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06-05-20-george-floyd-protests-riot-language-of-the-unheard-city-hall
Credit: Kylie Cooper

I have seen innumerable people — on social media, politicians, on cable news channels, authors — question whether riots or protests are productive modes of change the past week amid the protests in response to George Floyd’s murder. It is a question that has, for generations, relentlessly reared its head during contentious fights for liberation.

Rioting is a profoundly misinterpreted form of protest. It is impossible to understand how we arrived at this point in the fight for Black lives without first confronting the history of riots, the deep-rooted manifestations of police violence and corruption, and how generalizations about “violent protestors” are often used as a vehicle to detract from the central issue of systemic racism while perpetuating rationale for increased policing and military force.

Here are seven explanations of the deeper truths, purposes, and misinformation behind rioting — and why blanket condemnations can blur truth and the pursuit of justice.

1. Riots are never the first option.

Black people have endured the atrocious horrors of racism and violence since being brought into this country as slaves over 400 years ago. For generations, activists have urged for policy change. We have voted for leaders who have promised to protect us. We have protested peacefully. We have turned our pain into art, music, literature, and song. Yet, the roots of systemic racism have not loosened their stronghold and the killings have not stopped. 

Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. stated that ‘a riot is the language of the unheard.’ There comes a point when a dam must burst. To tell a group of people that have faced such violent oppression since they set foot on American soil how they should articulate their calls for justice is to gloss over the history of what they have endured. It is to act as if every single conceivable measure to achieve freedom from racism has not already been attempted. It is to drown out their voices when they need to be heard the most. It is to try to force the fire that is now pouring out of them back inside of their bodies and then ask why they burn.

2. The messages of Dr. Martin Luther King are often perverted and watered down in a way that does not accurately reflect the Civil Rights Movement or peaceful protests.

Hundreds of responses to a recent tweet from Martin Luther King III have insisted that Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. believed all forms of rioting were futile and uncalled for. This is ahistorical. Although Dr. King practiced and believed in nonviolent direct action, the months after The Long Hot Summer in 1967 show a crucial and undeniable evolution in his opinion: “Urban riots must now be recognized as durable social phenomena. They may be deplored, but they are there and should be understood. [They] are a special form of violence. They are not insurrections.” 

Even in the 60s, it was becoming clear how systemically rooted racism was and how difficult it had become to believe that peaceful protest alone would elicit the attention and change the movement needed. It is a critical mistake to even argue that violence was absent among the peaceful protests Dr. King led: there was bloodshed and brutality incited by the police — on countless occasions. If Dr. King 's evolution of opinion or the truth of police-instigated violence at peaceful Civil Rights Movement protests is ignored or watered down, so is the unabridged legacy of the era and how it brought about change.

3. Many major liberation movements in the U.S. only achieved policy-backed success after riots took place. 

In 1969, a crowd at Stonewall Inn — a popular gay bar in Greenwich Village — broke out into chaos in response to a police raid. Stonewall had been a target for unwarranted, deeply prejudicial armed raids before this, but there was a consensus among patrons that the incessant harassment would no longer be tolerated, and the rioting began. Ultimately, these riots caused a “shocking change of consciousness for the world.” The fight for LGBTQ+ rights by no means began at the Stonewall Riots, but visibility, political activism, and organization for the modern LGBTQ rights movement surged in its aftermathThe Gay Liberation Front and several national LGBTQ organizations still operating today were formed immediately afterward. The influence of the rioting at Stonewall has endured, impacted, and shaped the fight for LGBTQ equality and freedom.

In the wake of the riots, burning, and looting across the U.S. in response to the assassination of Martin Luther King Jr. in 1968, President Lyndon B. Johnson pushed Congress to revive and pass civil rights legislation. The Fair Housing Act — which King had been protesting peacefully in favor of since the previous year to no avail — was passed and signed into law within the week. Countless other examples exist of increased visibility, momentum, and change taking place in the wake of communities being pushed to the point of rioting in order to be heard. Although challenges, setbacks, and fights for justice continued for each one of them, the generalization that rioting is entirely unproductive and can only set such movements back is ahistorical.

4. The violence and looting at protests in response to George Floyd’s murder are constantly instigated by the police, not the protestors.

