Recently, developments in the city of Ferguson, Missouri (a close suburb of St. Louis) have ignited anxieties not only in the area near the city, but throughout the country. These tensions are largely race-related, which is a product of the event which caused the uproar that is apparent throughout the nation.
On August 9th, 2014, Michael Brown, an unarmed 18-year-old black man from Ferguson, was shot and killed in an altercation with Darren Wilson, a white Ferguson police officer. Though the circumstances of the incident are not entirely clear, the event caused major unrest both in the St. Louis area and across the nation in the late summer of this year. As a result, the nation awaited the verdict on the event. There have been a number of incidents resembling this one, most notably the killing of Trayvon Martin by George Zimmerman in 2012. This week, it was revealed that Darren Wilson was acquitted of all charges and will be receiving no legal punishment as a result of the incident. In the following days, civil unrest, largely consisting of violent and destructive riots, have occurred.
So the question arises: is this an appropriate response to such an (initially) outrageous incident? This question is one that may only be answerable by opinion. In fact, many individuals appear to be almost as upset by the response to the ruling as the people of Ferguson were following the shooting, and many self-proclaimed experts on the topic have taken to social media to express their discontent. An image of protesters burning an American flag has become an iconic cause of outrage for many in the days following the ruling. This image is a reasonable cause for anger, but that begs the question of why this anger results.
Two recent theorists discussed in class may have a very different opinions on the subject of rioting. The conservative, Edmund Burke would likely, and unsurprisingly, see such behavior as threatening and destructive to the long-developed fabric of our American society. However, John Stuart Mill, the liberal philosopher, would be a more difficult viewpoint to determine. Though he would certainly see the idea of taking action as a result of disagreement toward something as an admirable task, would he find these destructive riots and protests commendable, or would he be opposed to them?
The answer to these questions is entirely dependent on whether one sees these riots as productive, because, though Mill respected the freedom to pursue endeavors with a reasonable end, the only evident result of these riots is greater unrest and physical destruction. For this reason, I am convinced Mill would not find the particular instances of the Ferguson riots an acceptable response to Michael Brown’s shooting and the following verdict, but, for the same reason, one can be confident that Mill would admire the goal and actions of the non-violent civil rights protests of the 1950’s and 1960’s.
So, is it our right to riot? That may never be a question we can answer with certainty.