The White House amid clouds of tear gas as park police clear a nighttime protest in Lafayette Square.

The protests after the murder of George Floyd by Minneapolis police have led me to think on a game theory question I’ve avoided to this point.

When is it time to riot?

I don’t mean protest. It is always time to protest. Injustice doesn’t take holidays. No matter what day it is, protesting is both justified and desirable.

I don’t mean loot. Indiscriminate looting is just crime. You bust up a Cheesecake Factory, you’re unlikely to inspire change.

I mean riot. I mean burn police cars, shatter windows, overrun barricades, storm the houses of power, put yourself in the path of military vehicles with clear awareness that they might try to run you over. I’ll define “riot” in a specific way, to say that rioting is attempting to intimidate the government into changing its behavior by giving it fear of cracking down. Usually, this means putting yourself in immense physical danger. If the word bothers you, substitute the much more heroic word “rebel.” Just know that the people on the other side are using the word “riot” and acting accordingly.

To think of it in game theory payoffs, we need to know what rioting gets you. The presumption is that rioting intends to turn opinions somewhere, whether in the seats of power, the media, or allies outside your area. Somewhere, someone will respond in a way that helps your cause, and with luck eliminates both the need and desire to break stuff. You gain or preserve freedoms by showing the risks to those who try to take them away.

There’s a counterbalancing factor: you might die. At minimum you risk your freedom, but there are worse consequences. There’s a lot of blowback too: You could get other people killed. You could destroy important things that can’t come back. You could inspire the other side, and make heroes out of its villains. You could chase allies away from your cause. If resistance from government forces is quick, lethal, and unpunished, you could lose without effecting change at all. The calculation is tragic but simple:

When being killed by authorities for rioting is not yet the norm, then rioting is likely justified, as you gain or preserve more freedoms than you lose. When it is the norm, you may gain nothing but your death.

I’d argue that there’s an inflection point, where the government has not yet cracked down on rioters in the harshest manner, but has endangered the lives of its citizens. Are we there? Before we try to answer that, let’s talk about a place that definitely is.

The answer is obvious if you’re in Hong Kong. That time is now. Or rather, was last year. The Hong Kong government floated a law called the Fugitive Offenders Bill. It allowed nearly unlimited extradition from Hong Kong to China, destroying provincial law by subjecting Hong Kong residents to the penalties that, say, a million Uighurs are suffering under. China is famous for using the law enforcement tactic of disappearing people, and that year, booksellers in Causeway Bay went missing after selling books about Chinese political figures such as Chairman Xi. Hong Kong was shaken.

Hong Kong’s people had everything to lose. A million people protested. On the 12th of June, with the reading of the Fugitive Offenders bill scheduled at Government Headquarters, the people would show the police how much they cared about their freedoms.

The pro-democracy movement in Hong Kong explicitly rejected the word “riot” to describe this and other actions against the police. Their demands were fivefold: withdrawal of the bill, investigations into police brutality, release of all arrested protesters, retraction of official characterization of the protests as riots, and resignation of Hong Kong’s chief executive, Carrie Lam, and the ability of all citizens to vote in her replacement.

The Hong Kong government, propped up by China, replied with crackdowns. As the protests filled the streets, reprisals were swift and violent, including one tragic event on a main train line. This is a difficult video to watch, but you should watch it all the way through, if you can.

This is a total breakdown in what philosophers call the “social contract.” That is an implicit agreement among members of a society to cooperate for social benefits. This requires giving up some individual freedoms for state protection. For example, people who want to drive cars on public roads must accept speed limits and penalties for breaking them. As long as both sides respect the social contract, society can continue.

This is a cornerstone principle in the games my company makes. When people ask us questions about our games, we often say “we do not adjudicate social contracts.” If players want to play by different rules, we don’t stop them, but we also don’t guarantee the game will hold up if they do. When your character dies in our Pathfinder Adventure Card Game, you’re supposed to lose it forever (a condition called “perma-death”). We had people beg us to remove the perma-death rule, because they loved their characters. But it was part of what held the game together. So we told them we would not adjudicate their social contract. They could change the rules, but what happened thereafter was up to them to adjudicate.

