During a May 31 press conference, Gov. Roy Cooper spoke effectively to the issues of police misconduct and injustice raised by the death of George Floyd. He also condemned the “violence and destruction” that unfolded in Charlotte, Raleigh, Greensboro, Fayetteville and other cities as protests became riots.

Unfortunately, either the governor or his staff apparently thought his prepared remarks, otherwise sober and appropriate, needed some pizzazz. So they dropped in a memorable soundbite, and aggressively marketed it over the next several hours. It became the theme of Cooper’s statement, and of the state’s initial reaction to the riots.

No doubt you saw or heard it: “Let me be clear. People are more important than property.”

Saying this was a foolish miscalculation. It made Cooper appear clueless and cavalier.

Of course human beings are important in a way that inanimate objects are not. But in practical terms, rioting and looting is always about people harming people. For every window shattered, door broken and store looted, there are human victims. There are business owners and their employees, already reeling from the COVID-19 recession, trying to keep their heads above water. There are police officers and bystanders put in harm’s way. There are people made more fearful to work, shop or live downtown.

And in this case, the victims include protestors whose heartfelt grievances about abuse of governmental power are shoved aside by violent reaction and counterreaction.

While it is impossible to know with confidence the relative percentages, it is clear that the throngs filling the downtowns of cities in North Carolina and elsewhere in recent days consist of three discrete groups: ralliers, rioters and revolutionaries.

The first group are those rallying against police misconduct and injustice. They comprise the vast majority, particular in the early hours of a demonstration. They are overwhelmingly peaceful. They are angry. They have every right to be. And most North Carolinians, of all backgrounds and parties, agree with them about George Floyd.

The second group, the rioters, make up no more than a few percentage points of the crowd. But the proportion grows as the night wears on. They are opportunists, using the cloak of a political protest to engage in wanton destruction, larceny or a combination of both.

The third group, the revolutionaries, are only a tiny fraction. These are the anarcho-communists who call themselves “anti-fascists” (antifa), perhaps with a smattering of play-acting white supremacists who call themselves “patriots” or “nationalists.” These radicals see civil unrest as means of accomplishing their revolutionary ends. They are, of course, deluded and idiotic. Alas, they are still dangerous.

The rioters and revolutionaries, not the ralliers, are the ones attacking city halls, police stations and other buildings. They are the ones looting stores. They are the ones assaulting cops. In Raleigh, a group of them tried to storm the county jail. As law enforcement responds with tear gas and other tactics, ralliers, onlookers and news reporters are caught in the crossfire. Conditions spiral quickly out of control — a tragic outcome for most, but an outcome welcomed by the rioters and revolutionaries.

Protest leaders recognize the peril that rioters and revolutionaries pose to their cause. Some insist that they, not law enforcement, be allowed to “police ourselves.” Their intentions are good, but protestors attempting to forcibly restrain provocateurs could itself escalate into violence.

The truth is that after two nights of letting the rioters and revolutionaries get away with too much, North Carolina’s cities were left with little choice but to respond with curfews and other sweeping measures.

There is no need to establish hierarchies of injustice. We can and should express outrage about George Floyd’s death and other abuses of government power, without endangering the liberty, property and perhaps even the lives of other innocent victims.

We stand on the edge of a precipice here. We can help each other seek higher, safer ground. Or we can let a few bad actors provoke us into a shoving match, with potentially disastrous consequences.

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John Hood (@JohnHoodNC) is chairman of the John Locke Foundation and appears on “NC SPIN.”

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