The Violence from Below

Last night, I left work and headed home on the train just as the Ferguson Grand Jury announcement was wrapping up. My loved ones were already in downtown Oakland joining the mass protests. I sat on the train staring at the live reports and feeds, full of horror, fury, shame, and sickness at the predictable refusal of justice. Being on crutches still, I had let my loved ones persuade me that I couldn’t safely or effectively join the protests, but as the horror surged through me it was hard to keep myself from going there. Going home as if it were just another evening felt terribly wrong.

The night was full of outrage. As it must be when violent injustice by the state is being perpetuated. And some of that outrage expressed itself violently. Yes: along with the peaceful protests, there was some looting, property destruction, burning of cars and buildings. That happened.

So let’s talk about looting. I want, particularly, to talk to my white friends who think of themselves as allies and supporters of people of color, or even as activists, who want to support the “protesters” but who wish to distance themselves from the “looters”; who passionately cheer for “protests” but write disparaging tweets against those protests being allowed to turn into “riots”.

Here’s the thing. Communities of color are living under violent oppression every day. Sorry; let me correct that: People of color are DYING under violent oppression every day. This is not a metaphor. This is a people being gunned down in the street by their own state, while also being constantly demonized, marginalized, disenfranchised, silenced, and incarcerated. The Ferguson case is just ONE microcosm manifestation of the police violence that visits communities of color every single day.

And you say, of course you don’t agree with that violence. Of course you want that to change. But you want it to change peacefully. You want to see inspiring peaceful protests that overcome injustice through the power and beauty of love and commitment to peaceful action.  You know, like in the movies about Gandhi and Martin Luther King Jr.

In short, you expect the oppressed, struggling, grieving, violated people to behave like saints and martyrs while fighting to survive. Resistance against violent oppression is grand and inspiring – so long as it’s genteel.

But it doesn’t work that way. Ferguson has been in the streets every single day since Mike Brown was slaughtered, protesting peacefully with virtually zero violence. Did they get justice? You say, burning cop cars and looting convenience stores isn’t justice. No, of course it isn’t, and the people who are doing it know that it isn’t. It is resistance against the continuing pressure of injustice – and it’s resistance that, while escalated relative to a peaceful march, is still not escalated to anything approaching the lethal violence being visited against these communities.

“So long as violence from below is condemned while violence from above is ignored, you can bet that the former will continue.”

–Tim Wise

This is the violence from above: The state kills unarmed Black kids every single day. More Black kids have been killed by police within the Ferguson area just in the 109 days since Mike Brown’s death. A Black person is shot to death by police every 28 hours.

That these violated communities still limit themselves to occasional property destruction in attempting to finally, finally have their outrage heard in fact speaks to an incredible degree of patience. That’s not enough for you? You need to see a perfectly measured, contained, and absolutely damage-free resistance to state-sponsored killings of people of color or you’ll withdraw your support? Is that what it means to be an ally?

We also need to talk about property. The value of property vis-a-vis the value of human life. The thing is, property is what this society values above all else. Thus, it’s destruction of property that gets heard. This is why looting happens. It is not just opportunistic greed. It is pushback against the violence from above. It is a specific and targeted form of resistance against the regime of property, which has been used by this society to justify the enslavement and lethal oppression of Black people since day one. The specific history of race in America is the story of property being privileged above humanity, to the extent that human beings were made into property, and though that practice was legally abolished, the cultural mores underpinning it remain rampant now. If this was not still our reality, we would not see people who said nothing about the killing of Black youth getting outraged about destruction of property.

So I want to ask you. Go think about what you’ve said regarding Ferguson and race relations lately. Go look at your tweets and posts. Go look back at your friends’ posts. If the first time you bothered to speak out about Ferguson was to cast judgement on looters, then you have some unexamined racism you need to work on. If your friends have responded in this way, then you have some unexamined racism in your social environment you need to work on. If you want to be an ally, go work on that.

“It is not enough for me to stand before you tonight and condemn riots. It would be morally irresponsible for me to do that without, at the same time, condemning the contingent, intolerable conditions that exist in our society. These conditions are the things that cause individuals to feel that they have no other alternative than to engage in violent rebellions to get attention. And I must say tonight that a riot is the language of the unheard.”

–Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.

8 replies
  1. Chris
    Chris says:

    Some great thoughts here. Definitely agree we shouldn’t condemn people driven to act out after enduring a lifetime of systemic violence.

    But I always thought the argument against violent protests was about effectiveness, about encouraging people to take action in ways that will actually make things better rather than worse. Could people really create positive change by, what, destroying lots of property so that suddenly everyone wakes up and says, oh, it’s so much better that mere property got smashed rather than actual people getting hurt, that we don’t even care that all our community’s businesses and streets are in flames and rubble?

    No, if the media can report that protesters are largely just people out smashing stuff, a lot of the public will just think, oh, we just need more cops to police these violent protests. Refraining from violence takes away that easy excuse for dismissal.

    Reply
  2. Alena
    Alena says:

    Thank you for this. I will be sharing it. It’s so frustrating to listen to people I love say things like, “Well, protesting, sure, that’s ok -but riots and looting are not protesting. Destruction of property is not protesting.” (When it happens, though, it’s incredibly gratifying to be able to say, “Oh, you mean like the Boston Tea Party?” Mortified silence, every time.)

    Reply
  3. Amanda C
    Amanda C says:

    This is one of the most well-written pieces I’ve read regarding the riots in Ferguson.

    It’s been eye-opening over the last week – and disheartening – to read people’s opinion on social media who are missing the point of WHY Ferguson citizens are angry, and just writing off the riots as “typical over-reaction” while simultaneous insisting that there is no such thing as institutionalized racism. *facepalm* You have brilliantly articulated the roots of the situation and why it’s important that we understand that the riots are a symptom of a larger problem, and not just mindless violence. My deepest thanks and respect. ;)

    Reply
  4. P. Sufenas Virius Lupus
    P. Sufenas Virius Lupus says:

    This has all happened during a week when, in my U.S. History I class, we were looking at the Revolutionary War, and the incident of the Boston Massacre in particular as something which set the gears in motion toward the move for independence. I keep wondering if Mike Brown is the modern Crispus Attucks, and if this entire incident and the movements which have mobilized in response to it might be some sort of response that will culminate in an “internal revolution” of sorts. One isn’t sure whether this is something to hope for, fear, or both, or something else entirely.

    Reply
  5. Lon Sarver
    Lon Sarver says:

    “The thing is, property is what this society values above all else. Thus, it’s destruction of property that gets heard. This is why looting happens.”

    That’s one of those things that seems like it should have been obvious, but I don’t know if I’d have come up with it on my own, if I hadn’t read it here. I always understood violent protest as an attempt to be heard; but I never could pin down the mechanism.

    Thank you for that insight.

    Reply
  6. shannon
    shannon says:

    Good stuff. I was just commenting this morning that our civilian police are held to a military standard (I can kill you with impunity if you make me scared), checkpoints, stop and frisk, etc, etc..

    While the citizens are held to a civilian one. As you point out; “this is war, but you’d better not break an f’n window!”

    The police are SUPPOSED to be civilians, with only the same rights as civilians.

    Yet, imagine a young black man killing a cop and saying “well, I feared for my safety”. And everyone saying ” well, that’s understandable, its dangerous on the streets” and letting him walk.

    So yeah… “Oh.. You don’t understand why people riot? That’s right. You don’t. So.. Look into it before you judge them.”

    Reply

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