I keep hearing people, including journalists, refer to the riots that are literally consuming our country as the “George Floyd” riots. There are many wrong things with this term, and its implications. In a way we would have to assume that things were well in our country until looters poured out into the streets after the murder of George Floyd. To credit the murder of George Floyd as the cause of the 2020 riots is like assuming that Gavrilo Princip started World War I.

On June 28, 1914, Princip, murdered Archduke Franz Ferdinand, heir to the Austro-Hungarian throne, and his wife Sophia, as they strolled through the streets of Sarajevo, Bosnia. Princip was a member of a Serbian secret nationalist society known as the Black Hand, who sought to stop Austro-Hungarian influence in the Balkan region. Austria-Hungary blamed Serbia for the murder, and on July 28 declared war on Serbia starting what we know today as World War I. Some may still feel that if Princip had not assassinated Ferdinand, perhaps Austria-Hungary would not have invaded Serbia, and we would not have had World War I.

Bigger problems

What is happening across our country right now is only a glimpse of a greater problem; a problem we as a country have been sweeping under the bed for centuries: Tribalism. Our society is sick and has been sick for a very long time. What is happening right now did not start with a video showing graphic images of the murder of an African-American man by the name of George Floyd. The illness is rather old, and we have been carrying it for centuries.

The disease is not terminal, but for so long, we have refused to seek treatment or even acknowledge that we carry it.

In the early days of the last century our world experienced indescribable horrors during the two world wars, and all the collective suffering and death they inflicted. We also became very familiar with the word communism. Terms such as Marxism and Leninism became familiar, in reference to two of communism’s early crusaders.

Why would anyone embrace communism?

My purpose here is not to lecture anybody on what communism is or is not. We all, including me, have strong aversions to such ideology for obvious reason.  We have all seen the horrors of communism, and the destruction that such a system has brought to every place it has infiltrated: the systematic destruction of society, of freedom, of faith, of family, of personal identity, and ultimately of country.

Communism steals everything from everybody, including the very poor. So, the fundamental question we may all ask is, why would a rational society ever embrace communism? You may also ask; what connection is there to the riots ravaging our country? I would like to answer those two questions in the next few paragraphs.

protests and civil war 

I was born in Central America. I am one of those refugees who left my home country in my youth, as that country boiled in civil war. Like many other Latin American countries, El Salvador had been ruled by military dictatorships for centuries. By law, citizens were made to vote. No, it was not a right to vote, it was a crime not to vote.

Citizens would go to the polls and vote against the dictators, but they knew quite well that their vote had no voice. They knew who would be their next president, and it would not be the one they were voting for. It would be the general in military regalia and shining boots. People did the only thing they could: protest.

But the generals did not like that. It made them look bad, especially when foreign visitors were around. Many of these dictatorships were sponsored, and advised by the CIA, and they could not afford to look weak, or they would lose the lucrative US funding they received. If the municipal police could not handle the situation and the protesters did not go home, the generals would send the tanks, and the streets would be cleared quickly.

People tried to voice their discontent every way they could, but to no avail. In one occasion, one of the generals, by the name Maximiliano Hernandez Martinez, removed Indians from lands they had owned as ancestral inheritance since before colonial times. The Indians had held on, and used their properties following ancestral customs of communal ownership, and never registered them as the Martinez government mandated. Martinez saw the Indians as lazy, ungovernable, and ignorant, and used “Land Reform” as an excuse to take their land away, and “redistribute” it to large coffee planters.

His actions provoked political unrest and massive demonstrations by the peasant population. The general declared martial law, and sent the army into the streets. In the space of six days, tens of thousands of peasants were killed, imprisoned, or disappeared. The year was 1932.

Never, never land

There comes a time in the life experience of people when frustration overrides reason. We saw it during the 2016 election, which spawned “Never Hillary” and “Never Trump” movements. These were people who could not find much good in the candidate they were endorsing, yet they were willing to tolerate causes they really opposed, only to see the other candidate defeated.

This happens when people are driven to the point of hopelessness. They have tried, they have waited, they have endured, for generations, and seen no results. They grow hopeless to the point they no longer care. This is also a time when people stop talking, and tribalism takes over.

Tribalism is exclusive and self-serving.

