On Recent “Protests”: A “Tragedy of the Commons,” the Commoners, and the Commander in Chief

Phyllis Beveridge Nissila

A Tragedy of the Commons

A theory known as the “tragedy of the commons,” developed in an 1833 essay by economist William Forster Lloyd, occurs when individuals or groups work against their own self interest by overusing or exploiting an unregulated, shared space or resource. Lloyd developed his theory using the hypothetical case of the damage done public land, “the commons,” of a village in the British Isles where too many cattle were let graze without oversight.

The tragedy of the commons can also, I believe, describe the damage done certain shared spaces today, those in urban locations besieged by out-of-control protests (e.g., Baltimore, Ferguson—and now, Charlotte) where demonstrations against police brutality quickly degrade into riots; liberation efforts, to looting.

A Tragedy of the Commoners

Those claiming they want to help their own in the troubled cities in fact hurt their own as they toss out the rules regulating protests in lieu of mob rule, ignore the law in lieu of lawlessness; as they choose, in some cases, lies to justify their rage instead of awaiting the fact-finding process of proper investigation and litigation. 

Not only the commons, if you will, suffer, but also the commoners, i.e., those who live and work and invest in their local community who, after the riot fizzles, lose money on re-building–even re-locating—for who will want to shop and eat and invest there, now, particularly in light of a third tragedy in this new urban warfare: a Commander in Chief missing in action?

A Tragedy of the Commander in Chief

The fires may be out, the rioters sent home, or paid off and bussed to the next protest (as some purportedly are), but the peace is tenuous at best without the voice of leadership to quell the rage—to DO something. i.e, LEAD us out of this back-slidden social cause, as it were, that seems to be worse than it has been since before the Civil Rights Act of the nineteen sixties.

And worse, the door shut against one kind of racism seems now re-opened to not only let (back) in the old, overt forms of bad behavior, but also to promote a new, covert kind against another group of citizens, Caucasian Americans.

End racism” or police brutality against Blacks has morphed, now, in some corners of the modern commons, to “Kill Whitey,” because, as one Charlotte protester (who I hope speaks only for himself, nevertheless one hears this elsewhere, too) famously said, all Whites are “F—ing devils.”

That kind of sentiment, in another era of our history, boiled up to Civil War. Is that where this is headed? Really?

Worse yet, this new kind of opposition to a people group based on skin color has devolved into a no-win situation, as some “protesters” of the new racism apparently regard “whiteness” and its “evil” non-redeemable.

As one apparently well-known (and many-lettered) speaker of the cause I listened to several months ago in a college keynote speech put it, in a reference to the expression “Poor White Trash” (PWT): ”You can DO something about the ‘poor’ and the ‘trash,’ but you CAN’T do ‘nothin’ about the….” and here, the audience finished her sentence—many with laughter and applause.

Others wondered if PWT is now some kind of semantic equivalent to the N word.

One also wonders how far down and to what tragic end the thinking will devolve from here.

So back to missing leadership.

With no command(er) and control of the situation the tension remains, as well as the temptation to exploit the situation even more by those more interested in looting for the goods than lobbying for the good, let alone what happens when those allowed free rein in the fray are, by little oversight, enabled to degrade the “cause” to what levels of hatred remain to be seen. The track record is not good so far.

Thus, I ask: where are you, Commander in Chief?

We hear your few words of concern, but words without follow-up actions are only window dressing for broken windows, only a thin veneer of respectable response when doors and shops and lives are vandalized—and the once bold, shiny banners of “hope and change” we expected from what we believed to be evidence of a new tolerance born of the blood, sweat, and tears of this nation’s centuries of fight against racism are now tattered like the merchant signs in downtown Baltimore, Ferguson and Charlotte, twisting in the wind of empty rhetoric.

Not only is the President missing, but a curious phenomenon called Political Correctness seems to have stifled the voices of others who could help restore our cities—and the true cause. Most of the press and many of the political class gloss over the tragedies, calling them “protests” instead of “riots,” “trouble” instead of “terrorism” because they are afraid to offend those who, likely knowing full well what they are doing, co-opt the cause and torture the truth for their own kind of gain.

Journalists and politicians who ought to be the vanguard for restoring order—and common sense–seem more and more to engage in soft-peddling the news until, that is, locals with real-time reports (and videos and audios) publish what is really going on, what is really being said.

However, by that time, with so many other fires being set these days to great distraction—and many of the public rused once again–the real subject is also, once again, ignored (or so they hope?).

Am I cynical, or merely another “conspiracy theorist,” thinking there is some other reason to remain silent (or play another round of golf) while Rome (Baltimore, Ferguson or Charlotte…) burns?

Or am I yet another voice arguing it becomes clearer by the day that there is more to the state of today’s urban protests than what all the ivy-league and ivory-tongued political and press classes would have us believe; that what shocks the eye, assaults the nose, explodes in the ear, and tastes rotten is, indeed, rotten on the commons—worse, counter-productive to the true cause of peace and justice?

Whatever the situation in the situation room behind the scenes really is, I only hope for the state of this United States that there is still enough time to pick up the race relations and social equity conversations where one, Rev. Martin Luther King Jr., left off, his life interrupted by, some think, those of HIS day who also wanted it NOW–by any means–while he steadfastly preached restraint and love, the antidote to tragedy as he believed it. He put it this way:

Love is creative and redemptive. Love builds up and unites; hate tears down and destroys. The aftermath of the ‘fight fire with fire’ method…is bitterness and chaos, the aftermath of the love method is reconciliation and creation of the beloved community…Yes, love—which means understanding, creative, redemptive goodwill, even for one’s enemies—is the solution.”

Can we get back to that conversation?


Before another tragedy—for all?

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