The social contract isn’t perfect. It often leaves some people behind. The homeless, for example. People without medical insurance. Veterans suffering PTSD. Victims of child abuse. And so on. But on a day to day basis, it allows society to function as well as it does. That’s its job.

It is not clear if anyone died in the Prince Edward Station attack. But it was unprovoked, brutal, and terrorizing. If that is what you can expect when you take the train to work, you cannot go to work. The agents of the government destroyed the social contract. With the social contract broken, you must redirect your efforts toward a way to effect change. Would riots help? Hard to say. After many deaths and 6,000 arrests, the situation in Hong Kong remains unresolved. It is clear that acquiescence did not help.

You may have noticed those umbrellas in the Hong Kong clash. Umbrellas are what normal people use as riot shields to fend off tear gas. Here’s the fate of one pink umbrella in a protest this week in my home of Seattle.

Seattleites as a general rule do not own umbrellas. We think it shows weakness in the face of rain. We all own umbrellas now.

With the burning of the Minneapolis Police Department’s 3rd Precinct, the movement had its Bastille. Swiftly, the Twitter list of trending topics became just a list of cities. Everyone knew why.

As protests spread around the country, all eyes were on Washington, D.C.

The White House shrouded in darkness, with Trump hiding in a bunker.

At the White House, Trump, roundly criticized for hiding in a bunker during the previous night’s protest, did the most horrifying thing he’s done in 3½ years of horrifying things. As he gave a speech declaring himself “the president of law and order” who would use his military might to “dominate” the cities, shots rang in the background.

In accordance with Defense Secretary Mark Esper’s demand that the military “dominate the battlespace,” Attorney General Bill Barr ordered police to fire on peaceable protesters to clear Lafayette Square. (Barr has since tried to distance himself from giving that order.)

The tear gas was extended to St. John’s Church, hitting members of the clergy. This allowed Trump to walk across the square to the church and hold a bible. It was violence as photo op.

This action shredded the social contract between the federal government and America in three notable and catastrophic ways. Per Julia Azari and Perry Bacon Jr. of FiveThirtyEight:

In being generally unsupportive of the protests against the killing of George Floyd by Minneapolis police officers,Trump is in tension with a core democratic value — America taking additional steps to ensure people are treated equally, no matter their race. Trump’s decision to break up the protest then subverted one of America’s core democratic values, the right to peacefully protest. Finally, by involving the National Guard and senior military officials in the action against the protesters, Trump also disregarded the democratic value that the military and police not be used for political purposes.

Tiananmen Square, 1989. Some people didn’t just stand in front of the tanks.

If you’re looking for clues as to whether Trump respects the social contract, there’s your answer. It is likely unsurprising, given Trump’s infatuation with dictators. Given his show of might on the 31st anniversary of the Tiananmen Square massacre in which the military killed 10,000 protesters, many recalled that he approved of it.

When the students poured into Tiananmen Square, the Chinese government almost blew it. Then they were vicious, they were horrible, but they put it down with strength. That shows you the power of strength. Our country is right now perceived as weak … as being spit on by the rest of the world.

It’s spine-chilling that such a person is in charge of our tanks. For four years, Trump attacked the free press. Now police are attacking them directly. Nearly 150 journalists were attacked in the US between May 29 and June 2.

Linda Tirado, a photojournalist, was shot with a “less-lethal” round while covering protests in Minneapolis on Saturday, permanently losing vision in her left eye. Michael Adams, a Vice News correspondent, lay down when ordered to do so by police, holding a press pass above his head. He was still pepper sprayed in the face. Kaitlin Rust was broadcasting on WAVE3 News in Kentucky when an officer appear to take aim before hitting her with pepper balls. “I’m getting shot,” she shouted live on air. Police later apologised.

If these outrages were limited to the Trump administration, it would be easy to handle as a red-vs.-blue issue. It’s not. Overwhelmingly, police violence has come in cities run by Democratic mayors. As one, those mayors defaulted to siding with police as they turned on their own constituents.

The social contract depends on mayors of cities protecting their citizens from harm, especially from their own employees. All of these mayors walked some of this back. But it sure hasn’t been a good look.

