On Riots and Protests


Like most Americans, I’m appalled at the level of violence that has taken place in Baltimore, escalating yesterday to an extreme pitch. That being said, I’m appalled about a lot of things. I will never condone violence. It should go without saying that I am equally, if not more appalled by police brutality and social/economic injustice that brutalizes entire communities. Turns out, there’s quite a bit for which to be appalled in this matter.

I normally like to get some distance between the events as they are transpiring and a published analysis, but I feel pretty safe offering some preliminary thoughts on the crisis.

First, my thoughts go out in sympathy to those in the community who are active and organizing peaceful protests–the people who are trying to be heard. As someone who has spent no small part of my life involved in protests, none of which ever got out of hand, I must add, I feel bad for the organizers and community leaders in Baltimore. It’s bad enough that the press was negligent of the peaceful protests, powering up their cameras when things became violent. The goal of any protest is to be heard, to be noticed, to call attention to the injustices existing in a particular community. The riots, burned cars and buildings, flying bricks make it impossible for those protests to be heard. They distract the audience from the real discussion and, rather than unifying us in sympathy for the victims of injustice, riots only push the audience away from the real issues.

The media plays a role in this as well. In most cases, a small minority of people at a given protest will become violent, while ten thousand others remain calm. The media will, of course, focus on the violence. After all, black people peacefully assembled don’t sell as much advertising space as black people rioting. To a certain extent, that’s our fault. We are the demand side of this equation.

Riots also become the justification for state violence in the name of “law and order.” This can escalate quickly, considering that the source of enforcing law and order is the focus of the protest.

On the other hand, we’ve been protesting and pointing out that black lives matter since Trayvon Martin’s death, and it doesn’t seem to be doing any good. To these communities, it appears that the only time the nation pays attention is when cars are burning on the side of the road. How long can we expect the oppressed to be “peaceful.”

To put this in context, from the point of view of communities like Ferguson and Baltimore, citizens are subject to every level of abuse, including de facto on site execution. The citizens demand that the police respect the rights of the citizens, to uphold their oath, and yet this demand is regularly and predictably ignored by the state. Yet when protesters march, and people take to the streets in anger, they are expected to respect the police and the very standards of law and order that is used to oppress them. At some point, this contradiction must come to a head.

Furthering the context, think about the state sanctioned violence that is perpetrated on these communities every single day. There is tangible though woefully under-reported violence that is perpetrated directly by the state against members of the community. This is the kind of violence that leaves poor people of color bleeding in the streets or beaten to death while in custody. Then there’s the less tangible violence that results from the knowledge of the citizen that she is always a potential victim of the state without real recourse. This is, by definition, a form of terrorism.

The most pervasive act of violence against these communities, however, is the systemic violence that traps tens of thousands of people in cities all over the country in poverty and despair. The physical and psychological consequences of poverty are well researched. Poverty results in lower health levels, life spans, infant mortality and overall life chances. The psycho-social consequences of persistent unemployment and underemployment destroy the very systems by which human beings in the modern age derive an identity, individual as well as collective, and sense of self. The violence of poverty is not merely destructive to the body, but to the soul, as well.

In the meantime, the state focuses its “justice” efforts on the symptoms of this systemic violence, drug use, homelessness, debt default, petty crimes and gang activities. Billions of dollars are spent to militarize police while the needs of the community remain unaddressed generation after generation. By any algorithm, the damage resulting from direct violence, state supported terrorism, systemic injustice and the privations of poverty, the balance of destruction still falls overwhelmingly on the side of the citizen.

The bottom line is, sociologically, communities that are treated justly do not riot. As Martin Luther King, Jr. once said, “a riot is the language of the unheard.” They are the symptoms of a people who have lost hope that their condition will improve, trapped in fatalism. Riots are the ultimate expression of anomie and the breakdown of normative social controls. As such, mass violence should be recognized for what it is, a most extreme symptom of a functional disease within the given society.

Yet the proposed treatment, namely further empowering the police, tightening security, and prosecuting the perpetrators to enforce a twisted concept of justice will do nothing to address the underlying problems facing the community. At this point, the state, especially the police, are without legitimate authority in places like Baltimore, Ferguson and others. Pressing the weight of the state against an already broken pillar can only result in collapse. This collapse is imminent so long as justice is denied. Baltimore is not, I’m afraid, the last to experience this pain.

1 Comment

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s