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Throw the Book at the Rioters

The only cause advanced by rioting is authoritarianism.
June 24, 2020
Throw the Book at the Rioters
A man throws a Molotov cocktail on Melrose Avenue in the Fairfax District during demonstrations following the death of George Floyd on May 30, 2020 in Los Angeles, California. The vast majority of protesters demonstrated peacefully. (Photo by David McNew/Getty Images)

The rioters who tried to burn and beat their way to a better world over the past few weeks are about to learn a rough lesson.

The same ever-present cellphone cameras that capture police misconduct—would we ever have heard George Floyd’s name if all we had was the cops’ own description of his death as a “medical incident”?—are also capturing the violence and destruction wrought by many of the rioters in return. And this footage is being used by the authorities to track them down.

That’s a good thing—a good thing for the rule of law, a good thing for the actual cause of reform, and a necessity if we still want to live in a republic.

In Portland, a 14-year-old and 18-year-old were arrested after being caught on video curb-stomping an unconscious man who was attempting to flee a violent protest mob.

A couple of white men have been rounded up for torching a police precinct in Minneapolis. As for whether they were reacting to the trauma of a lifetime of injustice, I would just note that the second guy police arrested was 22-year-old Dylan Shakespeare Robinson, who hails from Brainerd, a prosperous lake resort town in Northern Minnesota. Young Master Shakespeare was arrested in Breckenridge, Colorado—a town known for its ski resorts. That’s not usually the profile of the poor and oppressed.

In Philadelphia, the feds used photos that showed a distinctive tattoo—a peace sign, ironically—and a custom T-shirt from Etsy to track down a massage therapist who set fire to cars, including a police car. Lore-Elisabeth Blumenthal is the daughter of a professor of German literature who chaired the Department of Foreign Languages and Literatures at LaSalle University.

This has been a common profile from the riots, where some of the worst violence, vandalism, and looting has been instigated by relatively well-off young people inflamed, one assumes, less by the lived experience of injustice than by radical leftist ideas. They weren’t there to cry out for reform so much as play-act at revolution.

Now that these alleged vandals have been caught, they are very sorry. And, of course, there are plenty of people ready to make excuses for them.

Take one of the most garish cases, that of two Brooklyn lawyers, Colinford Mattis and Urooj Rahman, respectable products of elite universities who were arrested for making, distributing, and throwing Molotov cocktails at a riot in New York.

“He’s a person with an extraordinary career that was just starting in the law. He attended prestigious universities, he had some of the best education that you can have in this country and yet he risked everything—everything—to drive around in a car with Molotov cocktails attacking police vehicles,” federal prosecutor Ian Richardson said during one of Mattis’s initial court appearances. “It is difficult for me, frankly,” Richardson later added, “to comprehend how somebody in his position with his background would do what he did.”

A former colleague of Rahman’s, Alicia Bella, said she couldn’t reconcile the charges with the person she knew. “I’m very surprised. My heart goes out to her, and I want to do everything I can to help her,” she said. “I know what this country does to people who express themselves. I’m definitely worried.”…

By all accounts, their alleged actions stand in contrast to their nature.

As for how Rahman was “expressing herself,” here is the prosecutors’ description of the form of self-expression she and Mattis chose:

Prosecutors say the two lawyers drove Mattis’s tan minivan late in the evening of May 29 to participate in widespread protests in Brooklyn’s Fort Greene neighborhood. There, just before 1 AM on May 30, Rahman approached an empty NYPD vehicle with an already broken window and tossed in a makeshift explosive device, according to court filings. She also “attempted to distribute Molotov cocktails to several other individuals and to incite them to use the Molotov cocktails in the course of the protests.”


There has been an outpouring of sympathy for Mattis and Rahman from fellow lawyers, and we’re entitle to wonder how this is “progressive.” It’s almost as though these sympathetic observers are horrified by the prospect that another educated middle-class lefty—someone like them—might actually go to prison.

Good. They ought to be horrified.

We should throw the book at Mattis and Rahman and at everyone else who came out to riot and not to protest. If anything, we should be less sympathetic to offenders such as Mattis and Rahman precisely because they were educated, had prospects in life, and knew the law. They knew—or should have known—what they were doing.

It should go without saying that the rioters are actually setting back the legitimate cause behind the protests. As a matter of historical record, burning cities and smashing store windows tends to make the case for police crackdowns, not police reforms.

But I’m more concerned about what this says about the far left’s real goals. The common belief of the rioters—the essence of their supposed idealism—is that force, violence, and terror are an acceptable means of achieving political results:

Since the protests, video that appears to include an interview with Rahman taken the evening of the alleged incident has surfaced online. Posted to YouTube by a group called Loudlabs News NYC, the video shows a woman who gives her name as “Urooj” and who wears the same outfit in which Rahman was photographed that evening. “This has got to stop, and the only way they hear us is through violence.”

This isn’t a spontaneous act of anger. It is a theory of how to achieve political change, and there is a full court press right now to get America to accept assault, looting, and arson as normal and acceptable forms of political activism.

We should take a moment to think what that actually means. It means that argument, debate, and voting would be replaced as the means for making political decisions with a kick to the teeth. Persuasion would be replaced by terror.

Isabel Paterson once described Maximilian Robespierre, the instigator and leader of the Reign of Terror, as “the humanitarian with the guillotine.” That captures the contradiction of today’s rioters, who tell us they’re going to make the world a better place through terror and mayhem.

The only cause served by this is totalitarianism. If you are for violence as a means of achieving political change, then you are not against the abuse of power. You are only against its abuse by somebody other than you.

That this view should be promoted and acted upon by trained lawyers, with the apparent sympathy of many of their colleagues, is what should really alarm us.

Because if even lawyers don’t believe in the rule of law any more, who does?

Robert Tracinski

Robert Tracinski is editor of Symposium, a journal of liberalism, and writes additional commentary at The Tracinski Letter.