“A Riot is the Language of the Unheard”
I keep coming across people asking what these riots are supposed to accomplish, how burning down buildings helps anyone’s cause, why people are “destroying their own neighborhoods,” and so on.
I’m not the best one to try to explain. I’ve pretty much never been on the receiving end of real oppression. I’m not living in any of the communities that are dealing with the protests and riots right now. So as much as possible, I’m going to refer to other sources and other people’s words.
To begin with, I’ve seen people — almost exclusively white — referencing MLK as a way to condemn the riots. So let’s review King’s 1967 speech “The Other America,” in which he said:
I will continue to condemn riots, and continue to say to my brothers and sisters that this is not the way. And continue to affirm that there is another way.
But at the same time, it is as necessary for me to be as vigorous in condemning the conditions which cause persons to feel that they must engage in riotous activities as it is for me to condemn riots. I think America must see that riots do not develop out of thin air. Certain conditions continue to exist in our society which must be condemned as vigorously as we condemn riots. But in the final analysis, a riot is the language of the unheard. And what is it that America has failed to hear? It has failed to hear that the plight of the Negro poor has worsened over the last few years. It has failed to hear that the promises of freedom and justice have not been met. And it has failed to hear that large segments of white society are more concerned about tranquility and the status quo than about justice, equality, and humanity. And so in a real sense our nation’s summers of riots are caused by our nation’s winters of delay. And as long as America postpones justice, we stand in the position of having these recurrences of violence and riots over and over again. Social justice and progress are the absolute guarantors of riot prevention. [Emphasis added]
There’s a lot of finger-pointing as to who’s actually instigating the violence. The Mayor of St. Paul noted that “every person arrested in the city last night was from out of state,” but later rescinded that claim, saying he’d received incorrect information during a police briefing. (Source)
The same article also notes, however, “Department of Public Safety Commissioner John Harrington confirmed evidence of white supremacist groups trying to incite violence; Many posted messages online that encouraged people to go loot in Minneapolis and cause mayhem.”
And while not all those arrested were from out-of-state, at least some were. “Hennepin County jail logs showed detainees from Florida, Michigan, Missouri, Illinois and Alaska.” (Source)
Online, most of what I see blames “the other side.” The left blames police agitators, white supremicists, etc. The right blames BLM and antifa. And as with any fast-moving, emotional news story, it’s hard to pin down the facts, especially for those of us at a distance.
Are there outside agitators, people specifically trying to fan the flames and incite violence? Yep. Take this guy, for example:
- A white man was filmed smashing windows at an AutoZone. It’s been reported that this was one of the first acts of destruction that ignited more rioting in Minneapolis. There are claims he was a police officer, but I haven’t seen proof of this one way or another.
Are the police escalating things by firing paint canisters at people sitting peacefully on their porch, firing on news crews, pepper spraying helpless reporters, and so much more? Absolutely.
(It’s also enlightening to see the difference in police response to these protests when compared to the armed white protesters who stormed Michigan’s capitol building, threatening the Governor’s life, screaming in the cops’ faces, and forcing a shutdown of the capitol.)
And is some of the looting coming from people within the communities? Probably, yes.
“But why can’t they protest peacefully?” ask those on the outside, people who, for the most part, haven’t been directly impacted by the underlying problems.
Like MLK said, America has failed to hear. Peaceful protests have been happening all along. We’ve chosen not to listen.
When Colin Kaepernick knelt in protest of police brutality against black people, he was fired and blacklisted, and attacked by no less than the President of the United States.
Riots are the language of the unheard. What is it that’s been unheard? Maybe the fact that black men have a 1 in 1000 chance of being killed by the police, far higher than any other group.
Here are some other stats from the same research:
- Black people are about twice as likely as white people to be pulled over by law enforcement for a traffic stop
- Black and Latino drivers are much more likely to be searched once they are pulled over by the police
- The murders of white people are more likely to be solved than the murders of black people
- White people make up less than half of America’s murder victims, yet 80 percent of the convicted murderers sentenced to death had killed a white person
- Black Americans are much more likely to be arrested and charged for drug-related crimes, despite no significant disparity in how much those populations actually use narcotics
- Potential jurors who are black are much more likely to be dismissed by prosecutors than potential white jurors
- White defendants are substantially more likely than black defendants to have their most serious charge dismissed as part of a plea bargain
- Even when black men and white men are convicted of the same crime, the black men can expect a prison sentence that is 20 percent longer
I don’t pretend to have all the answers. I do think it’s important to listen. Listen, particularly, to those who’ve been hurt. To those who have been suffering inequity for their entire lives.
For example, see Genesee County Sheriff Chris Swanson who met with protesters, talked to them, listened to them, and ended up joining their march. The protest remained peaceful, and no arrests were made. (Source)
You want to know why people are angry? They’ve been telling us, again and again, for years. If you really want to know, all you have to do is listen.
May 31, 2020 @ 4:05 pm
Beautifully written, Jim. And the fact that the meme you referenced has been primarily shared by white people bothers me a LOT. I feel that by doing so, the intent is to belittle the oppression and frustration and fear and anger that have prompted the riots and violence. And the failure to be heard.
May 31, 2020 @ 11:58 pm
This reminds me of Paine’s An American Crisis, where he writes of the father who wishes for peace in his own time… and Paine had plenty to say about shoving the burden onto the children. Comfort in our own time vs justice for those following us.
June 1, 2020 @ 5:15 pm
Thanks for writing this.
I will say that there are reports of organized groups in vans looting places in the SF bay area. That, at least, feels organized and probably not connected at all to the protests.
The frustrating thing to me about the violence and looting is that 80% of the protests in my area have been relatively peaceful, 10% have been heated, and 10% have been mayhem and humbug, and then the 10% that is humbug is what gets picked up. And I don’t want to minimize people’s anger, but it feels like such a dismissive tactic to reduce it all to violence and looting. And no one is showing up with AR-15s and paramilitary gear.
June 1, 2020 @ 7:07 pm
Gosh, MLK’s words are timely! Disturbingly so, considering he spoke them over half a century ago.