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The Poor Person’s Defense of Riots

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Since the Ferguson decision, we have been flooded with stories about how the overwhelmingly peaceful nation-wide protests against police brutality have been occasionally ruined by looting and property destruction caused by “fringe” elements. In conservative media, the trouble-makers have been generally characterized as parts of the black “criminal” underclass. In the liberal media, the law-breakers have often been characterized as “outside agitators,” “violent political radicals,” and “white anarchists.”  While the conservative side has worked to make it seem like the actions of these black “criminals” are not legitimately political, the liberal side on the other hand has avoided publicizing stories about people of color engaging in property destruction altogether. There is a real danger that these omissions have been motivated by white guilt—as well as by the legitimate concern that publicizing these stories will be interpreted as feeding into racism. However, rather than challenging the assumption that property destruction is necessarily bad, many liberals have refused to acknowledge the law-breaking altogether, perhaps for fear of being labeled racist.

Some of the more insightful attempts to defend rioting and property destruction in light of the history of American political dissent have unfortunately relied on moralistic arguments that portray rioting as driven primarily by emotion—with the idea being that we should sympathize with the feelings of the rioters. These stories reinforce the misconception that riots are all about anger, rage, and frustration. These perspectives also fail to acknowledge that when riots do happen, they arise from very particular historical situations. It is not everyday oppression that immediately causes a riot, but instead those symbolic events—like a major non-indictment—that shock the senses, shake our expectations, and act as a brutal affront to our collective sense of what is right (even if sometimes those expectations are sadly divorced from reality in the first place). Many times throughout history, populations have simply starved to death rather than riot; at other times they have rioted over matters that to us may seem less urgent. Accordingly, when someone takes the time to go smash a window, putting themselves in legal danger, we need to try to make sense of why they would do it.

Mob Decision-Making

History shows us that mob actions are most often intentional, targeted, and rational. During the 18th century, angry mobs of starving English peasants, rather than steal from grain merchants, instead forced them to sell the bread at a fair price decided by the crowd. E.P. Thompson cites the example of peasants, “who, having taken corn from the farmers and [having] sold it at the popular price in the market, brought back to the farmers not only the money but also the sacks.” In Ferguson, people have stopped in the middle of rioting to have impromptu theoretical discussions as well as to strategically discuss, from the base of operations at a local gas station, where to target next. In Berkeley, CA, corporate businesses like Radioshack, Wells Fargo, and Trader Joe’s have been damaged and looted, but when individuals have chosen to break a residential window, collective boos and chants of “No houses!” have risen from the crowd, and those individuals have been stopped without any further conflict.

Anyone who has been in a large crowd, be it a church group or a political “mob,” is well aware that spontaneous forms of group decision-making often arise and allow the crowd to move with a more-or-less shared purpose. A form of group consciousness takes shape, with people communicating across the crowd to each other, protecting each other, and working together to avoid dangerous situations, such as being trapped by police maneuvers. Sometimes, too, there are bad forms of communication, and a crowd does not cooperate so well—but these communication failures are no less egregious than those that occur daily in the chambers of Congress, surely. Crowds make decisions together, and those decisions are cosigned by individuals that think through questions like: “Do I want to participate in this?” “Should I leave now, or stay?” “Do I want to stand by and provide cover for those doing things that I refuse to do, or should I abandon them?”

When Smashing a Window is “Just Political” and When it is Practical

There is a stark difference between political protest and direct action. Political protest is a form of expression, done specifically to be seen by an audience—such as the general public or politicians in power—with the hope of convincing that audience to share the protestors’ viewpoint and maybe act on their behalf. Direct action is also political, but avoids the “middleman”; it is instead an action done to directly pursue a concrete goal, such as acquiring food with which to feed oneself.  Holding a sign that criticizes Jim Crow Laws is political protest; refusing to get off the bus or move to the back when ordered to is direct action—as hundreds of individuals in the South were doing before Rosa Parks and the NAACP successfully turned the act into an organized, political tactic. Tea-Partiers and conservatives who wave “Don’t Tread On Me” flags are engaging in political protest; those who buy their own land and arm themselves to protect it are engaging in direct action.

The question is then, when you smash a window, are you doing so because you are looking to grab some food, or some diapers, or a TV to sell so that you can make next month’s rent? Or are you smashing a window to express anger and frustration, and so that maybe the elites or general public pay attention to your political views? If you are smashing a window for the second reason, you have more in common with those engaging in peaceful political protest. Both the person chanting “black lives matter” and the person putting up graffiti are engaging in political protest—to speak out against something.

By contrast, looting is very rarely motivated purely by emotion and political expression, but instead must be more instrumental and practical than other forms of political action. Looting takes intentionality, foresight, and quick decision-making, and directly results (unless you get arrested) in your acquiring the things that you are seeking. Because poor people often cannot afford to waste their time engaging in symbolic forms of protest, and because they rarely expect to be heard by those in power anyways, they are much more likely to engage in practical, direct action than in symbolic political protest. Things like stealing food from work, not paying taxes, and calling in sick to work when you’re not actually sick are actions that produce clear results. By contrast, holding a sign and marching in circles for hours is admittedly a lot more abstract and requires free time that only some of us can afford. A mass “die-in” like those engaged in by many across the country is indubitably a valuable political action, but we would be deluding ourselves if we did not admit that the link between such symbolic acts and concrete political change can be painfully unclear, abstract, and slow-moving in its effectiveness.