Even when they’re trying to help, the sheer ineffectualness of Democratic mayors is staggering to watch. Here is Minneapolis Mayor Jacob Frey in a T-shirt outside his home, where a crowd wants him to give them some reason to hope. He says he has “been coming to grips with my own brokenness in this situation” and promises to revamp “a systemic racist system.” He says the “police union needs to be put in its place” and police practices reworked. But the crowd wants a simple yes or no answer to the question “Will you defund the police?” He would not commit to abolishing the police department. Here’s what happened next.

The worst (so far) display of Democratic mayoral ineffectiveness was in Buffalo where Mayor Byron Brown supported the police who pushed over a 75-year-old man to the pavement, making him bleed from the head. The police department said he “tripped and fell.” You be the judge.

That video is worth watching for another reason. What is notable about this video, in addition to the elderly man being assaulted by cops, is just how bad these cops are at walking in formation. That is because despite how they are armed, police are not trained members of the military. Keeping control of a populace en masse is not what they know how to do. That activity is reserved for the National Guard. And as the fabric of the social contract comes apart, this is where we might look for hope.

The military has decided there is one enemy it will not fight, and that is the American people. Former defense secretary James Mattis excoriated the president as a threat to the Constitution the military is sworn to uphold.

When I joined the military, some 50 years ago, I swore an oath to support and defend the Constitution. Never did I dream that troops taking that same oath would be ordered under any circumstance to violate the Constitutional rights of their fellow citizens — much less to provide a bizarre photo op for the elected commander-in-chief, with military leadership standing alongside.

We must reject any thinking of our cities as a “battlespace” that our uniformed military is called upon to “dominate.” At home, we should use our military only when requested to do so, on very rare occasions, by state governors. Militarizing our response, as we witnessed in Washington, D.C., sets up a conflict — a false conflict — between the military and civilian society. It erodes the moral ground that ensures a trusted bond between men and women in uniform and the society they are sworn to protect, and of which they themselves are a part. Keeping public order rests with civilian state and local leaders who best understand their communities and are answerable to them.

Perhaps spurred by Mattis, the Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, General Mark Milley, wrote to all his colleagues from the services this extraordinary three-part order:

1. Every member of the U.S. military swears an oath to support and defend the Constitution and the values embedded within it. This document is founded on the essential principle that all men and women are born free and equal, and should be treated with respect and dignity. It also gives Americans the right to freedom of speech and peaceful assembly. We in uniform — all branches, all components, and all ranks — remain committed to our national values and principles embedded in the Constitution.

2. During this current crisis, the National Guard is operating under the authority of state governors to protect lives and property, preserve peace, and ensure public safety.

3. As members of the Joint Force-comprised of all races, colors, and creeds — you embody the ideals of our Constitution. Please remind all of our troops and leaders that we will uphold the values of our nation, and operate consistent with national laws and our own high standards of conduct at all times.

Thereafter, the leaders of the services sent out similar messages to their commands. A reading of this chain suggests the generals were floated some action that they could not in good conscience follow through on. The clear direction is that if someone gave a command that was unconstitutional—even the Attorney General—the military was to disobey it.

To the police who would commit violence against peaceful protesters and journalists, the military said, you are on your own.

As the military abandons Trump, he has apparently turned to a ragtag group of officers from random agencies to restore order in D.C. Officers with mismatched gear and no badges or insignias—but plenty of assault weapons—have been seen patroling D.C.’s streets. This motley crew has no training working together, no police authority, and no accountability, making it somehow worse than the police that cleared Lafayette Square.

1600 Black Lives Matter Plaza is a fine address for the White House.

The social contract is being held up, for now, by the military and by some governors and mayors who’ve realized that maybe the police don’t have their back after all. Washington’s Mayor Muriel Bowser fired a warning shot by invoking the Third Amendment (where’ve you been, friend!) and kicking the Utah National Guard out of D.C. hotels. She even changed the name of the street in front of the White House to “Black Lives Matter Plaza” and had the words painted outside Trump’s front door. At the mayor’s urging, Secretary Esper—he who coined the term “dominate the battlespace” for suppression of peaceful protest—then disarmed the National Guard in D.C. and made plans to send them home. This morning, Trump took credit for the idea, not mentioning that they were leaving without his approval anyway.

So where does this leave us?

I’ll go back to the formula I put at the beginning of this piece. When being killed by authorities for rioting is not yet the norm, then rioting is likely justified, as you gain or preserve more freedoms than you lose. When it is the norm, you may gain nothing but your death.

