My eyes were glued to my television set as I watched civil unrest unfold in Baltimore. Yet, as a historian who has studied urban rebellions, I was not surprised. Since last August, the question for me has not been why, but when.
I watched CNN’s and MSNBC’s coverage. What I noticed was not surprising, but vexing, nonetheless. Commentators like Al Sharpton, Dr. Jamal Bryant, and others resorted to condemning and condescending participants and denying the uprising’s political significance. The assumption that violence is senseless and apolitical was embedded in their sanctimony.
Now, I do not aim to advocate for the use of collective violence, but I believe it is imperative that we analyze its political significance. In yesterday’s press conference, President Obama argued that the “riot” distracted us from the pursuit of reform. I argue otherwise, the Baltimore rebellion not only highlights the problem of policing, it opens a space for analysis and conversation of all of the structural problems that President Obama mentioned in his reactions yesterday. Rebellions historically have also created political opportunities for reform. Dismissing collective violence as senseless, criminal, and apolitical narrows our frame for understanding the history of interconnected problems plaguing cities and municipalities like Baltimore and Ferguson such as racial and economic segregation and redlining, deindustrialization, overpolicing, the emergence of mass incarceration, and even criminal activity. I argue that collective violence is protest politics. Violent protest does contain a logic, even if it appears chaotic.
The pressing question underlying live analyses of the Baltimore uprising was: Why do African Americans rebel?
The mainstream explanation: The Baltimore uprising was a product of criminal opportunism, youthful energy, boredom, and, mostly notably, family breakdown. These explanations allow for political officials and commentators to demonize rebels with racially coded language. Baltimore’s Mayor Stephanie Rawlings-Blake, Police Commissioner Anthony Batts, Maryland Governor Larry Hogan, and President Obama led the chorus of critics, calling violent protesters “lawless gangs…,” “thugs” and, “criminals.”
State officials demonize those who engage in violent protests for several reasons: to deter further participation, to maintain order, and to retain the state’s monopoly over “legitimate” collective violence. State actors (loosely defined here as those who work in the military, police, elected governance, or even social services) risk threatening America’s social order if they publicly validate the participation in collective violence of those who find themselves at the bottom of the nation’s social, economic, and racial hierarchy.
Maintaining the state’s control over who gets to participate in “legitimate” violence also explains local, state, and national political leaders’ desperation to untangle a historical relationship between violence, politics and protest, and social change. This is why political leaders were hyperventilating about how Baltimoreans need to be nonviolent and why violence does not constitute a form of protest. As Ta-Nehisi Coates eloquently reasoned, appeals to nonviolence allow public officials to avoid accountability. Conjuring the mythical spirits of nonviolent protest in America’s recent past enables public officials and other Americans to evade discussions about the deep causes for rebellion. What is missing from analyses of the rhetoric of nonviolence is that these exhortations may serve as an implicit admission of the crisis of legitimacy that police departments, post-1970s municipal governments, and black elected officials are confronting in the wake of police killings and rising inequality. Mayor Rawlings-Blake, Governor Hagan, and President Obama cannot promise to employ all of the participants or to fully rebuild their neighborhoods. The only tools many executives have left are the police and, in the case of Baltimore, appeals to nonviolence.
Of course, the irony surrounding their efforts to appeal to nonviolent political change lay in denying this America’s history of political violence. Historian Paul Gilje argues “The United State of America was born amid a wave of rioting in his book, Rioting in America. He proceeds to point to the Boston Massacre and the Boston Tea Party as prominent examples. I should expand that observation: The U.S. was founded in not just violent protest against persons and property, but also in plunder and looting — enslavement, land dispossession, and violent rebellion against the British Empire. We will always remember the Boston Tea Party fondly while we erase any traces of black and brown rebellion.
The problem with the mainstream view of rebellion is that it relies on pathological, behavioral, and individual explanations. These explanations are often superficial and they appear simple and commonsensical. Senator Rand Paul and potential presidential candidate, Ben Carson, for example, echo Daniel Patrick Moynihan’s explanation for black poverty. They point to weak parenting and the lack of “strong fathers” in black homes as the fundamental causes for participation. These analyses elide the persistence of structural racism, economic exploitation, and violent oppression in potentially rebellious spaces. Does this mean that there are not opportunists who seek to take advantage of the revolt? No. But focusing on “opportunists” undermines efforts to understand thoroughly the necessary and sufficient causes for rebellion. And, if we do not consider the conditions fully, we foreclose the chance of constructing just policies that could address structural racism, economic exploitation, police oppression, or even inner-city violence.
As a Master’s student, my advisor and I often discussed what constituted necessary and sufficient causes for urban rebellion. They are the key to comprehending the generation of insurgency. Necessary conditions are factors needed to generate discontent, frustration, and opportunity among potential rebels. Necessary causes are often simultaneously contemporaneous and historical in nature — residential segregation, the flight of industry and high paying jobs, decline in education system and social services, draining of tax base, gentrification, persistent racialized poverty, lack of adequate transportation, exploitation of local consumers, overpolicing, inner city violence and the emergence of underground economies. Of course, this does not make Ferguson and Baltimore identical. These developments affect particular areas differently. But, for social scientists especially, it is possible to identify the deadly mix of disinvestment, inequality, exploitation, and oppression that ignites rebellion.
Sufficient conditions constitute the spark for rebellion. And according to most social science literature and official reports, most rebellions stem from police brutality.
Enter Freddie Gray.
