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Why Do People Riot? Because Rioting Works.

I want to start this out by saying that I am white and honestly, my opinion matters a lot less than the people of color writing and speaking about the same thing. Please, go read and watch Black creators talk about this subject.

Still, I feel utterly compelled to do something right now, and I am a good writer and a decent number of people follow this blog. So I’m going to use the skills and tools I have to make the difference I can make.

This post is in response to the protests and riots happening all over the United States (and all over the world) after George Floyd, a Black man, was killed in Minneapolis by ex-cop Derek Chauvin who knelt on his neck for nearly 9 minutes while three other officers looked on and did nothing, even after Mr. Floyd was unresponsive for nearly 2 minutes.

What Is a Riot?

Let’s start with the basics, which I honestly had to educate myself on because I do not know all that much about protests or riots. What is a riot? What is a protest? Is there a difference?

Here’s what I learned. A protest is a gathering of people who are angry about a particular problem, but take no violent or destructive action. They make speeches, chant, have moments of silence, make demands of people in positions of power. The right to protest is protected by the First Amendment in the US Constitution.

Rioting or inciting a riot, on the other hand, is a crime under many state laws and some federal laws as well. So the distinction matters. A lot.

Riots, unlike protests, involve violent or destructive actions. Once violence breaks out, it can be considered a riot.

But that doesn’t always happen.

What I found in my research is that while those are the technical differences between protests and riots, the real difference lies in how they are reported on by journalists.

According to The Conversation, a not-for-profit media network that falls marginally to the left of center on the bias scale and has received a “High” ranking on factual reporting from Media Bias Fact Check, journalists wield incredible power when it comes to shaping the public’s view of whether something is a protest or a riot, and how well the issues being dealt with at the gathering are actually explained and legitimized. They say that while protesters advocating for women’s rights and protesting against Trump are taken very seriously, “protests about anti-black racism and indigenous people’s rights received the least legitimizing coverage, with them more often seen as threatening and violent.”

So What Are We Dealing With Here: Protests or Riots?

Both. What is happening across the country is a collection of protests, riots, protests-turned-riots, and more.

According to online articles and newspapers, the protesters are actually violent rioters. Sometimes they aren’t even there because of Mr. Floyd’s murder, they’re just hired agitators or extremists trying to capitalize on the pandemonium.

According to actual videos from these events, the protests often start out peacefully until they are attacked, unprovoked, by police. (I was unable to get permission to share these videos in time for this article, but you can find them by searching the protest hashtags on Twitter.)

So what’s really going on?

The truth is, it doesn’t matter.

Both are appropriate responses to what is happening in our country, and they both serve an important purpose in instigating change. It has always been true that people in power will not relinquish even a tiny drop of that power without violent opposition to their rule. This is true even in the most level-headed, democratic power systems.

I think it’s obvious we are not living in one of those systems.

So people are doing what they need to do in order to fight back against a police force that is allowed to take Black lives without appropriate (or sometimes any) consequences.

“Not All Cops Are Racist”: Systems vs. Individuals

When I say “people in power,” that might feel a little disconcerting, especially if you are married to or close friends with a police officer. They aren’t some maniacal, evil dictator wielding their oppressive power over Black people, they’re a genuinely good person. They acknowledge that Mr. Floyd’s murder was despicable, and they might even acknowledge that the police force needs to change.

Unfortunately, they are still part of the problem.

This is because systems of oppression do not operate on a person-by-person basis. They are systems. By virtue of being in the police force, the individuals who make up the police force are contributing to the systematic devaluation and destruction of Black lives. Even if your neighbor the cop is kind, good at his job, and anti-racist, he reports to someone. Maybe they are just as kind and good and open-minded, but even if they are, that does not change the rules, official and unofficial, that they have to follow.

And those rules are racist.

America was built by slaves, and our systems have that racism baked into them. This is not about one or two bad apples (which would already be a problem, by the way; the saying is “a few bad apples spoil the bunch”) it’s about poisoned ground water. Sure, plenty of perfectly good apples grow, but they’re growing out of something inherently toxic.

This doesn’t make your cousin or friend or mother a bad person. But it does make them part of the problem. So should they be punished? Should they have to live in fear from protesters and rioters, even though they are a decent person who hasn’t actually done anything wrong?

