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Riot Fees and Identity Politics: Making the Innocent Pay

Opinion Editorial
November 16, 1999

By Linda Gorman

University of Colorado Regent Jim Martin wants to make all CU students pay a riot fee because riots by college age people have destroyed property in Boulder. He apparently believes that when damage is done, those in power have an obligation to see that someone pays and he isn’t overly picky about who that might be. Apparently well schooled in the post-modern collectivist philosophy of “social justice,” Mr. Martin sees nothing wrong with redistributing money from innocent members of one group to those who may have suffered no losses in another.

In an “it takes a village” world, all village members must pay, whether guilty or innocent. Pesky problems of individual guilt or innocence simply go away because misbehavior is society’s fault. When everyone is responsible, forcing innocent members of a guilty group to pay for the depredations of the guilty cannot be unjust. Therefore it is perfectly permissible to say that since the people who damaged property on Halloween looked like CU students, they must be CU students.

Mr. Martin calls this holding students accountable. “Maybe if there’s economic sanctions to students on the Boulder campus,” he was quoted as saying, “maybe a light bulb will go on in their heads. Where should this $100,000 [for the damage] come from? It shouldn’t come from the taxpayers.”[1] Leaving aside the question of what taxpayers who support ineffective policing methods really do deserve, the fact that there have been no arrests has almost certainly set off light bulbs in the heads of those who like to riot. So, no doubt, has the fact that morally confused public officials have come out in favor of making others pay their bills.

Regent Maureen Ediger differs with Mr. Martin in that she has geographic scruples. According to the Denver Post, Ms. Ediger said that since the riot was off campus “neither the university nor the student body should have to pay.” Presumably if the riot were on campus and the participants looked like students Ms. Ediger would agree with Mr. Martin. A more interesting question is what should happen if every registered student participated in a riot at Mile High Stadium. Given that Ms. Ediger says that the student body should not be fined for off-campus riots, would she support fining all individuals individually?

Ms. Ediger also believes that “We need to send a message that rioting isn’t acceptable.” In other words, those who riot are simply misinformed, a state of affairs that “we” need to rectify. It would be interesting to hear just who she thinks these people are and just how she thinks “we” can best communicate with the morally dense.

The traditional form of communication has been a good dose of tear gas and some time in jail. But these are enlightened times, and the traditional approach was roundly criticized after the Mile High Stadium riot. Perhaps it would be enough to require every student to certify that he knows that rioting is unacceptable when he submits his admissions papers. Those unable to certify that they know this could be required to take a remedial civics class stressing the importance of property rights in a civilized society.

The problem, of course, is that focusing on groups rather than individuals inevitably ends up penalizing the innocent and emboldening the guilty. But identifying individuals and bringing them to justice is such difficult, tedious work, particularly when the population at large persists in imagining that “students” are some harmless class of young people deserving of special treatment, that many public officials simply have no stomach for it. In a system that requires proof of individual guilt or innocence before action can be taken, they cannot “do” anything but bluff and bluster.

This state of affairs often proves intolerable to action oriented public officials with outsize notions of their responsibilities. Many of them succumb to the lure of identity politics. To win an election, target a likely group for blame, urge the populace to vilify both the guilty and the innocent members of the group in an atmosphere of legitimized hate, and then “do” something by passing laws to penalize those out of favor and reward those in it.

This continual emphasis on group membership has begun to erode the very idea of individual conscience along with traditional ideas of individual guilt. Rioters riot because no message has been sent, not because they are intemperate thugs. All white men are oppressors, all smokers are bad, all Christians hate homosexuals, and, in the words of Mario Cuomo, all gun owners are “hunters who drink beer, don’t vote, and lie to their wives about where they were all weekend.”[2]

Now that all students riot, those who pay their fees will have the opportunity to play their parts in this long and dishonorable tradition.


[1] Dave Curtin. 13 November 1999. “CU students may all pay for rioting,” The Denver Post, p. 1A.
[2] Quoted in Jeffrey R. Snyder. Fall 1993. “A Nation of Cowards,” The Public Interest, number 113, p. 46.
Linda Gorman is a Senior Fellow with the Independence Institute, a free-market think tank in Golden, Colorado, https://i2i.org. This article originally appeared in the Colorado Daily (Boulder), for which Linda Gorman is a regular columnist.

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