There’s been enough protesting in the last year in America that most readers have become well-versed in the principles behind protests, and the debate about the merits of violent protest (irresponsibility labeled separately as “riots”) have been beaten into the ground as well. While no one seems to be acknowledging the uselessness of peaceful protest in the history of the United States, it is ironically a prevalent assumption that rioting is antithetical to the objective of protest; that it undermines political grievances.
Rioting is inherently nothing; its’ usefulness is defined through our collective understanding of its causes. This is why sports riots don’t lead to grand-scale overhauls in policy- it is believed to be a vacuous occurrence sparked by drunken irrationality rather than having sociopolitical undertones. If you believe that the riots in Baltimore have clear cultural and political contexts, then it is irresponsible to dismiss riots as some act of villainy. Rioting is a form of protest; people have found ways to create dichotomies between the two that defy logic.
The condemnation of protest in the form of rioting betrays the objective of protest. The objective of protest is not only to disrupt societal order, but to directly challenge governments in a way that is commensurate with (or proportional to) your grievances. A significant group of citizens in Baltimore (and other cities) do not feel peaceful protests satisfy their political urges that call for action now, as cities have become too well-versed in learning how to ignore
deal with peaceful demonstrations. Peaceful marches are not subversive; they are prepared, carefully streamlined, routed, predictable, acquiescing to the states’ demand for order. Recent history would support the idea that peaceful protests do not empower citizens and that, in fact, things like protest curfews and ever-present police imply protests that lack the instigation of violence fail to effectively challenge asymmetrical citizen-state relations, which is the purpose of protest. During the civil rights era, the use of state-sanctioned violence and racists white citizens was exploited to create necessary inertia for change in policy—even if such force was masochistic in nature, as blacks welcomed the inevitable violence. State governors would literally promise to kick ass if black people simply showed up somewhere they were forbidden from being. Today states are smarter, citizens are more civil. But staunch protesters do not see peace as a viable means to address issues anymore, as they have grown impatient with the systems’ ambivalence to their needs. If it is said that a society’s appearance should reflect how said society feels, then fire, broken glass, discarded trash and lighters—fixtures of violent protest– is the only way these communities should look. Peace does not represent the rage, frustration, confusion and anxiety that exists within black bodies around the country, and the half-hazard conditions and infrequent peace within these communities when they aren’t rioting seem to suggest the same.
Given the corner citizens have been wrestled into, it is amazing that we’ve seen no leader rise from the smoky cauldrons to endorse and support violent protests. Instead, we’ve read and heard pundits express sentiments that essentially go “I understand! But it’s still wrong!” People characterize the experiences of the urban poor as “misfortune”, and “despair”, as if all of the oppression is simply a product of misunderstanding instead of systematic disenfranchisement. This sort of ‘supportive finger-wagging’ is political correctness to a fault. People whom “understand” must also understand that law and order has no legitimacy in a community where its’ enforcers are corrupt. In chaos, there is neither right nor wrong. Peace and justice were absent from the equation before the riots, thus it is irrational to expect them to straighten up just because the cameras are on.
What would our public conversations look like with journalists and community leaders that praise violent protester and consider the “rioters” to be heroes? What if someone characterized them as freedom fighters not dictated by respectability politics and too smart to be disrespected by the usual system of political patronage? What if there were leaders who, out of love for everyone, warn of what is to come if there is more un-redressed oppression? What if there were leaders who understood that the destruction of property is only proof of how people within the community lack property they feel are worth preserving? And What if they recognized that violent protesters see property as belonging to a system of oppression instead of a system of enfranchisement? And just as revolutionaries must burn the flag, behead the statue, and shed the religions of their oppressor, violent protests serve as micro-revolutions that seek to destroy extensions of injustice. It’s possible their actions reveal more important questions for new-age activism: What can we do that would really get the attention of our government? Where are we forbidden? How do we cross the line just enough to provoke action now? Marching through the streets with signs seems to fall short in demonstrating the urgency of our grievances.
People qualify their support for violent protesters while peaceful protests are praised despite its inefficiencies. Controversial responses are ridiculed by peaceful protesters who seek to distinguish themselves out of some sense that violence betrays the spirit of protest, even to the extent that the parents of our slain men and women of interest seek to discourage all violence by characterizing it as “inexcuseable”. Media and punditry makes them opposing ideas, while forgetting that our history tells us they are coextensive. Anger articulates our fight as eloquently as any speech.
A lot have people have wondered what MLK would do. And while I think it’s a silly question on the surface, hidden underneath such a question are inquiries about what a true advocate of justice would say or do in a situation. The Reverend Doctor gives some idea in his I Have A Dream speech when he states that “the sweltering summer of the Negro’s legitimate discontent will not pass until there is an invigorating autumn of freedom and equality… those who hope that the Negro needed to blow off steam and will now be content will have a rude awakening if the nation returns to business as usual.” Like King, we should be moving away from proclamations of right and wrong and looking more precisely at justice and reality. It doesn’t matter whether violent protests are right or wrong, only that it is an inevitable reality for neglected persons. I would have hoped that one person—just one—would remind us of how oppression only begets anger, and under such conditions peace is a privilege; not a right.