How Do You Spell Relief?

“For white people in America, property damage is considered a reasonable rite of celebration.”

Clinton Yates, Undefeated columnist, on white rioting following the Philadelphia Eagles 2018 Super Bowl victory.

On April 20th, Derek Chauvin was found guilty of all three counts of murder in the death of George Floyd. This prompted a number of news outlets to characterize public reaction to the verdict as one of “relief.”

But what exactly was the source of this media ascribed relief? Was it that justice finally had been served? That a police officer who willfully and recklessly took the life of a helpless man was found guilty when the vast majority of his colleagues are acquitted or rarely charged to begin with? Relief suggests that the worst is over, that one can find respite, that a weight has been lifted, that one can, unlike George Floyd, breathe again.

This use of the word is both odd and disturbing. Why not use an unequivocal “vindication” or even a definitive “day of reckoning”? The obvious answer, the dog whistle tooted by both liberal and conservative media, is that people were relieved because the verdict preempted the presumably inevitable rioting that they were certain would have ensued had Chauvin not been convicted. No wonder then, that long before the verdict was announced, the media had already evoked the L.A. riots, with the implication that a Chauvin acquittal would have produced a similar outcome, albeit on a national level.

Such thinking, however, casts Chauvin as a sacrificial lamb, the ultimate victim of so-called cancel culture, the presumption being that his conviction (and potentially that of other cops) was being used prophylactically to shield society from black [1] mobs, who, when they are not dancing, outjumping and outracing whites, or committing crimes, their natural inclination is to riot and loot whenever they feel aggrieved.

But given the history of rioting in America, the real question is why has rioting become synonymous with black people? After all, white rioting has a longer and far deadlier history. In fact, beginning with Shay’s Rebellion (1786) and the Gentleman’s Riot (1835), there have been hundreds of major violent civil disturbances between the late eighteenth and twenty-first centuries.

And that’s largely excluding race riots such as the Blackburn Riots (1833), the Snow Riot (1835), the “Red Summer” of 1919, during which several dozen U.S. cities, including Omaha, Chicago, Washington, D.C., and the Rosewood (1923), and Tulsa (1921) massacres, the last, only recently entering into the awareness of most Americans thanks to a prologue reenacting the massacre in Damon Lindelof’s Watchmen miniseries. (If Americans learn geography though their forever wars, they lean their history through movies and tv shows). Yet despite a history of carnage that has seen the destruction of black lives, businesses, and property, the face conjured up by rioting is black.

Why bring up the matter now? Well, until January 6, 2021, a date, if Trumpists have their way, that will languish in obscurity, discussion of contemporary white rioting has generally been limited to so-called sports riots, the most recent exploding after the Philadelphia Eagles 2018 Super Bowl victory, though it too, like the more deadly, aforementioned race riots, has largely been ignored.

The celebrations saw tens of thousands of Eagles fans take to the streets, with some rioters looting gas stations, smashing department store windows, overturning cars, setting fires, damaging public property, and, in the case of one overzealous fan, eating horse manure. Only a few were arrested. But then what else would one expect in land where the unwritten Rittenhouse Rules dominate American criminal justice. After all, (white) boys will be (white) boys. And as my parenthetical addition of skin color suggests, the public discourse surrounding their behavior traditionally elides their race, which is itself indicative of the privilege these rambunctious lads (and lasses) enjoy. It is the same privilege that allows an armed Kyle Rittenhouse to casually walk pass police after killing two people and wounding a third, that treats Dylan Roof to a Whopper after murdering nine black parishioners, that hold doors open to invite Capitol rioters into the seat of our democracy and lets them exit the building unmolested after literally shitting on it, and that permits Donald Trump, the reigning Whopper King himself, to retreat to his Floridian Xanadu..

Tellingly, the mainstream media presented the behavior of Eagles’ non-threatening white “revelers,” frat party antics on steroids, whose magnitude, according to some, was mitigated by the fact that blacks also participated. According to New York Daily News columnist Jonathan Zimmerman, “Across our history, periodic outbreaks of hostility have pit the races against each other. But sports-related violence puts them on the same side.” While acknowledging that “whites certainly represented the majority of the revelers after the Super Bowl,” Zimmerman points out that “there were a lot of black people out on the streets as well” and concludes that unlike race riots “sports-related violence” actually brings the races together. Interestingly, Zimmerman’s spin ignores the fact of white participation in “black riots” This is possibly because it upsets the familiar narrative that rioting is an undiluted, peculiarly black pastime.

Although Zimmerman acknowledges the destructiveness of white riots on black lives, the equation is as insulting as it facile, for it fails to appreciate that rioting by blacks emerges from despair and anger aroused by centuries of relentless institutional racism and perpetual loss.  Conversely, white “sports riots” (or as Zimmerman, eliding race entirely, prefers “post-victory sports violence”) are tribal celebrations inspired by short-lived triumphs. In fact, this was true of past white race riots, which were celebrations of white superiority and impunity, since black lives and property could be obliterated and the trophies of their vandalism brazenly displayed without fear of punishment. But violence in the cause of social justice, particularly when it takes the form of full-blown rebellion – for example, the Bacon Rebellion, John Brown’s raid on Harpers Ferry, and the raids of Newton Knight’s Company on the Confederacy – also brings races together and in doing so constitutes a greater threat to the power elites that sought to separate them and that responded with draconian measures to deter its recurrence.

But forget the Super Bowl. Just look at the GOP’s (non) response to the Capitol siege, which, according to Georgia Congressman Andrew Clyde, was simply a “normal tourist visit.” This normalcy apparently includes bringing iron pipes to the Capitol, urinating in its hallways, and smearing human feces on its walls. (Well, I suppose we should be relieved they didn’t eat it.) It is clear, however, the congressman came to this assessment in hindsight, for, judging by the terrified expression on his face as rioters attempted to breech the House chamber, he seems to have believed his life was at stake. Now the life at stake is political, and to sustain it, Clyde and other delusional Trump loyalists have chosen to sacrifice both truth and the rule of law.

Given the history and nature of “post-victory violence,” perhaps we should rephrase the question about relief to pose another: should Americans have been relieved that Trump lost the election?

Imagine what might have happened if he won!

Then again, in the eyes of the Capitol rioters and GOP legislators, he did.


1) In referring to black people in this article, I have chosen not to capitalize “black” until substantive transformation of American police enforcement and the criminal justice system that results in the criminal prosecution of those who use excessive force and produces a quantifiable, long-term reduction in the number of police killings and brutalization of black people is realized.