racial minorities. None of them, minority or otherwise, had done anything justifying such treatment.
Justice is most likely when government has a monopoly of the right to employ force and employs it with appropriate procedural safeguards — "due process of law." Private violence — riots, terrorism, vigilante "justice," lynching — has no procedural safeguards. Like wars, its wrath is inflicted indiscriminately. Any government worthy of the name must firmly put any such violence down. When the police can't do this, governors can call out the National Guard, as several governors did.
The Minneapolis case and its worldwide repercussions remind us, though, that government itself can act unjustly. Government organizations are staffed by fallible human beings. There are good cops and there are bad cops, and the bad ones can inflict horrible injuries on people they single out..
Riots, however, do not address this problem. They increase opportunities for the bad cops to treat people arbitrarily and for professional gangs of thieves. And riots can place good cops and otherwise peaceful protesters in stressful situations in which they get carried away by their emotions.
Peaceful conditions are necessary for justice to have any chance, which is why the fundamental relationship is "no peace, no justice." However as the recent events demonstrate, accumulated injustice can set off wars or mass uprisings.
Those who want law and order therefore must prioritize making unjust treatment by government as rare as possible. Special attention must be given to selecting and training police officers. Those who abuse the powers that have to be given to them must be severely punished.
Predictably, the Minneapolis riots were met with calls for peace and quiet. The calls for peace were a good idea. But as civil rights leader Al Sharpton pointed out, being quiet about an atrocity is a terrible idea.
Unfortunately, the rioters and looters confused the situation and distracted from the peaceful protesters' valid complaints.
Paul F. deLespinasse is Professor Emeritus of Political Science and Computer Science at Adrian College. He received his Ph.D. from Johns Hopkins University in 1966, and has been a National Merit Scholar, an NDEA Fellow, a Woodrow Wilson Fellow, and a Fellow in Law and Political Science at the Harvard Law School. His college textbook, "Thinking About Politics: American Government in Associational Perspective," was published in 1981 and his most recent book is "Beyond Capitalism: A Classless Society With (Mostly) Free Markets." His columns have appeared in newspapers in Michigan oregon, and a number of other states. Read Prof. Paul F. deLespinasse's Reports — More Here.
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