Of course that isn’t fair. In a perfect world, protesters and rioters would specifically target the cops who contribute to the problem. But like I said before, police brutality and racism is a systemic issue, and it is impossible to know which cops are part of the problem. So in order to effectively protest, to bring about change, they absolutely must protest against all cops.

On the Subject of Nuance

I want to say that nuance always matters. But the truth is, although nuance is obviously the only way to understand everything going on right now—from the nuance of how we talk about the problem of police brutality being systemic rather than individual, to the nuance implied in the word “riot” itself—it is not the most important thing right now.

Right now, Black people are being murdered by the police at alarmingly disproportionate rates. And no amount of nuance will bring those people back. So the question is, will nuance prevent future deaths?

Historically speaking, no.

People (especially white people) have been trying to fight racism with nuance forever. Partially because it is an incredibly nuanced problem, but also, those nuances matter much more if you are born into the oppressor’s side of the equation, don’t they?

For instance, I am white, which means I was born with certain privileges. When I get pulled over, my biggest fear is that I will get a ticket. That is privilege. The oppressor sees my life as more valuable than a Black life, and that makes me part of the oppressor, even if I personally am not doing anything to oppress Black people.

Still, I like to think of myself as anti-racist. So when I consider racism and my role in it, I am highly motivated to find the nuance. Because without nuance, I am the problem.

For the oppressed, this nuance is far less important. The oppressed are oppressed, no matter how many ways you look at it to figure out the deep and complicated reasons why. This is not to say that Black people don’t see the nuance—on the contrary, I think the oppressed often understand the nuance of the oppressor even better because they are raised in the oppressor’s world. I just mean that when your life is on the line, arguing about why you might be killed is far less important than demanding your right to live.

It seems that nuance has not solved the problem thus far, and it is insanity to continue doing the same thing over and over and expect a different result.

Why You Can’t Trust Your Gut When It Comes to Race If You’re White

So, what, it’s just fine for people to set buildings on fire and steal from local businesses?

I’m going to cut to the chase here: yes.

Here’s why.

For me, the first time I remember hearing about race-related riots, I remember thinking it made no sense to destroy property, because that was bad too, and just because something bad happened, that doesn’t give a person permission to do a different bad thing. I obviously recognized that murder and looting were not equal offenses, but my gut reaction still said that rioting wasn’t justified, no matter what. It didn’t solve anything, it just made things worse.

But I was a teenager then. In the years since, many more race riots have occurred, though to my knowledge, none as powerful as what we’ve seen since Mr. Floyd’s murder. And in that time, I have come to realize something about gut reactions.

They’re often wrong.

Gut reactions are rarely based on logical, moral, or even practical reasoning. Our gut reactions are formed by what we are told by our parents, friends, environment, etc. Our gut is based entirely in routine and emotion. That doesn’t mean our gut is always wrong, it just means that if someone different from you is saying one thing, but your gut reaction is to disagree, you need to take the time to parse out where your gut reaction came from and if it has any basis in reality, or if it is just based on your own personal, very limited experience.

Here’s what happened for me when I took the time to question my gut reaction that riots were wrong. I asked myself why I thought that. I realized I had never damaged property before and, in my personal experience, couldn’t see a reason why I would. Why would I ever need to destroy or steal something? I had everything I needed.

So what would I do if I didn’t?

What would I do if my brother was shot and killed by civilians while he was out jogging (Ahmaud Arbery)? What would I do if cops busted into my sister’s house in the middle of the night and shot her to death in her bed (Breonna Taylor)? What would I do if a cop knelt on my dad’s neck until he suffocated to death (George Floyd)?

To riot and destroy property is not an emotional lashing out. It is consequences. It is refusal to accept the status quo that says the death of my loved ones is okay. It is burning down the system that does not value life. It is not a gut reaction, it is a logical response to systemic injustice.

So What Do Riots Really Accomplish?

Even if riots are technically a reasonable response given the constant and repeated murder of Black people, many people are still left wondering what, exactly, their purpose is. What does rioting accomplish? If it’s not just emotions boiling over, what does it really do, in the practical sense?

It turns out, a whole lot.

The reason I say the protests and riots surrounding Mr. Floyd’s murder seem more influential and effective than past riots is because they have garnered actual results. Fast results.

