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Markkula Center for Applied Ethics

A (Morality) Tale of Two Protests

group of white protesters holding signs about essential jobs

group of white protesters holding signs about essential jobs

Peter Minowitz

Peter Minowitz is a professor of political science at Santa Clara University and a Faculty Scholar with the Markkula Center for Applied Ethics. Views are his own.


“He who accepts evil without protesting against it is really cooperating with it.”

–Martin Luther King, Jr.

Righteous indignation is often crucial for ethical analysis and action. Unfortunately, it sometimes leads people to oversimplify issues in ways that can hamper justice along with the common good. I shall explore this problem by comparing the widespread protests that the killing of George Floyd has triggered with the much smaller “reopen” protests from late April. 

Ethical issues can rarely be resolved in a vacuum, and they often require us to ascertain facts—and to offer predictions—that we must struggle to master. In the eloquent words that Jamelle Bouie recently shared, the current challenges oblige us to proceed “with profound humility about the limits of what we can know and what we can foresee.” Although I opposed the agenda of the reopeners, and I favor vigorous efforts to combat racism and police brutality, I would fault anyone who exalts the current protests while demonizing the April ones.

The main thing I find admirable in the reopen protests is that they highlighted a well-defined objective that could be implemented very easily. They sought to reduce, and perhaps to terminate, shelter-in-place orders that constitute the most sweeping restrictions on America’s liberties that have been imposed in my lifetime. These restrictions, moreover, were (and are) inflicting huge hardships on tens of millions of people. Removing the restrictions would rapidly bring several major benefits: e.g., reducing unemployment, expanding services (including construction, gyms, medical/dental care, and in-person schooling), boosting retirement portfolios, and reducing fiscal risk.

Because the virus threatens to wreak so much additional havoc, however, I favored the continuation of the shutdowns. But there are more relevant facts than any of us can know, and no one can make ironclad and detailed predictions about how the alternative policies would play out. If nothing else, the protests promoted an agenda worth considering. The protests, furthermore, were carried out primarily in a peaceful manner, though an ambulance in Michigan was blocked; I would also condemn the gun-toting protestors who interfered with Michigan’s state legislature. Do these abuses, however, justify the protest bans that authorities issued in Sacramento, Raleigh, and New York City?

If the current protests succeed in accelerating the disappearance of systemic racism and police brutality, they would provide our country with an invaluable blessing. Unfortunately, the protests are conveying few concrete demands whose implementation would produce the immensely attractive goal. And this problem is aggravated severely by the ills that certain protestors are generating.

One medium-term outcome the protests might produce is that juries will be more likely to find Derek Chauvin et al., along with the men who killed Ahmaud Arbery, guilty of murder. This could be a huge gain in short-term justice. But encouraging anything like “trial by riot” sets a dangerous precedent that threatens due process and the rule of law.

Even more alarming is the destruction that has accompanied the current wave of protests, which have included shooting, burning, smashing, pummeling, pelting, looting, ramming, and blockading.

The killing of Floyd, Arbery, and Breonna Taylor—not to mention the centuries of brutal racism that preceded it—is an outrage. But how does that justify the creation of countless new victims, e.g., the individuals who have been rammed by cars or shot, not to mention people whose property is destroyed, who cannot procure medications because their pharmacy was looted, or who are trapped on a road because it has been occupied by demonstrators?The “by any means necessary” slogan suggests a ruthlessness that Stalin would have admired, and the lesson that “two wrongs don’t make a right” apparently needs reiterating. One might wonder, furthermore, how many police officers will be conducting themselves more patiently and gently during the next few months; let us hope that those who have acted violently in responding to peaceful protests are severely disciplined.

When one compares the current protests with the April ones, additional ironies—and tragedies—are apparent. Critics of the first movement were justified in complaining that maskless protestors could be facilitating the spread of the virus to a series of new victims. Andrew Cuomo, Eric Garcetti, and other progressive leaders, however, now find themselves obliged to warn citizens about the resurgence of Covid infections that the protests will probably unleash. The dangers far exceed the ones that the reopeners created: the current protests, in addition to being exponentially larger, are creating thousands of face-to-face encounters with law enforcement. As we all should know, furthermore, the virus is having particularly deadly effects on African-Americans.2 We must also appreciate the burdens that the disruptions are placing on law enforcement, firefighters, and other first responders, not to mention the individuals who end up having to undertake the clean-up and repair work.

Would George Floyd welcome any of the destruction and danger? His brother Terrence certainly doesn’t.

California’s governor, a graduate of my department at SCU, offered a strikingly tepid comment about the recent disruptions:

“To those that want to exploit this moment and that want to fan violence and fear—we hear you as well, but we don’t have the same sensitivities as it relates to those that are trying to exercise their voice from a place of hurt and pain.”

In addition to vindicating the manifestly legitimate protests issuing from people impelled by pain to “exercise their voice,” Gavin Newsom could have presented a vigorous plea against the violence.

One final irony leaps to mind when comparing the two protests. In attempting to boost his political prospects, it seems, Donald Trump fueled the first batch with “LIBERATE” tweets, and he has spoken and acted even more perniciously during the past two weeks. But the rampant destruction and disruption, which are now spawning curfews all around the country, might boost his prospects for reelection. And that would be a staggering blow to Black Lives Matter.

1 Here is a Facebook video that was filmed in our backyard, on Highway 101: 

2 Activist Yolanda Williams recently complained that “we are having to choose from either dying from Covid or dying from cops.” Among the many facts relevant to assessing her claim, here are two: the virus has killed roughly 22,000 African-Americans during the first half of 2020; police shot to death ten unarmed African-Americans during all of 2019.

Jun 7, 2020