There are at least three potential audiences for this piece: those that are saying, “What the hell is this guy saying? Violence is good? Criminal thuggery revolutionary?” And then there are those who are wondering, what does he mean exactly? Is he just being sensationalists or radical chic? And then there are those who get it. Most of them haven’t been to university, but most have either been in a riot or have at least felt the undeniable surge that comes from desperation and rage that leads to disrupting business as usual.
Yes, rage. Riots come from rage and most commentators don’t have any rage or any experience in riots, except as creepy voyeurs, endlessly repeating the TV cycle narrative. This is why I rarely watch or read mainstream media in these events: I’ve seen and heard them time and time again, and to listen to the tired, worn out “analysis” offends my sensibility and experience. That’s the other reason I don’t listen to them because I’ve been in riots. Or should I say rebellions? I know the types and the thrills, the victories and the defeats. And because I study media and how they frame stories and because I study how we go from riots to rebellions to resistance and then to Revolution, I understand it is critical to talk about what is really going on in showing us the news. What is actually happening behind the television and print pundits’ opinions of “riots”? What function do they serve? So that we know how to interpret civil disturbances and react accordingly, as spectators of our own lives.
First of all, the specifics of the current number of riots are not important to this conversation, as they are simply replays of replays. Not until we discuss the function of different public disturbances, will we be able to understand how we get from desperation of the riot that challenges the slavery of everyday life to rebellion, resistance and Revolution. Instead we must talk about how riots are dismissed as the slavish desire of a consumer’s dream of the “good life,” instead of being recognized as a call for justice. So needless to say, I don’t believe non-violence is our only option, a reform that will only put off the inevitable. I believe riots have many causes, but I’m here concerned about taking the incidental riot and turning it into a historical riot, one that allows us to dream of a better world.
Black Lives Matter, but racial violence is class violence. Face it, everyday, people of every color get abused and murdered by the security forces that themselves are every shade of the rainbow, yet are blue and blue throughout. Of course there is a color component, how could it be otherwise when black people are a great part of the American underclass? But if you’re Henry Louis Gates and you get arrested for “breaking” into your own house, you get a beer with Obama and the racist cop who arrested you. Poor people don’t get that break. They get broken. And forget about white privilege, poor people of color aren’t denied privilege, they are denied the human rights that we all should and can enjoy. Black privilege accords with White privilege quite nicely (oh you know this if you’re 3rd generation Spelman or Howard); it’s called class privilege. But what about those vicious crackers and peckerwoods? The KKK and the Aryan Brotherhood? The sad privilege they call their own is pathetic outdated colonialism, used by the elite to divide and conquer. The vanquished would rather argue, yes, I am not being oppressed or exploited. This is exactly what they want; it is easier to say you want to be brutalized, and to say you deserve it, than to admit you are being fucked. And of course, the working class is white in popular culture and pretty happy on the sitcoms and reality Television shows so those out there fighting for a better life are criminals, rioters, and bums. All the usual suspects that take, take, and take as they rely on the Welfare State instead of hard work.
Should we fight incessantly for equality in race, gender, sexual orientation, disability, and all other political identities? YES, without fail! But we can’t fail to connect it to a larger structural system that reroutes natural allies into neoliberal narratives struggling for their own piece of the pie. And those in the academy and industry usually get the spoils before us proles. To deny the very existence of a working class and a working class life betrays the poverty of your theory and the inability to relinquish your “privilege,” but allows the petit bourgeois its illusions of helping the needy from the greedy. To frame riots, rebellion, and resistance, as a class thing, or a gender thing, or a sexual orientation thing, is to ignore the structure that in fact create the “rioting and looting” in the first place. Without the ability to help not just workers, but to help workers realize themselves as a class of workers for themselves, or in other words creating a political party that representing workers and not the business sector. This is the main fear of the elite, that the people, the demos, will move from simply rioting to envisioning a better world and ways to achieve it.
But on to the fun stuff, rioting. First of all, we’ll hear about how we only talk about riots when they’re “urban,” and not the fun loving rioting of Superbowl victories or Spring break rape revelry type. That’s because these are fundamentally different. White college kids rioting are doing it for fun, because they are bored and they can like when Kentucky lost in the Final Four recently. The authorities don’t mind (as long as too many shots aren’t fired), but letting off steam is great in their minds. When riots happen in “urban” areas it is usually because the security forces killed someone or there is at least the rumor of such an event. This is serious stuff; not kids letting off steam, but people who are pissed and not afraid to show it. Oh yes, it’s fun, but because you are finding your might and the comrades next to you as a class, not some kids breaking shit for the hell of it. And we do not find some puppyshit college kids at historical riots, you get “blue collar” workers (yeah, they still exist), you get ex-military, you get gang-members, you get mothers, and fast-food workers and housewives; you get all kinds of men and women in a like-minded state and it’s not about having fun. These are the underclass, the lumpenproletariat that can’t take it anymore and are ready to do something about it.