Black Liberalism and Disruptive Tactics

At a very large rally I recently attended in Oakland, CA, several members of a coalitional group of black organizers spent a considerable amount of time laying out ground rules for reigning in the voices of white “allies.” The organizers argued that, while well-intentioned, white allies often reinforce racism by taking over political demonstrations that are about issues that black people face. Most white participants that I observed were willing to accept these critiques, deferring to what they felt was the greater authority that the black leadership should rightfully have over a movement that involves most prominently the deaths and abuses of black persons. The rally then turned into what was essentially a passive crowd listening to and watching a black leadership give speeches from the steps of the Alameda County Courthouse. Some in the audience took group photos and selfies of themselves with the black leadership in the background, feeling that they had performed well as silent, white allies, and went home with smiles on their faces. As I later found out, many of those black leaders later met at an exclusive cocktail party scheduled for that evening. At the same time that the party was happening, about a thousand people of mixed racial and class backgrounds continued in the streets, after the “official” rally had ended, marching and demonstrating for the next few hours and blocking a major traffic tunnel; some of them ended up getting tased and beat by police, and many others were arrested.

While the black critique of over-zealous white allies may seem like a positive intervention to limit racism, it can instead often become a way for self-designated “black leaders”—who also happen to be more moderate—to successfully demobilize and marginalize the more disruptive branches of a movement, shaming white radicals through white guilt while also making it seem like the more radical organizers of color and poor people who have come to protest simply do not exist. Often, these black moderates and liberals focus their attention on intra-movement racism and “microaggressions” because the more brutal dimensions of racism, like intense police violence, may in fact be alien to them. Sometimes, middle and upper-class people of color who have not actually experienced severe police brutality can only relate to racism through their experiences of more subtle, structural forms of racism, like discriminatory hiring practices or racially insensitive language. To them, the racist tones of a “white radical” who disagrees with moderate strategies and tactlessly insults a black liberal leader are easier to address, more tempting to attack, and simply more familiar than the racist violence that poor people of color experience.

Of course, affluent people of color experience police violence as well. As Dr. Ersula Ore and Dr. Henry Louis Gates know well, very rarely will police stop to take note of how many degrees you may have, how “respectable” you may be, or even if you happen to be an off-duty police officer yourself. But these experiences simply cannot be equated with the constant threats of violent death and malnutrition that poor people of color face on a daily basis. The failure to acknowledge these class differences then means that black liberals and moderates gloss over the crucial fact that many of the poor people who have been most brutally abused by police in the past turn out to be the same people who later decide to engage in looting. Accordingly, when the president talks about his struggles catching cabs in Chicago or being confused for a waiter, only to then turn around and insist to us that we must accept the decisions made by the grand jury and trust “the rule of law,” despite overwhelming evidence that the institutions of law—the police, the justice system, etc.—are the very problem that people are protesting against, it becomes hard to ignore that, despite the racism that the president has faced, he likely cannot relate to the forms of racism that someone like Michael Brown experienced.

A History of Law Breaking

We often suffer from a collective amnesia about the crucial role of law-breaking in the history of social change. Martin Luther King, Jr., the paragon for pacifist protest was arrested an impressive thirty times between 1955 and 1965. And still, the effectiveness of his militant pacifism can only be properly understood against the background of many other much more tumultuous political conflicts, riots included, that occurred throughout the Civil Rights Movement. Political change does not, and never has, come about through peaceful protest alone. All tactics of course play a role—and riots, the threat of violence, and violence itself are often the context and background that situate and frame the force and effectiveness of more mainstream, moderate, and agreed-upon tactics. In a conversation with Coretta Scott King, Malcolm X, infamous for his anti-pacifist rhetoric and his direct attacks on Martin Luther King’s strategies, nonetheless stressed to Dr. King’s wife his awareness of the value of a diversity of tactics: “I want Dr. King to know that I didn’t come to Selma to make his job difficult. I really did come thinking I could make it easier. If the white people realize what the alternative is, perhaps they will be more willing to hear Dr. King.”

Ultimately, then, we do ourselves a disservice when we attack others for doing the important political work that we ourselves are not willing to do—work that in fact allows us to do what we do. As a political theorist, I do not have the patience to research the various ways and tedious details that show how procedural corruption may have occurred during the Michael Brown case, but I appreciate the contributions of the lawyers and legal experts do that important work. Equally, those who work inside formal institutions to pass anti-police brutality policy and legislation must also acknowledge that their voices would not be heard were it not for the background roar of those angry mobs shouting outside of our legislative buildings and in the streets.

Delio Vasquez is a PhD student in History of Consciousness at the University of California at Santa Cruz.

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