To the Oppressed of Baltimore: Riot Away

What is one to do when society looks at him with such disdain that merely playing with his children on a public playground warrants police harassment? Someone who has been oppressed his entire life, whose voice is constantly invalidated? Is it really any surprise that the marginalized of society would resort to rioting? Rioting is what the oppressed must do when democratic institutions have failed them. Rioting needn’t follow any reason or logic; it is the art of political expression. Rioting is the final stand for those with no other option.

It is a nice idea to believe that those who desire change would act through our mainstream social institutions, but this is not feasible for those who live outside the mainstream. Convictions, such as for peaceful protesting, are a luxury of those on the sidelines; peace is only an option to those who can wait for democratic change. But those in the trenches follow a logic of survival and emotional irrationality. They cannot wait, for even a day of “peaceful democratic protests” risks their lives. This is perhaps something many of us understand, even if we don’t apply that understanding to blacks. Herein lays the racism of anti-rioting rhetoric.

Many of us, empathic we are for human emotional volatility, understand that we can be driven to things we ought not to do. If a father illegally beats up the pedophile that molested his child, we may rationally understand that such as act is not acceptable; we may say that all humans, even the Hitlers and Stalins of the world, deserve the right to due process. Yet paradoxically, we would both sympathize with and understand this father’s actions, and certainly most of us would not harbor ill-will towards him. While his actions may have been unacceptable, they certainly were understandable. All if forgiven. That is, if the perpetrator is white. But God forbid that black men, who have faced poverty and violence and oppression for over 200 years, should ever give in to their frustration. As society sees it – both the Right and the Left – frustration is a privilege only the powerful of society are afforded, while the marginalized must be quiet and obedient. The marginalized do not get to express their frustration in the same way the powerful can. While spitting on a white man may justifiably lead to a swift punch in the face, apparently blacks and the poor, who are condemned to a life of struggle much greater than being spit on, can only retaliate through a strongly worded letter to their congressman. Before you argue that the spitter deserved it since he was responsible, but that random people who mind their own business are not responsible for the conditions of blacks, let me quote the psychologist Beverly Tatum:

“I sometimes visualize the ongoing cycle of racism as a moving walkway at the airport. Active racist behavior is equivalent to walking fast on the conveyor belt. The person engaged in active racist behavior has identified with the ideology of our White supremacist system and is moving with it. Passive racist behavior is equivalent to standing still on the walkway. No overt effort is being made, but the conveyor belt moves the bystanders along to the same destination as those who are actively walking. But unless they are walking actively in the opposite direction at a speed faster than the conveyor belt – unless they are actively anti-racist – they will find themselves carried along with the others.”

The racism of anti-rioting rhetoric is the double-standard that expects the marginalized to uphold moral convictions more firmly than the powerful. In a sense, it is the invalidation of their human irrationalities, and thus their humanity. More telling is who the anti-rioters have judged as the greater evil. It is not the police, who have often killed without justification or remorse, but the oppressed, who have been driven to their acts; whenever the police have done something wrong, then it is understandable given the stresses they face, but for some reason the benefit of the doubt is not given to marginalized rioters.

Opponents may point to blacks being the primary group to engage in rioting, but I would disagree. Rather, being marginalized is the primary predictor of rioting. When America was oppressed by England, didn’t we destroy the private property of others in pursuit of our ideals? Students, another marginalized group, frequently riot. However, even if I concede that blacks are prone to riot, so what? What is your explanation for this? Perhaps you would argue based on the inherent deviancy of African-Americans, in which case there is nothing left to be said beyond such blatant racism. Perhaps you would root it in culture and charge blacks with the task of fixing themselves, but culture does not magically appear from nothing, and there are material conditions that forced blacks to resort to these behavioral patterns that were beyond their control (and by that I mean, slavery). This latter “cultural deviancy” argument is all too common not just from conservatives, but even from progressive black rights activists who claim to be part of the cause. But such an argument is racist, because it blames blacks for their own conditions, when there is no reason that should be so if we don’t believe blacks are inherently inferior – it’s too absurdly coincidental to believe that all these black people freely chose to behave in the same manner independent of any common experience.

Next, opponents may point to a statistical likelihood. They may say that the oppression black people face is justified, since they are statistically more likely to commit crime. Such is an instance of “statistical oppression.” To quote Camus, “we are all special cases.” It is easy to reference statistics from a position of stability, but not quite as easy when you are the one being stereotyped. I believe this is something white America, who constantly cries out “I was not the one who enslaved you!” could easily understand. Well, the black man walking down the street was probably not the one who mugged you, yet it is ok to harass him just because of probabilities? As a point of information, intra-race crime is generally higher than inter-race crime. This means white people are more likely to be killed by white people than black people.

The most legitimate criticism against rioting is in defense of the “innocent” people who have been harmed along the way. In this case, the hypocrisy is that throwing an object through a store window elicits public outrage, but the public is complacent towards the greater issues blacks and the poor face every day.

It is here that I reemphasize that I am not saying rioting is acceptable, but I am saying rioting is understandable. And consequentially, those who oppose rioting tend to do so hypocritically, since they understand that humans can be driven to their actions when considering the mainstream but not when considering those on the sidelines. Even many who recognize that the police are bad still spend more time criticizing rioters, but although the acts of the police and of the rioters are both bad, police brutality is the greater evil. The message here is that rioting must be seen as a political process emerging from people who have so much anger that they might deviate from rigid political ideologies and goals. We cannot treat rioting as black-and-white, in which we simply say that rioters must control themselves. As the old adage goes, “rioting is the voice of the voiceless;” after your essays, petitions, protests, and cries have been invalidated, what other option do you have? Because sitting complacently waiting until the elites enact the change you desire is not acceptable.