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.”
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.