I’ll leave it to others to decide whether rioting is justified. It still seems too dangerous on many fronts, while other options are available. But I will say that we are within the zone where it’s harder and harder to condemn it on moral grounds. In addition to forty million unemployed and a hundred thousand dead from a pandemic the administration encouraged, we have an election called into question. The solution may not be at the ballot box, if it ever was. We now have police committing violence against citizens with seeming impunity. Cops are killing African Americans and heedlessly attacking protesters. It’s looking a lot like Hong Kong did last year.

I think, though, that the police are not as invulnerable as they think they are. There are a million of them, but that’s still a lot less than the number of people who might turn against them if they continue to behave this way. In Minneapolis, the school board has already cut its contract with the police. Los Angeles cut their budget by ten percent. Seattle has taken away their tear gas for 30 days. And the biggest payback could be yet to come.

It pains me to say this, but the true problem is the unions. Normally, I’m 100% percent behind public unions, but police unions seem to exist for one purpose: to stop bad police officers from being punished. After this week, the “one bad apple” myth will be the province of Osmonds songs. Police departments cannot claim they’re composed of mostly good cops when none thought it wise to help a 75-year-old man bleeding from the head off the concrete. People who use the “bad apple” metaphor forget that it means the whole bunch is spoiled. For many police unions, that’s intentional.

Minneapolis Police union boss and public menace Lt. Bob Kroll.

The Minneapolis police union is repped by Lt. Bob Kroll, who allegedly wore a white power motorcycle patch and refers to his state’s African American attorney general as a “terrorist.” The NYPD’s head of the sergeants union, Ed Mullins, has “declared war” on his own mayor. These are not public servants. These are thugs. But their membership has elected people like them over and over.

For those who trusted the police, those feelings are shaken. For those who didn’t, the anger is a hurricane. That hurricane is coming for America’s police. Police unions face contract negotiations, and have stunningly engaged in a nationwide campaign to cripple their own leverage. The power of the police exists only if there is funding for police. Unions can be busted. Budgets can be cut. Entire departments can be defunded. Contracts—even social contracts—can be renegotiated, or rewritten entirely.

But I must ask: And then what?

There more than a million gang members in America. Who will arrest them when they commit crimes? There are 15,000 murders per year in America. Who will investigate them? There are nearly 400 million guns in the hands of Americans. Who will take them away if gun control legislation is passed? What about the guns in the hands of those million police officers?

We cannot have a nation without police. They’re part of the social contract. When they join us in enforcing the social contract, such as Michigan Sheriff Chris Swanson did when he marched with protesters, they are welcome.

But if we cannot have a nation without police, we also cannot have a nation where police do not fear consequences for attacking civilians. Something must bring them to heel. Someone. A lot of someones. Look at the size of this entirely peaceful crowd in Philadelphia this weekend.

“Philadelphia Freedom,” indeed.

Police estimated that crowd at 8,500 people. Look, I know crowd sizes. That was a hell of a lot more than 8,500 people. The police had to notice and do the math. The math says they cannot win.

I don’t know if it’s time to riot. Seems like time for the police to think we will.


This is the 57th installment of a series on politics and game theory. It has covered impeachment of Trump, Russian collusion, white supremacy, abortion, guns, nuclear war, debt, the NFL, sexual harassment, the Mueller probe, taxes, Trump’s first year, the Clinton Foundation, immigration, parades, the Democrats, hope, family separation, trade wars, Trump’s endgame, the New York Times op-ed, Justice Kavanaugh, Speaker Pelosi, lame ducks, the GOP legacy, the stock market, the Democratic field, shutdowns, third party candidates, the Virginia scandals, in-party impeachment, Trump’s mafia code, college admissions, William Barr, Brexit, Iran, the Mueller Report, Joe Biden, Oregon’s standoff, the environment, Jeffrey Epstein, Trump’s lies, Pelosi’s strategy, Trump’s conviction, political outsiders, Rudy Giuliani, the Berlin wall, protest art, political timing, religion, engagement, Bernie Sanders, progressive unity, the Democratic nominee, the pandemic, and unemployment. The first 21 of these essays are in my book Game Theory in the Age of Chaos, which you can order by clicking the link.