When did the violence in Baltimore start, again?


Discourse is a foundational principle in the sociology of knowledge. It could be described as the genetics of knowledge. On the one hand, discourse is the way we share our knowledge, through discussion, of some aspect of the world in which we live. However, our discourse is shaped through social contexts that we learn through the dominant institutions in which we have been socialized and the reference groups from which we define our identies and derive our sense of self. So Americans, socialized through American institutions, but belonging to, say political ideologies such as liberal or conservative, learn the discourses of these institutions (American) and reference groups (liberal) and pass them on to others. So, like genes, discursive formations are self replicating; they both shape and are shaped by how we perceive the world.

And, like genes, every time this process takes place, there may emerge subtle innovations, tiny adaptations in how we pass knowledge on that may be of no significance, but may, over time, lead to significant changes in our understanding of our life experience. It’s in shaping these little adaptations, seeking greater insight and personal liberation from the very ideas that bind us, that is the mission of many in my particular field. It is also the undercurrent of this, and every other blog posted on the Mad Sociologist.

That little aside being said, since discourse is such a foundational element in this field, the resultant discursive formations, the actual patterns by which we make our ideas known, are a locus for analysis. A great deal can be learned by listening to what is said, how it is said, and for the very attentive, what is not being said. So, for the reader, I offer a little exercise in discursive analysis based on how we describe the protests and riots in Baltimore. Ask yourselves how these discursive formations contribute to the perpetuation of the very injustices that have led us to this point.

The easiest discourse to identify is in how the “rioting” that has taken place in Baltimore, Ferguson, and cities throughout the nation are conflated with the “protests” that have also taken place.In our discourse of this particular trend it is taken for granted that the riots, and the looting are part and parcel with the protest movements–they are one and the same. Part of this is merely a reflection of the latent function of the media. Footage of rioters simply sells more advertising space than does footage of protesters peacefully assembling. Images of angry, desperate people throwing bricks through storefronts is much more dramatic than a montage of equally angry and desperate people boarding up their business after being ravaged by non-photogenic economic forces.

Such exclusive discourse, however, does serve to delegitimize the movement in the eyes of others. Consequently, there is a rational incentive for corporate owned media to spin a narrative that discredits a movement which is, at its core, about economic equality and justice as much as it is about race.

To me, however, the most telling a aspect of discursive formations around such protests and collective behavior is in how they reveal our blindness for, and consequent tacit approval of, state violence. We can see this blindness in how we describe and decry the riots as the beginning of the violence. Often this is framed in such terms that blame the riots for bringing violence to an otherwise peaceful civic issue. People often recognize that the violence began when the riots started, forgetting, of course, that the violence began when police officers shot and killed unarmed men, or broke the spine of someone whom they had arrested over bogus charges. Every single one of these protests began as a result of state violence. This is forgotten in the discourse.

Consequently, when the “violence starts,” there is an outcry from every corner of the society for the protesters to calm down, to get control, to be “civil” in their discourse. This is a marked contradiction, for there is relatively little call for the police to calm down and, oh I don’t know, not crush the spines of those whom they have in custody. Silence about state violence also prevails when the police brutally assault protesters and even members of the press without cause.

It’s also important to point out that police violence against individuals like Freddie Gray, Tamir Rice, Eric Garner or Mike Brown is only the catalyzing event, the tip of the iceberg. The real roots of the protests and concomitant riots is the perpetuation of state violence over years, even generations. This violence took the form of police exploitation and brutality, but also social and economic marginalization of these communities. This  latter is just as ruinous to the lives and the health of individuals as is any beating with batons and tasers or subjugation with bullets.

Lost, or buried in our discourse is the fact that rioting communities are responding to violence, not causing it. This violence exists at every level of community life. And, yes, the response to violence is, very often, further violence.

This isn’t to justify rioting and looting. The goal of this post is to understand what motivates this peculiar form of collective behavior.  Erasing the reality of state violence from the collective consciousness will contribute nothing to finding solutions for the very social ills that are contributing to this spreading crisis. If we are to have a conversation about violence, we cannot look at what could be referred to a “civic violence” on the part of communities in isolation from the more prevalent state violence.

If we, as a society, truly believe that violence is the wrong response on the part of the people to perceived injustices, then we might question the role of violence perpetrated by the state to perceived crimes.

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