The American legal system sometimes assigns to people a responsibility to retreat from conflict when it is reasonably possible to do so, even in cases where someone may be in the process of being wronged. Under this system, the former Wyatt Detention Center guard recorded on video driving his truck into a crowd blocking the entrance to the facility parking lot during an immigration enforcement protest likely cannot use the fact that he was unjustly physically blocked from a public space as a defense for initiating an assault.
The system is rooted in the principle of stopping conflict from escalating towards greater violence first, (or as some scholars would say, prevents the contagion of violence from spreading), then meting out justice later.
The stability of this system and its enforcement structures — indeed, the stability of the whole of civil government – depends upon people’s willingness to forego their immediate pursuit of fair outcomes when such pursuit could lead to an escalation of violence, and their placing their trust in the state to apply justice later once the threat of violent escalation has passed.
It is a system that will break down, obviously, when the state fails to visibly and impartially pursue its role in the trade-off between order and justice.
This is not a normative analysis. This is descriptive. If the authorities who control the modern state’s monopoly on the use of force take a pass on protecting fundamental rights like the right to travel through public spaces and add insult to injury by not dispensing justice later once the threat of violence has calmed, then those whose rights have been devalued will seek their own means to protect themselves from conflicts and to dispense their view of what is fair.
This is precisely the dynamic that unfolded at the Wyatt Detention Center on the evening of August 14. A mob asserted control over public space surrounding the detention facility, taking it upon themselves to decide who had the freedom to travel on the public streets there, without regard for norms, rights or any notion of consent of the governed. The response of driving a truck into the crowd, whatever you think of its proportionality, began from a choice made necessary by the disappearance of legitimate governing authority: either submit to a mob denying the right to traverse a public space or confront them.
The escalating conflict that followed is exactly the kind of predictable series of events that this blog has warned about…
Once society accepts that fundamental rights can be limited by self-appointed groups who declare that their causes take priority over the natural rights of others…the rational response for every individual is to join a strong group that will protect their basic rights. With different groups sharing the same space, each defending the “rights” of their members, but not recognizing those of outsiders, the result will be an anarchy more brutal than anything any libertarian would be comfortable with (libertarians, after all believe in natural rights).
At this point, you may be tempted to respond to the argument so far with a stern lecture about how it is the job of the police to handle a situation like this.
Well, the police were there, and they weren’t handling anything. Now what?
This is not a normative analysis. This is a descriptive one — and there are only a few pathways along which the system can evolve from here.
Our society could choose to accept anarchy, to accept that whoever has the bigger, tougher, better organized gang wins for themselves the use of public spaces; literally implementing might makes right as a governing principle. This does not seem to be a pathway that governing authorities in Rhode Island will consciously choose, as state government quickly remembered the importance of deterring violence from escalating, once the focus of events became people not involved in the intentional blocking of traffic.
A second possibility would be to cut the problem off at its root: enforcing laws and norms against blocking traffic and against denying people the right to travel in public spaces, and uniting around a shared norm that has served our society well. (I concede that that last phrase is a bit normative).
Of course, this depends on the right to travel being a norm that is widely shared. Is this still the case? The affinity repeatedly shown by protestors for blocking traffic, combined with the so-far one-sided response by Rhode Island authorities, suggests that it may not be; this, in turn, points in the direction of the third possible evolution of the system: convincing people that it is acceptable for government to protect fundamental rights within the context of a caste system, where some people have fewer rights than others. For various reasons, this is an unlikely candidate for smooth implementation.
That is your universe of choices. In the end, any way forward that abandons the impartial defense of the right to travel will lead to more and more cycles of violent conflict that will only be eliminated once the norm acting against those who try to block innocent people from traveling in public spaces is rediscovered.
And that is not a normative analysis, it is most definitely a descriptive one.
n.b. Don’t think for a second that the story of a mob of teenagers running riot through Providence on a summer afternoon is unrelated to them hearing about various news stories and thinking: hey, when enough people get together to do what they want in public places, the authorities can’t do anything to stop them.