George Floyd was murdered by Derek Chauvin on Monday May 25th. On Friday May 29th, he was arrested and charged with third-degree murder. That is four days.

Do you remember Eric Garner, who was also choked to death by the police? The ex-officer who killed him was Daniel Pantaleo of the NYPD, and he wasn’t even fired until five years after Mr. Garner’s murder. He has never faced criminal charges.

The thing about riots is that they are not sustainable. Without action, they will continue to consume and destroy, and if the people in power want to stay in power, they have to make concessions to ease the tension. This includes repercussions for the police officers responsible.

The riots you have seen on social media have had a direct, positive effect on the world. A murderer is being charged with a crime. And rest assured, without those riots, he would go free.

It has happened countless times before.

What Happens When the Rioting Ends?

As I said before, rioting is not sustainable, which means it has to end at some point. So what happens next?

That is largely up to you and me.

Riots end either through concession or suppression. Either the anger of the people is appeased through repercussions for the guilty, or the people are beaten back hard enough or long enough until they cannot fight any longer.

So what do we do after?

We keep the anger alive. Because even if Chauvin is charged with third-degree murder, we all know it should be first-degree. Because thus far, the officers who murdered Ms. Taylor have not been charged, arrested, or even fired. Because it took two months for the men involved in Mr. Arbery’s murder to be arrested and charged, and there is still a chance they will not be convicted.

People say hate doesn’t solve anything, and I agree. But anger and hate are not the same thing. Anger is a natural and vital reaction to injustice, and it is out of love for our Black brothers and sisters that we need to demand better from our police force, justice departments, and each other.

If you’re looking for more actionable things you can do to keep this revolution going, here are 5 ways you can help:

  1. Go to protests or riots if you can. If you are white, use your white body to protect Black bodies. Police are far less likely to shoot tear gas and rubber bullets at peaceful, well-dressed white people (which is kind of the point of this entire racist police brutality thing) so position yourself between the police and Black protesters. I will admit, I have been too afraid to attend any protests or rallies. I am not proud, but I am trying to find other ways to help. Like the other options listed below…
  2. Donate to bail out funds. Protesters who are too poor to pay their bail are now trapped in jail. In many cases, protesters were peaceful and were arrested anyway, plus if they are stuck in jail, then we have lost someone who is dedicated to protecting Black lives.
  3. Call your representatives and demand that they speak out to raise the degree of Chauvin’s murder charge. Demand that they speak out to arrest the officers who watched and did nothing. Demand that they speak out to hold the officers responsible for Ms. Taylor’s death accountable and that they be fired, arrested, and charged. Demand that your local officials take a public stance supporting the protests, supporting Black lives, and supporting police reform. Assure them that we will not stop until Black lives are as protected as their own.
  4. Have hard conversations with your friends, family, and even acquaintances. It isn’t about shoving your opinion down their throat, it’s about asserting the reality of racism in police brutality. The value of Black lives is not a matter of opinion, and when we treat it as one, we are complicit in the devaluation and destruction of Black lives. Take a stance, even when it’s hard. Try to communicate effectively, try to see where they’re coming from if you can, but do not make concessions on the value of Black lives or the importance of listening to Black voices when it comes to the best way to respond to tragedies like the murder of George Floyd.
  5. Read Black authors and follow Black content creators. If you like to read, there are endless Black reading lists available online. Check out this one, or try this one, or look at this one. But if you don’t love reading, that doesn’t mean you can’t do anything. Follow more Black accounts on Twitter, Instagram, or TikTok. Make sure that you aren’t only hearing white voices, because it limits your exposure to the reality of life for people of color.

Final Thoughts

I know this was a lot. I know it’s hard to deal with all of this. I know it’s hard to know what to do next, to navigate a reality that feels uncertain and violent and scary.

But that is the reality for Black people in America every single day. As white people, we cannot run away from this fear. We cannot take a break from it. We have to sit in the fear and let it change us. We have to sit in the fear and let it make us angry. We have to let this fear introduce us to the reality of institutionalized racism that our privilege has granted us shelter from all this time.

And then we need to act.

4 thoughts on “Why Do People Riot? Because Rioting Works.”

  1. This was really informative and a great read for the times we find ourselves in. Thank you for sharing this. I especially appreciate the black reading lists you included and the steps we can take to initiate change.

    Liked by 1 person

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