Blackness manifests in innumerable ways—we are hopeful and moved and enraged. We grow up, albeit faster than most. Still, less universal realities underpin our complexity.
Following the murders of George Floyd, Breonna Taylor, Ahmaud Arbery, and countless others, protesters around the world have mobilized with raised fists, demanding accountability not only from the individuals responsible for their deaths, but from the institutions that have vilified black people for centuries.
And while an overwhelming majority of these demonstrations have been peaceful, media outlets and conservative antagonists seem fixated on the few riots that have erupted, as though they’ll justify the President’s racially charged threats and the police’s incompetence.
So if everyone wants to talk about riots, let’s talk about riots.
I’ve seen a quote by Martin Luther King Jr. floating around my saturated social media feeds which reads, “A riot is the language of the unheard.” Let me break that down.
America was literally built upon black bodies and disregards them in ways it hasn’t even begun to consider. Redlining continues to condemn blackness with broad brushstrokes. City-wide massacres, renamed “race riots” to appease the white conscience, are kept out of our history textbooks. Black boys and girls are stuffed into cells before they can even vote, fresh fuel for the capitalist machine.
We are shut out of institutions and then told that our absence proves our inferiority. When we finally penetrate those high places, not only are we supposedly indebted to positive discrimination, but we’re forced to assimilate to whiteness, just to see our culture comandeered by our oppressors. We’re told to stop “blaming everything on race,” as if we find solace in knowing the cause of our anguish is completely out of our control.
Author and activist Kimberly Jones passionately described the resentment that leads to rioting, saying, “The game is fixed… The social contract is broken. And if the social contract is broken, why the fuck do I give a shit about burning the fucking football hall of fame, about burning the fucking Target?”
People on the streets have usually exhausted their other options when they turn to rioting. They’ve used their votes at the local and national levels, only to see bigots triumph. They’ve written articles that did okay, and started petitions with humble success, but after watching footage of fatal police encounters, they’ve seen that America didn’t really blink. At least it feels that way. And while most scholars distinguish protesters and rioters as mutually exclusive groups, they share these fundamental frustrations.
Alongside this pent-up resentment, the police’s obsession with asserting their dominance during protests has directly led to riots. They’re supposed to de-escalate situations, yet whether assaulting the elderly, driving cars through crowds, or locking civilians in cages, they’ve performed innumerable acts we’d typically associate with terrorism.
It’s ironic because while America is somewhat unsurprised by videos of innocent black people being brutalized by law enforcement, when it started happening to journalists and white protesters people started to really understand the extent of the police’s amorality—something African-Americans have been screaming for decades.
Lorenzo Boyd, director of the Center for Advanced Policing at the University of New Haven, told The Atlantic, “In Baltimore, they’ve been saying for generations how bad the Baltimore Police Department was, but nobody listened. And then Freddie Gray got killed, and nobody listened. And then they started protesting; nobody listened. But as soon as the CVS burned in Baltimore, the whole world watched.”
Protests are supposed to be like therapy. They’re where we absorb the advice of “experts”—whether activists or everyday black people—who like us, are still figuring things out. It’s at protests that we work with allies to deconstruct our deep-rooted beliefs—a shocking number of which stem from childhood. At protests, we productively express our pain so that when we leave the bubble of assent and venture back into the real world, the tears and mantras can translate into real change.
And if protests are therapy, then riots are an unhealthy coping mechanism—a sort of self-harm. They are symptoms of a disease, and when someone is bleeding out, you don’t tape their wounds shut; you rush them to the ER.
While I don’t support rioting, I empathize with the people involved (unless they’re white). Because if no one’s heeding you anyways, might as well make a scene. Might as well be heard. Still though, I want to address the supposition that if the system doesn’t listen to our pleas, we have to scream louder.
Across the internet, I’ve seen the paraphrased sentiment that “since MLK’s tactics don’t work, we should move on to Malcolm X.” And I really hate it. It condenses activists’ complex ideologies into singular, static responses and implies that we can only achieve radical change through radical violence. But the evidence begs to differ—when riots become therapy, catharsis leads to chaos.
A groundbreaking 2007 study found that property values fell across the cities involved in the 1960s race riots, with black homeowners hit the hardest. In the book Why Civil Resistance Works, data from 323 violent and nonviolent protests over sixteen years found that nonviolent campaigns were twice as likely to achieve their objectives. More anecdotally, on Late Night With Seth Meyers, comedian Leslie Jones said she wishes she could tell her younger self at the LA riots to “[not] take that sledgehammer,” now knowing that destruction was “not going to work.”
If people want to tear up corporations like Target, I say it’s a step in the right direction. Deliberate statements send a crystal-clear message to the people on top, even if they might retaliate. But opportunistic pockets of violence, while therapeutic in the short term, lack the depth to truly bring power to the people.
By Simi Fagbemi
Visual by Julia Tabor