“We need facts not hashtags”: The Gen Z Reaction to the US Riots | George Jenkinson


There are many ways to approach the issue of race in America, one of the trickiest topics to discuss. It’s an issue which has burst into the psyche of people from around the world once again, since the tragic death of George Floyd a week ago, particularly at a time when people understandably lack hope and when distrust in our governments runs so deep.

So in forming our Gen Z view we could take a close look at the copious examples of institutionalised police racism and police brutality against African Americans; like the statistical fact that, for whatever reason, Black Americans are 40% more likely to be unarmed in fatal interactions with police, than white Americans. We could talk about the quantifiable economic inequality that entrenches disadvantage for generation upon generation of African Americans; like the fact that whilst the median white American family has a wealth of $147,000, the median African American family has a wealth of just $3,500, or 2% of the former. Or, we could even reflect on the history of this issue: the slave trade, the three-fifths compromise, the Jim Crow laws. Perhaps those inspired by the BLM movements over the past few days will endeavour to write about those topics, that would be a success. Instead, in this piece I want to review the reaction of British teens, many still largely apolitical despite Brexit, to the scenes coming out of the USA.

First thing’s first: you can condemn police brutality AND rioting looters. Second, there is no justification for rioting and looting, not even being frustrated.

Almost without exception, the death of George Floyd and the police & rioter’s reactions have rightly provoked shock and anger. Young people who are usually absent from the political debate – excepting Climate Change – have taken to social media to condemn ‘the broken system’ and ‘break their silence’ on the US injustice. This includes sharing petitions and inspirational quotes and so in many ways, is a positive step. This unprecedented engagement is a sign that Gen Z are as passionate about injustice as our Millennial siblings. It may also give an insight into our political priorities for the years ahead – social justice and climate justice – but will this change? The classic line that once Gen Z-ers receive their first P60 the economy will instantly become centre-stage may not hold as strong this time around. Not only is this generation more interconnected with the world than ever before, aware of viral injustices before even many journalists, but we are also more supportive of diversity than previous generations and for many, our first US President was Barack Obama. I believe, and hope, that the Gen Z repulsion of injustice will be a salient issue at each and every election.

However, there has also been a profoundly unsettling trendification of the Black Lives Matter movement, the apotheosis of virtue-signalling and at its very worst. A stream of Instagram stories in which perfectly well-intentioned social-justice warriors tag 10 friends to repost a blank screen with #blacklivesmatter, leaving many asking themselves: why?

Does this raise awareness? No.

Does this raise funds? No.

Does this educate others about…the stats, inequality or history? No.

With the egocentric-Instagram era in which we find ourselves it is perhaps unsurprising that, for some young people, the first response to this crisis was to reassert their absolute moral immaculacy and repent for the original sin of white privilege. This is not a proactive nor constructive response. It is of course important to recognise the privileged position that many of you reading this will find yourselves in, but that doesn’t necessitate guilt. The trendification of the BLM movement would not only be disrespectful but potentially quite dangerous. It diminishes the fundamental basis of the movement: that institutionalised racism, racial inequality and police brutality are not isolated to random incidents; but are a day-to-day lived experience for millions of African Americans, who do not have the benefit of hopping on and off the social justice bandwagon.

There is another concerning feature of the Gen Z reaction. Just as the Strike for Climate Change in the UK went from a well-intentioned protest to a Socialist Workers Party-sponsored “bring down capitalism” festival, an incredibly important issue is in danger of becoming toxically partisan. Over the week, Anonymous have resurfaced to distribute already-debunked stories about Trump as a paedophile and violence on both sides has been defended and subtly promoted. The President’s quotation from a bigoted 1960s Police Chief that “when the looting starts the shooting starts” was never going to induce peace. But equally, Martin Luther King III declaring “no justice, no peace” whilst police stations burned in Minnesota was a blatant endorsement of the unrest.

No justice. No peace.

— Martin Luther King III (@OfficialMLK3) June 1, 2020

The impact of this mantra on Gen Z could be particularly potent. The justification for political violence, the supposed need for a change of system rather than simply for changes to the system, and a blight of political conspiracy theories designed to undermine trust in public institutions…as well as, it seems, Chris Evans and Will Smith?

This kind of anti-establishment conspiracy theory is typical of the far-left and far-right and can be observed in the rise of Trump and Corbyn. Whilst, of course, their claims are widely debunked, a key problem for Gen Z is the lack of mainstream news sources and thus the absence of a quality filter or balance. It is only natural for people to read newspapers which reinforce their world view, for example you won’t find many ardent socialists reading the Daily Telegraph. But at least that sort of traditional news source is bound by a vague editorial code and regulatory standards. No such standards exist online. So, in the same way, it is only natural for a young person to follow accounts and seek out twitter-news that reinforces their world view – but where no quality control is applied, any opinion or claim can be passed on as fact.

Oxford University found that social media is the first news contact for 57% of 18-24-year olds each day. It is therefore easy to imagine when a friend retweets or shares a subtle falsehood, for example in describing antifa (now a proscribed terrorist organisation) as a mere anti-Nazi movement, or a conspiracy like the “Umbrella Man” undercover cop, that it can be taken as a simple observable fact, as if it were found on the BBC News App. This is one of the most dangerous developments in our Gen Z response, because it undermines trust in our institutions and our government at a time, here in the UK, when following instructions is vital. The responsibility is on everyone to correct these falsehoods when they arise, whether they support your political view or not.

As for my view on the state of the union, it is an unmitigated disaster. As of 1st June, there have been 8 recorded deaths across 5 different states. From rioters we have seen a storeowner stoned into paralysis for defending his private property, a homeless man watching his few and only possessions set alight, and journalists attacked by the mob. On the other side, we have witnessed the arrest and rubber-bullet shooting of journalists by police, NYPD vehicles ramming protestors, and up to 1’700 arrests. All in all, more than 100 U.S. cities have seen protests and 15 states have deployed their National Guards. It goes without saying that the violence must cease – on all sides – but after all the protesters have gone home and the fires are extinguished, the police will still be there doing their jobs, and the underlying problems will still remain.

This Generation needs to look at institutionalised police racism and police brutality against African Americans; the quantifiable economic inequality facing millions of African Americans; and face up to the history of this issue: the slave trade, the three-fifths compromise, the Jim Crow laws. Education is the best tool to achieve the MLK dream, not rioting, and certainly not emoji fists or Instagram challenges.

Ultimately, the change the protestors want to see will not be achieved through their current methods. Riots only further polarise the divide between the police and the people they serve. Communication and the engagement of community leaders, politicians, and job creators will be key– or else we will be back here in a few years’ time reflecting on how the legacy of George Floyd was allowed to be wasted just as the shooting of Michael Brown should have led to change.


Photo by Aimee LeBlanc on Flickr.

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