Why do the police have military grade equipment? Because they are going to need it when they finally understand that force and coercion won’t work. Many military and ex-military are embarrassed and angry and no longer are supportive of the security forces and more and more on duty refuse to attack their fellow citizens. Nothing will stop the desire of people to be free. Nothing. Historical Riots reestablish the existence of history itself. They re-open history as our own making and only we can make history, as people creating a better world. And who says that we cannot imagine a better world? Only the mental cripples on Wall Street.
A man far smarter than me spoke of riots, and how they came about, and he had a word for it: stikhiinost. It means something like the elemental force that erupts when that feeling of injustice can no longer be tolerated. It also has many more inflections than I can add, but it has been translated into spontaneous. That ponderous word that explains all the differences, the nuances, the causes with the simplistic, “The riot was spontaneous, It started out of nowhere” This is a way of masking that, yes, actions, disruptions occur most often in unpredictable manners, but they are not spontaneous in the sense that we cannot understand where they came from and yet the conditions that created and fostered them are present nonetheless. In fact, the point is to understand those conditions so that the stikhinnyi nature of our outrage, or our desire to change the injustices around us, is directed and not only an outpouring of anger. That it becomes politicized, not labeled criminal.
So riots do not come out of the “blue,” or even from the killing of a citizen or a thousand other injustices; they come out of the injustice of the capitalist system. Riots are the first form that says to the security forces and the elite that we will not take it. Riots are rebellions. Rebellions use riots or physical disruptions to announce that the way our lives are ordered must be changed and that a new world can and must be envisioned. So when you see the terms, “rioters,” “criminals,” “thugs,” ask what function that serves? To demonize those who simply cannot take it anymore or to hide the fact that they’ve been driven to such desperate measures? It is to depoliticize the people trying to create history.
Oh, you say, but what about those looters? Yes, there are looters and I support them in historical riots. You have been told in every facet of your life to try to get as much as you can, however possible, so if you can grab five big screen televisions and sell them, do so. This is the American Dream of the Corporate United States, so get yours! Is looting a political act? It can be when you are looting for your survival or it can be as capitalist as any Forture 500 company. Are all riots political? As I’ve mentioned already, rioting is only rebelling and rebellion can have any political nature. Can a historical riot be depoliticized? This is the function of mainstream media, to create the narrative of criminality and to “blame” the problem on the “wrong” way to protest. How sad and hopeless that our poor have to steal from themselves and be blamed for their own poverty when the titans of industry relentlessly plunder the world’s wealth in an unending class war? How many criminals on Wall Street and in the financial sector have served time for the biggest crime in history, but you are going to give jail time to someone who threw a bottle? “Just how blind America? Ain’t no tellin’.”
Remember we can talk about revolutions, but only when it is safely at a distance, in far off countries where the “rioters” skin is not white. Revolutions in the U.S. are about the new iPhone and the new app perfectly designed for white 20 something’s with just enough money to keep them distracted. This is why the revolution will not be televised, because what you see as televised is not the revolution.
Only though bringing to the table the spectator of a new day, a new horizon created by riots that we can turn to rebellion, to then Revolution. By understanding that a new Idea can be made visible and discussed instead of dismissed, we acknowledge riots as resistance. I mean the idea that a collective social arrangement, superior to the one we have at present, is something we can realize in our lifetimes. History is not dead. By creating a rebellion, a refusal to accept the conditions as they are, we move into resistance. The ability to recognize ourselves as a class, and to understand our oppressions aren’t a contest to see who has it the worst; we are not separate demographics and we all experience the alienation of work and feel hunger when our bellies are empty. Understanding how our resistance is connected and united, the process of revolution begins. Born not in blood, but through ideas, yet the erotic violence of conception cannot and should not be denied. There is love in fighting for the dignity of all humans.
This resistance is an action, a praxis that allows us to see its directions, because history does not contain the seeds of its solution. It cannot be prefigured with the loans of Caesars gold. Using the Master’s tools means tearing down his house, but only after burning it down. The elite have never committed class suicide so whatever means are necessary should be considered. Wars of position, wars of movement, wars on campuses, wars in workplaces; I’m not talking about the future. I’m talking about the wars that are going on right now everywhere. But we should remember; all war is politics so the outcome is most often decided before a blow is even landed or a gun loaded.
Our Revolution will never arrive. It will always be in the state of becoming. Our Revolution will be that state of becoming. It is within our grasp and yet we teeter on the edge of killing the planet. “Socialism and Barbarism” has never have been more evident. The choice is ours.
J.A. Masko is a PhD student in the College of Communications at Penn State University.