In my mind, one of the greatest moments in human history was Martin Luther King leading a quarter-million people in a march on Washington D.C. in 1963 during the height of the Civil Rights Movement when he made the iconic “I Have a Dream” speech. It was during this fight for freedom, of course, that African Americans were battling for a place at the lunch counter, a seat on the bus, equal footing in our society. It was a defining moment in a beautiful string of peaceful protests during one of the most unstable times in our country’s history.
But some would argue that a series of riots across the country might actually have pushed the Civil Rights Movement forward. Perhaps the most famous one, in Birmingham, Alabama, nearly burnt the city to the ground, making it look like a scene out of a war. Prominent thinkers have argued that events like these woke white America the hell up. Shook them out of their collective sleep and let them know that institutionalized racism was real and that things had to change. That’s why, as a white man, I can’t view the current riots in response to George Floyd’s murder at the hands of police as anything other than another wake-up call to a white establishment that too easily falls asleep at the wheel. People are struggling. PEOPLE are dying.
But in that same breath, that’s probably why we were all so disgusted when we saw white people spilling out of a ransacked Patagonia store, faces covered by masks, stealing surfboards straight off the shelves. Jackets, anything they could get their hands on, raiding Amazon trucks, taking advantage of real protesters doing real work and destroying small businesses along the way, many of which are owned by minorities just trying to make a living. What does this have to do with surfing?
As surfers, god, I hope we’re better than this. Yes, we certainly have our crusty days, yelling at each other in the water, but we like to think we live on the fringe of society’s rules. We ride to our own beat. We band together to lift up surfing communities across the globe, regardless of race, creed, or color. Don’t we? Or maybe we’re just a bunch of soul stealers, bent on getting our own waves and screw the next person. Because it certainly appeared that way in those videos. This is where the subtle nuance of rioting and looting becomes more clear to me than ever.
Dr. King explained —without condoning — why riots are part of change: “Let me say as I’ve always said, and I will always continue to say, that riots are socially destructive and self-defeating. But in the final analysis, a riot is the language of the unheard. And what is it that America has failed to hear? It has failed to hear that the plight of the Negro poor has worsened over the last few years. It has failed to hear that the promises of freedom and justice have not been met. And it has failed to hear that large segments of white society are more concerned about tranquility and the status quo than about justice, equality, and humanity. And so in a real sense, our nation’s summers of riots are caused by our nation’s winters of delay. And as long as America postpones justice, we stand in the position of having these recurrences of violence and riots over and over again.”
However, randoms who are uninvolved in the greater cause of fighting for justice, destroying and stealing from poor mom and pop businesses is not something I can morally rationalize. Especially when it’s just plain stealing with no recognition of the greater mission, which is to end institutional racism. I can’t believe Dr. King would ever, ever want that. Setting fire to the Minneapolis police department, massive bonfires in the streets, it hurts deeply to witness in the news but I also understand the need for an extreme statement. But stealing from small businesses just trying to get by in an already unstable economy – yes, Patagonia may not qualify, but there were plenty of others destroyed that do. In one of the videos, above, you could hear a man ask if the woman got a new board as she carries a fresh stick under her arm. She answers and points in the direction of where they could be found for the taking.
Stealing food, supplies, essentials in poor urban areas where those are needed? Again, nuance in a complicated world. But stealing surfboards, destroying shops in Santa Monica, this is the height of white privilege – and just plain dumb.
We’re living in extremely unsettled times – times that require equally matched courage to face. Courage to empathize with an entire race’s struggle for equality. Courage to differentiate right from wrong, just from unjust, the necessary from the unnecessary. And most important, the courage to be kind. Always.
Editor’s Note: To sign a petition to help find justice for George Floyd, go here. At press time, some of the boards had reportedly been returned while others were still missing. We will follow up with more information.