Protests are an American tradition, with protective rights enshrined in the Constitution, and a distinguished legacy that includes the Boston Tea Party and Martin Luther King’s civil rights marches and rallies. They are also perhaps the most misused and abused device in national politics. Most of them are useless, many of them are stupid, and too many of them do tangible harm.
The Obama Administration’s crisis of the hour is the Ethics Trainwreck in Ferguson, Missouri, where a perfect storm arose when an an inept, distrusted and untrustworthy police force and a poor and frustrated African-American population clashed over the Rashomon shooting of an unarmed black teen. Now there are demonstrations every day in Ferguson; several people have been killed, and the demonstrations have spawned rioting and looting.
What is the purpose of all of this? It better be a good one, given its cost, and the protesters better be right. The problem is that the protesters can’t possibly be right at this point, because the facts aren’t known. We are told that the reason for the demonstrations is larger than mere anger over the shooting of Michael Brown; that it’s about police harassment, abuse and violence against African-Americans and their lack of accountability for it. That would only be a sustainable justification if in fact the death of Brown was an unequivocal, clear-cut example of the phenomenon being protested. It is not, not yet, and it may never be. So again the question has to be asked: is it ethical to be protesting in Ferguson at all?
A Rasmussen poll has determined that fifty-seven percent (57%) of black adults, 17% of whites and 24% of other non-black minority Americans think police officer Darren Wilson “should be found guilty of murder,” for a population wide total of 23%. Every single individual in that 23% is, regarding this matter, ignorant, irresponsible, and unethical. That is fact. There is no basis, at this point, for any of those 23% to know with sufficient certainty—the judicial standard is beyond a reasonable doubt in this society—that Officer Wilson committed a crime. There is no way to be certain of anything in this case other than the fact that Michael Brown is dead, and Officer Wilson shot him. For that 23% to say that they know Wilson is guilty of murder can only be a product of various poisonous concoctions of bigotry, bias, stupidity, recklessness, and/or confusion. Are these 23%, including the 57% of black adults, the ones demonstrating in Ferguson, chanting “Justice for Michael”? It would seem so, and if that is the case, “Justice for Michael” means “Ignore Justice For Darren Wilson.” The responsible U.S. adults in this episode are the 43% of blacks, 49% of other minorities and 56% of whites who are undecided regarding Wilson’s guilt, the only fair and rational position possible.
Early in this blog’s history, I proposed a Protest Ethics Check List, ten questions that responsible would-be protesters were obligated to answer before they could be sufficiently certain that their protest or demonstration was just and met utilitarian standards. Here it is:
Protesters, no matter what they are protesting, have an ethical duty to ask themselves these ten questions before they stop traffic, jam networks, take over buildings or otherwise make life miserable for people who have little or nothing to do with what is being protested:
- Is this protest just and necessary?
- Is the means of protest appropriate to the objective?
- Is there a significant chance that it will achieve your objective or contribute to doing so?
- What will this protest cost, and who will have to pay the bill?
- Will the individuals or organizations that are the targets of the protest also be the ones who will most powerfully feel its effects?
- Will innocent people be adversely affected by this action? (If so, how many?)
- Is there a significant possibility that anyone will be hurt or harmed? (if so, how seriously? How many people?)
- Is the motive for the protest personal, selfish, or narrow?
- Are you and your group prepared to take full responsibility for the consequences of the protest?
- Would an objective person feel that the protest is fair, reasonable, and proportional to its goal?
Question #7 is of special relevance in Ferguson, where looters have struck with a vengeance. Large demonstrations often create chaotic circumstances that allow lawless predators to do terrible harm. I believe that protester and demonstrators who create the conditions for looting deserve to be held accountable for the results. This is especially true in protests like these, which are directed at police and place law enforcement in an impossible position if it attempts to restrain the protests and contain them. Yesterday I heard Ferguson business owners whose establishments had been gutted by looters plaintively ask CNN’s Jake Tapper, “How does this get justice for Mike Brown?” Good question, and I hold the demonstrators responsible for not asking that question at the outset.