On April 12, Baltimore police approached, pursued, and arrested 25-year-old Freddie Gray for mostly unknown reasons. The police dragged him before placing him in the van. The police likely took him for a “rough ride” where officers would place suspects into vehicles unsecured with the intent to harm and subdue them. He sustained a fatal spinal cord injury while in police custody. The department suspended the six officers involved. Yet, the authorities could not explained how Gray sustained his fatal injury. They have yet to provide an answer.
Gray’s killing reflects the continued degradation of black life. The spate of black deaths over the last several years animates troubling political trends such as conservatives’ assault on voting rights, welfare and other social services, and even the reproductive freedoms of women of color. Decades of job loss and disinvestment of social services have left black bodies vulnerable. Social rights often serve to protect one’s personal liberty. People of color who live in areas characterized by chronic poverty are subject to stigmatization and expulsion. What historian Khalil Gilbran Muhammad calls the condemnation of blackness justifies the killing and jailing of black and brown bodies. The absence of civil and economic rights and the presence of oppressive policing and surveillance leaves black and brown bodies vulnerable.
So people rebel.
Rebellions contain physical battles between police and protesters and rhetorical clashes in the media. Rebellions contain two offensives — one by the people, another by the authorities and elected officials. While we have not seen the type of militarized offensive akin to Ferguson, we watched as Rawlings-Blake, Hagan, and Batts launched a rhetorical offensive, referring to participants as thugs and criminals. Participants and allies continue to utilize social media to frame the unrest.
Living in the “Box”
While I have not been impressed with Dr. Jamal Bryant’s analysis of the rebellion, he offered a great metaphor for what it means to live as a black person in unequal cities during Gray’s funeral service:
“At 8:40, your son began running from the police. He began running. At 8:41, according to the timeline, he stopped. He stopped not because he was out of breath…He stopped because somewhere within the inner recesses of his own mind. He made up in his own mind ‘I’m tired of living in a box.’ And so he stopped running…”
Freddie Gray was not the only one who was frustrated with containment. I surmise that man black Baltimoreans revolted against this condition. This is why African Americans “burn down their own neighborhood.”
The question — Why are black people destroying their own communities? — implies irrationality on the part of violent protesters and the absence of logic of this form of collective action. There is a logic to rebellion. Participants often strike at symbols of authority and exploitation and spaces of consumption — police, liquor stores, and check-cashing establishments. Historian Gerald Horne reports how rebels in Watts burned credit receipts before ransacking particular stores in Fire This Time: The Watts Uprising and the 1960s. Two days ago, we watched scores of Baltimoreans rush a check cashing establishment. Even the looting of luxury goods is representative of America’s obsession with the possession of plenty.
I also argue that many of these spaces are not necessarily ones of community. Impoverished spaces often serve to contain undesirables. I may not agree with much of what Dr. Bryant says, but his “box” metaphor is apt. Prison authorities may put you in the box if they view you as a problem. So, think of it this way: If you were a prisoner, would you not burn down the cell and the whole jail if you had the chance? This may not be the case for all, but many certainly would.
The unfolding of urban rebellion generates further questions and observations about community. Are you a part of a community in the U.S. if you do not own any valuable property? What kind of community contains few affordable stores, few jobs, declining wages, and few social services in a consumer-based society? You need to be mobile, but you cannot get around. People are trapped. Now African Americans are confronted with the constant violation of personal liberty due to private and state surveillance, overpolicing, and the threat of death. Many live in a space that may be best described as a jail cell. This is the case even if one lives in the midst of vacant lots. The resident’s mobility remains restricted and their life chances remain low. And the police, of course, serve as guards to protect the haves from the have nots.
Someone living in Baltimore’s depressed areas may feel the historical weight of politicians, land developers, urban planners, real estate agents, business and corporate leaders manipulating law, space, wages, and policy for their benefit. Meanwhile a politician tells a Black Baltimorean to vote knowing that civil rights does not always ensure economic security. She watches police shoot and kill other black folks with little consequence. He wakes up every morning wondering whether or not they will be the next hashtag. Her march to protest Gray’s death does not garner attention while The Baltimore Sun plasters her friend’s face on the front page if the police suspects him of criminal activity.
Eventually the police kills a black person and then someone lights that spark — whether or not the person participates in criminal mischief is beside the point. We ignore the numerous studies illustrating how rebellions are the products of inequality and exploitation. In response to rebellion, many Americans seek to attack the rock thrower with the desperate hope of obscuring the underlying message — this country must finally reckon with its legacy of segregation, the effects of urban disinvestment, and the construction of a criminal justice system that “disappears” African American men and stigmatizes and violates black women and trans folks.
There is a logic to urban rebellion, but many of us remain unaware because of our lack of familiarity with the feeling and condition of entrapment. Of course, not everyone would respond to these circumstances the same way. If all we did, then either we would toil in poverty in perpetuity or we would have burned the country down to the ground a long time ago. All of us have to get to know that feeling and acquire a better sense of the history of racism and rebellion in this country before throwing our metaphorical stones. Rebellions are a product of a long train of abuses against the poor and people of color.
James Baldwin knew it. He warned us at the end of The Fire Next Time.
Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. knew it as well. Dr. King reflected upon his move to Chicago in 1966:
“Riots grow out of intolerable conditions. Violent revolts are generated by revolting conditions and there is nothing more dangerous than to build a society with a large segment of people who feel they have no stake in it, who feel they have nothing to lose. To the young victims of the slums, this society has so limited the alternatives of his life that the expression of his manhood is reduced to the ability to defend himself physically. No wonder it appears logical to him to strike out, resorting to violence against oppression.”
Austin McCoy is an activist with Black Lives Matter and a PhD student at the University of Michigan. He lives in Ann Arbor.
This essay originally appeared on Medium.