By ALEXANDER BOGDANOWICZ, political columnist
In 1791, hundreds of Pennsylvanians united in protest against the newly-formed United States government, infuriated with the notion that their new government was imposing a Whiskey Tax on its people. In response, President Washington quickly raised an army of 13,000 militiamen and led the effort to suppress the insurgency. It had only been three years since the Bill of Rights was written, and already the populace was abusing its privileges.
Washington’s response represents more than just the end of one rebellion. It reflects how one of the core principles on which the United States was founded—freedom of speech—became distorted. But free speech associated with violence, destructive behavior, and property damage is no longer protected under the First Amendment, and the rights of the people to assemble and petition are forfeited as soon as voices turn to fists.
The current problem in the United States, namely in Baltimore, is one that troubles the notion of change and reform. The Baltimore riots were sparked by the death of African-American Freddie Gray in late April, the result of a group of police officers allegedly exploiting the power that was vested in them. This was the result of a failed judicial system that has, time after time, neglected the needs and safety of African-Americans and other minorities. Regardless of this injustice, the Baltimore riots were in no way justifiable. Government intervention was not only key to the resolution of this issue, and violent demonstrations in general, but also morally and legally necessary.
Threatening public safety is a severe offense, enough for perpetrators to be detained, arrested, fined, or even incapacitated. Approaching the outbreak of riots aggressively can aggravate the situation rather than rectify it. Therefore, the government aims to contain riots rather than actually intervene. To prevent another incident of police brutality, the police and National Guard took a hands-off defensive approach to dealing with rioters. But when buildings are burned, property is destroyed, and people’s lives are put at risk, the government has a legal and moral obligation to serve and protect innocent civilians.
The United States, like many republican nations, functions under the idea that representation covers all aspects of change. From passing legislation to enforcing those laws, people do not directly instigate change; the government does. Everything is decided by officials elected to represent the voices of their constituents. Because the United States operates through its representatives, violent protest and rebellions are not accepted modes of implementing change.
What, then, is the purpose of protesting, if it does not immediately spark change? Protests are slow; they take time to organize and often entail radical methods or intense dedication to be effective. True protests do not involve fists but ideas. The power of the mind and thought does not break laws or push past the boundaries of morality and public safety; the mind uses laws to its advantage. Protesting is a way to attract the attention of representatives who have the power to foster change. Yes, burning, breaking, and stealing may attract the attention of authorities and prompt the government to take immediate legal action. However, these actions do not promote positive reform. They are only setbacks to their cause and will eventually become a major factor that leads to its demise.
Historically speaking, the United States has never been able to adapt to change quickly. Activists of the women’s rights movement, the civil rights movement, and now even the LGBT equality movement are all examples of reformists that have dedicated time, patience, and work to their cause, prevailing only after a long period of time. They have steadily come closer to their goal, not through shattering windows and looting businesses, but through government recognition and intervention. The same government intervention that defends our citizens against unjustifiable crime, and that which suspends the rights of those who infringe upon the rights of others.
The optimal situation in any movement is one that does not involve government intervention. If change has been capable of rearing itself without the use of force in the United States, then what is the purpose of violence and criminal behavior? Government intervention is not portrayed by the media in a positive light; but 100 years from now, will it matter what the opinion of the Huffington Post was, or will the fact that innocent people were protected be remembered by future generations? Government intervention will be criticized in history. When taxes are raised in order to rebuild and fund the damages done to Baltimore, what will the citizens of the future think of us then? Will the citizens of Baltimore blame the government? Why didn’t the government intervene and why does it now charge the city’s citizens for its own failure to take action? Everyone who supports violent revolt outside of its threshold does not support the United States government. We cannot only support government intervention when our houses have been pillaged and we stand in the ashes.