By my assessment, the protests in Ferguson don’t meet the requirements of at least nine out of the ten questions.
It is an unethical protest.
Addendum: Here is the Ethics Alarms Protest Code of Ethics, first published here.
The Protest Code of Ethics
A. Guiding principles
All participants in protests and demonstrations should recognize and respect the important role lawful assemblies for the purpose of airing grievances and advocating change and reform have played in the history of the nation and civilization, must strive to uphold the best of that tradition by upholding these ethical principles. A protest without leadership and objectives is only a mob, and a protest without discipline and respect for others is a riot.
B. Public protests
Any protest involving demonstrations or other public conduct…
1. Should have clearly articulated objectives, and not be motivated by trivial offenses or narrowly selfish interests.
2. Should be planned, controlled by its organizers, establish standards of conduct, communicate and enforce those standards, and last no longer than is reasonably necessary to send its desired message.
3. Must designate leadership and spokespersons who take responsibility for the consequences of the protest and conduct of the protesters, speak for its participants to the media and others, and are authorized to deal with and negotiate with authorities.
4. Should be preceded by the obtaining of all necessary public permits and the payment of all required bonds, as well by timely advance notice to authorities.
5. Should accept and meet financial responsibility for public expenditures resulting from its activities.
6. Should avoid destruction of property.
7. Should take place only on public space, or private space where permission has been obtained in advance.
8. Should be sufficiently controlled to ensure that its activities, demonstrations and message are not co-opted and used by other groups and activists with different agendas, goals and objectives.
9. Must not unreasonably and unnecessarily disturb the peace, safety and quality of life in the immediate vicinity.
10. Should not unreasonably, recklessly or carelessly interfere with the ability of uninvolved parties to get to and from work, run errands and otherwise engage in their normal activities.
11. Must accept responsibility for and be accountable for the words and conduct of its participants.
In participating in demonstrations and other public protests, protesters…
1. Have an obligation to have a clear, definable and substantive object of protest. Protesting is not a game or a pastime. It is a serious civic act and should not be undertaken frivolously or without legitimate cause or provocation. Trivial, ephemeral, vague or undefined goals are not legitimate objects of protest.
2. Should make every effort to ensure that the purpose of the protest is just.
3. Must have a thorough knowledge and understanding of the issues involved and the relevant facts relating to them. Participation in any protest should be based on sufficient study to include opposing points of view, reliable data, and credible sources. It is not sufficient to delegate this responsibility to others. One should not protest based on the unsubstantiated assertions, opinions or passions of others. If a protester does not have sound personal comprehension of the reasons why the object of a protest is legitimate and just, he or she should not be participating in the protest.
4. Must not violate any laws in the course of the protest, unless the law itself is the object of protest. If the purpose of the protest is to violate a law to demonstrate opposition to it, the protester must not resist arrest, but submit to it according to the principles of civil disobedience.
5. Must not assault, threaten, insult, attack or defy police, except in cases where defiance is the objective in protesting an abuse of legal authority. Any such defiance must peaceful and non- confrontational.
6. Must not engage in violence of any kind.
7. Should not bring weapons to the protest, or display weapons in a threatening or provocative manner.
8. Should avoid incivility, gratuitous insults, racist or other bigoted messages, signs or chants, gross characterizations of adversaries, misleading statements, unfounded accusations, obscenity, threats of violence and rumor-mongering.
9. Should not use or exploit as participants or props children or other individuals who are incapable of understanding the purpose of the protest or giving informed consent to their participation in it.
10. Must not use illegal drugs or protest while intoxicated or otherwise substance–impaired.
11. Should practice good safety and hygiene during the course of the protest.
12. Should make every effort to restrict the effects and consequences of the protest to the parties directly responsible for the object of the protest, or decision-makers whose actions and policies are substantially involved.
13. Must not intentionally or carelessly harm, burden or inconvenience innocent third parties, groups and organizations.
14. Should actively police the protest, and make reasonable efforts to discourage unreasonable, unlawful, violent or otherwise unethical conduct by fellow protesters.