It blurs out commonalities, and magnifies difference. It fertilizes distrust, suspicion and hate, and vilifies compassion, tolerance and cooperation. It instills a culture of “survivalism” making it easier to throw rocks at those outside the tribe.

People see no point in stepping over the aisle, and go instead into their own corner for protection from perceived adversaries. And the only thing they want from there on is to see “them” defeated, or even killed. There is no need to talk. There is no need to cooperate. There is no need to care about “them.”

“nothing could be worse”

Eventually, people in El Salvador stopped demonstrating peacefully, and began taking up arms. Such a move did not help them much, as the army had better weapons, and lots of money to spend. This frustrated people even further. It was then when the voices came, the agitators, the opportunists, the pied pipers; and people listened.

They heard words they had never heard before: Insurrection of the masses, revolution, political oppression, proletariat, Marxism, and many others. People did not know what all those things meant, but they did not care. They embraced the promise of seeing the generals defeated. Dead. “Nothing can be worse than what we have,” they would say.

Had these people been given a chance for peace? They would have taken it. Had they been given a fair chance to dialog? They would have taken it. Had their electoral choices been respected? They would not have listened to the other voices. But it was too late.

Many like to measure the civil war in El Salvador as a 12-year conflict that started in 1979 after the deposition of General Carlos Romero. Many would even argue that this was not more than a struggle against communism, as if everything had been fine and well until 1979. Just a month before the peasant revolt of 1932, US Major, A.R. Harris, had written a letter to the US War Department stating the following. “I imagine the situation in El Salvador today is very much like France was before its revolution, Russia was before its revolution…. The situation is ripe for communism, and the communists seem to have found that out.” (Report of military attaché A.R Harris, to the War Department, December 22, 1931)

I believe that most civil conflicts could be prevented if it wasn’t for pride and selfishness.

We want to be right. We always want to win, and spit on the loser’s face. We see it as a virtue. We are strong, and nobody messes with us.

When we as a society choose to go into our own corner and close our ears to anything that comes from the other side, we have started building the foundation for civil war. War happens when people stop talking, and there are no winners in a civil war.

renouncing tribalism

The riots of 2020 are showing us how easily things can get out of hand and how we all lose when people stop caring. The cocktail has been brewing for a long time, ready to explode, ready for a little spark. The murder of George Floyd provided that spark.

No, the problem is not our politicians, or even the police; the problem lies deeper within each one of us. Until we realize the value of others and are willing to break away from our tribe and walk over the aisle and make the sincere effort to understand, and respect the position and opinion of those with whom we disagree, things will only get worse. The pressure inside the keg will only continue to grow.

Politicians are only a reflection of who we are. We elect them, and we elect them according to our values. They fight worse than cats and dogs, but isn’t that what we want them to do? In the process, they inspire us with anger, frustration, and hate. We don’t want them to compromise. There is no room for moderate voices. We call that weakness. We don’t want them to listen to the opinions of the other tribe. We praise them when they are mean and vicious toward the people we hate. We want them to be like us. Don’t blame them. They are us.

No, the death of George Floyd was no more the cause of the riots than the murder of Archduke Ferdinand the cause of World War I, or the coup of General Romero the cause of the Salvadorian Civil War. It was the fruit of years of frustration, hopelessness, and eventually self-exile into tribalism.

a better way

As Christians we need to pause and measure our words and actions by the words of Jesus, not the behavior of political leaders regardless of party affiliation. It’s not about being right. Self- righteousness leaves no room for dialogue.

What we need the most today is Christians who can muster all the courage needed to look weak.

We cannot continue measuring others by our own reality. We need to be willing to recognize, and empathize with the struggles of others, and be willing to listen, and validate their reality. We need to stop telling people to “grow up and forget about it.” Let’s step out of our tribal strongholds and see those we don’t like as human beings, as fellow sojourners in this land, as citizens worthy of our respect.

We also need to be humble and admit that we have gotten this whole thing wrong. There will be no solutions if we continue to do things the way we have been doing them.

The solution is up to us.


Joel Reyes‘ life was changed in 5th grade by a teacher in a little rural school in El Salvador who could see beyond his extreme poverty and overwhelming obstacles. He challenged Reyes to dream by saying, “You should be a teacher. You would make a good one.”