Police have been shown on video — explicitly and hundreds of times in the past week alone — inciting violence against otherwise peaceful protestors. Many of these protests start peacefully and only become dangerous once officers begin beating, choking, shooting rubber bullets at, tear gassing, driving through crowds of, and nearly killing protestors who were simply standing calmly beforehand. Many peaceful protestors have sustained a permanent injury at the hands of the police. Armed officers have been videotaped destroying buildings, pouring out bottles of water left for protestors, and thwarting medical personnel’s attempts to treat injured protestors or those with medical conditions

These revolting and unspeakable actions are often omitted from accounts by major news outlets, working to skew the narrative of the televised carnage as being protestor-led. These are not isolated incidents — they provide indisputable evidence of the systemic, perpetuating abuse of power in the police system. This is an institution plagued with racist and unprompted violence

Performative attempts made by police officers to “take a knee” with protestors while countless times they brutalize the moment cameras are turned off fall flat. These calculated, fleeting acts of “solidarity” do not detract from the structural corruption of U.S. policing institutions entrenched in its deepest layers.

The argument that protestors deserve condemnation for defending themselves in response to the monstrous acts of police violence perpetrated constantly against them, and systematically for generations against black people, is not based in reality and is a deeply hypocritical and dangerous perversion of the truth.

5. There are countless people exploiting this movement to perpetuate violence leading many politicians, including Donald Trump, to use the misguided, generalized narrative of “violent protestors” to increase unwarranted police and military force.

There have been numerous accounts over the past two weeks illustrating those unaffiliated with the Black Lives Matter movement bringing harm only for the sake of chaos. These people — many, white nationalists — are perverting the mission of the Black Lives Matter movement and genuine protests for justice. It is undeniable that things spiral out of control in the midst of a riot — but we must be cognizant of the distinction between those who exploit the movement by practicing or encouraging violence for the sake of violence from those pushed to riot in response to generations of human rights abuses. 

Without doing this, fallacious and detrimental attempts to discredit protestors fighting for justice, branding them  “outside agitators” or “domestic terrorists” who riot for the sake of pure, unmotivated chaos, will persist. As Donald Trump’s recent threats to deploy military forces have shown, disregarding the role unaffiliated groups or individuals calling for destruction play can fuel the fire of propaganda and the use of excessive police and militaristic force.

6. Care for small businesses and low-income communities must extend past the wake of looting and rioting.

Many small businesses and low-income areas have been damaged in the midst of rioting. This is heartbreaking for those whose livelihoods and communities center within them and many efforts are being made by supporters to help owners rebuild. But the Trump Administration’s sudden concern for small businesses, their owners, and low-income communities is insultingly insincere

The contradiction between this and his blatant history of undermining low-income communities and small businesses (especially those owned by people of color) speaks for itself: Trump’s budget has destroyed vital resources for Black-owned small businesses. His aid programs meant to support these institutions have shut Black owners out. The U.S. President is diminishing the real plight of these business owners by using their struggle as a scapegoat to generalize and demonize protestors

When exploiting the damage to small businesses owned by people of color to rationalize increased policing — the exact policing with entrenched biases against Black people — Trump only threatens the future of their economic success and freedom further. 

David McAtee, the Black owner of Yaya’s BBQ in Louisville, was murdered by the National Guard on Monday. This excessive, vicious policing, endorsed fully by the Trump Administration, is claiming the lives of the exact group of business owners he currently feigns concern for. As the current riots have already unfolded, we must consistently commit to supporting small businesses, demand a better quality of life for low-income communities, and take the gravity of dedication to rebuilding seriously. We must refuse to let them be used as fuel for a blatantly obvious political agenda attempting to villainize those fighting for justice.

7. The outcry against the destruction and looting of large companies and corporations is largely misplaced. It pales in comparison to their history of exploitation and the killings of Black people by the police.

Outrage at the destruction of and looting from store locations of large corporations and companies like Target, Gucci, CHANEL, and more has been voiced this week. This condemnation can detrimentally shift focus away from reality: many of these corporations disproportionately exploit people of color, profit from the Prison Industrial Complex, and use forced and trafficked labor. The temporary damage to and theft of replaceable material items from these largely multi-billion dollar enterprises must be placed in context with their reprehensible practices to understand how they uphold the very system of racially prejudicial capitalist oppression that is inseparable from what current protestors are fighting against. Scholars have explained how the destruction of store locations of such companies can be understood as “mass protest against our dominant conceptions of property.”

BLACK LIVES MATTER RESOURCES: https://blacklivesmatters.carrd.co/

TAKE ACTION TO DEFUND POLICE: https://defund12.org/

ISAMI MCCOWAN is a rising College senior from Durham, N.C. studying English with a concentration in Cinema Studies. Her email address is isami@sas.upenn.edu.  

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