Victor Davis Hanson
We now have about 500-600 jurisdictions that are “sanctuary” cities, counties, and entire states—where progressive neo-Confederates have declared that federal law is now null and void in their safe spaces. But perhaps the most recent and dramatic instance of the nullification of state and local laws—“de facto nullification” as a result of politicized decisions by mayors and governors—came during the mass rioting following the police killing of George Floyd in May 2020.
In the major U.S. cities for the first few days of violent protests, arson, looting, and destruction, mayors in Minneapolis, Philadelphia, New York, and Los Angeles, as well as dozens of other cities, did not provide police protection for vulnerable small businesses. Nor could they ensure the civil rights of citizens in their jurisdictions to have their persons and property protected from violent looters and protestors. Nor did governors consider calling in National Guard soldiers or asking Washington to send military help, until much of the downtown areas of these cities were aflame. In part, their decisions reflected unpreparedness and lack of sufficient resources to deal with mass rioting and arson.
Initially nullification was also the result of official sympathy with the national protests against instances of police brutality and hopes that such government laxity would be interpreted as magnanimity to be reciprocated by protesters rather than as a lack of deterrence to sanction further violence. When violent protesters simply declared a section of downtown Seattle as their own sovereign territory, Mayor Jennifer Durkan declared that such lawlessness might well mark a “summer of love” and was analogous to a “block party atmosphere”—and thus did not order the arrests of violent protesters for weeks. But most of all, the 2020 nonenforcement of laws—and opposition to the arrival of federal marshals to protect federal property within states as well as the safety of citizens—were political acts deemed useful for anti-administration agendas.
The concept of allowing violent protesters to have free rein by deliberately not enforcing existing criminal statutes was likely first institutionalized by liberal Baltimore mayor Stephanie Rawlings-Blake, during the April 2015 riots in her city under the doctrine of allowing “space”:
“I made it very clear that I work with the police and instructed them to do everything that they could to make sure that the protesters were able to exercise their right to free speech. It’s a very delicate balancing act. Because while we try to make sure that they were protected from the cars and other things that were going on, we also gave those who wished to destroy space to do that as well.” (emphasis added).
Five years later, Minnesota governor Tim Walz likewise did not call in the state National Guard to quell unchecked violence in the state’s capital, on such a doctrine of giving “space” to protesters in hopes that de facto nullification of laws might lead to peaceful demonstrations. Minneapolis mayor Jacob Frey explained why he had even allowed arsonists to burn down an entire municipal police precinct with immunity from facing any criminal indictments:
“We could not risk serious injury to anyone, and we will continue to patrol the third precinct, entirely. We will continue to do our jobs in that area. Brick and mortar is not as important as life. Happy to answer any questions on this topic…The resources that we will offer to the people of the third precinct will continue. Period. The building is just bricks and mortar. It’s a building.”
Frey seemed clueless in a number of ways when he did not contest the burning of a police station. Apparently, he did not fathom that such indulgence only fueled more violence, as followed in the ensuing days. Buildings and real property are not merely “bricks and mortar,” but symbols of civilization, none more so than police stations. Moreover, they are public properties of citizens, not the private domain of the mayor, who is elected as an executive to enforce and execute existing laws, not to ignore. If he cannot do that, then of what use is a mayor?
What prompted the doctrine about nullifying law enforcement in times of riot and arson? Ideology mostly. All the mayors of the cities that experienced the most widescale violence—Los Angeles, Minneapolis, New York, Philadelphia, Portland, and Seattle—were progressive Democrats, as were many of the police chiefs, governors, local prosecutors, and state attorneys general. The consensus was that given society itself was culpable for allowing a supposed racist police officer in Minneapolis allegedly to murder an African American in custody, protecting its infrastructure was simply not a high priority, in comparison with virtue signaling solidarity with the protesters—at least initially before entire swaths of such cities became war-zones.
In the case of Governor Tim Walz, his own daughter tweeted out to protesters to prepare for the belated entry of the National Guard, presumably on inside information. The daughter of New York mayor Bill de Blasio was arrested during his violent protests while he was under criticism for nonenforcement of laws and undue restraint of police preemptive security patrols. Minnesota state attorney general Keith Ellison took over the investigation of the police killing of George Floyd, despite in the past appearing in a photo endorsing Antifa literature and warning that an Antifa handbook would “strike fear into Donald Trump.” Trump himself threatened to declare the violent group officially a terrorist organization. Ellison’s son, Jeremiah, a Minneapolis city-councilman tweeted out his own support for Antifa, even as it was helping to burn the city which he in part governed: “I hereby declare, officially, my support for ANTIFA.” A visitor from another planet might have surmised that a number of blue states had adopted the tactics of Southern governors between 1961–63, who then were clearly on the side of violent demonstrators and were unwilling to protect the civil rights of their opponents.
Who in the end paid for the nonenforcement of laws prohibiting violent protests and street violence? For the “tolerance” given looters to have space for their theft? For government officials romancing of Antifa terrorists? Mostly African American and other inner-city citizens, many of whose stores and businesses were closest to the downtown violence and thus left vulnerable to the looting and burning. As it turned out, the wages of not enforcing the law fell most heavily upon the citizens with the least ability to object to nullifying enforcement of the very statutes that civilization relies upon to protect the vulnerable.