The "Right" to Riot
*Note: This piece is not taking into account the fact that much of Baltimore's protesting has been peaceful. My intent is to comment more on the notion that rioting (whether in Baltimore or anywhere) is "good" or "bad."
When people get angry, they often act emotionally. Essentially, this is what a riot is: large scale anger put into action. And that's what is happening in Baltimore after the death of Freddie Gray, another unarmed black man who suffered the ultimate price at the hands of a police department.
And once again, as always happens when rioting begins, people are asking the same question: is a riot the most appropriate response?
There are infinite nuanced views on the validity of rioting as a civil protest, but I want to focus on the two most popular polar defenses. The first tends to think that rioting is irresponsible, ineffective, and ultimately reinforces the stereotypes that are exploited in such racial dichotomies. In other words, "if black people keep rioting, then white people will keep seeing them in negative ways." On the flip side, we have the view that, when pushed, a riot is one of the only ways for the oppressed to have their voices heard. As long as the goal of the riot is to break glass, vandalize property, and not to harm human life, isn't it a more effective way of getting a message across than supporting the status quo?
The former message is perhaps overly idealistic and the latter is often presented with a "people-just-don't-get-it" attitude. In short, like much political rhetoric, each tries to function as a sort of obvious, certain response.
This is where I must interject and try to offer some perspective.
Let me start by saying that I am in no way an expert on race relations. I have never been discriminated for my race or creed. For all intents and purposes, I am "privileged." Let me also emphasize that, in terms of pure ideal conditions, I must side with those who believe the trivialized members of society must be allowed to have a voice.
However, I am someone who understands the rhetoric of actions and words. I can stand between two warring sides and, with a decent amount of success, explain to each how their message is being perceived. That's all I intend to do here. I won't suggest a hard-and-fast solution, but I will certainly mention why I think neither the "status quo" nor the riots is a good idea.
The status quo believes that if communities resist the urge to riot, they will appear more civilized and thus earn the respect of those who oppress them. This is not "non-violence"; it is passivity. Standing back and saying, "Hit me again!" is not going to prove a point. There needs to be some agency. This is why the criticism of the riots in this regard is naive.
On the other hand, many who support the "right to riot" quote Martin Luther King, Jr. who once stated, "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… a riot is the language of the unheard." This quote, to many who believe in the efficacy and necessity of riots, is a sort of rallying cry that seems to be utilized as validation for the acts. In other words, if MLK says riots are okay, then they must be.
However, when MLK said that he wouldn't go so far as to condemn riots and that "riots are the language of the unheard," I do not believe he was endorsing the act. Look closely at his words. He is saying, essentially, that riots are equally right (and equally wrong) as the "conditions" present in our society -- which seems to imply both are wrong. He's simply saying that it would be wrong to condemn one side without also pointing out the conditions that created it.
If you've taken logic, you know that "not A must be B" is a flawed conclusion. That's what pro-riot people are doing wrong with this quote (often used out of context). If King isn't condemning riots, that means he must support them, right? Not exactly. Analyzing his rhetoric, I think he was simply saying he understood why people would naturally resort to such behavior. "I get why you are doing what you are doing, because you are being treated unjustly." It was a statement of empathy -- not action.
And equally salient is his notion that "a riot" is a sort of language. Doesn't this imply that, since it is "the language of the unheard," it is a foreign language to those in power? This is important.
I do empathize with the desire to be heard, but I must ask if speaking a "different" language is really the best way to get through to authority. One of the reasons that MLK got so much done was because he translated the "language of the unheard" into the language of his oppressors. He started dialogues that those with the agency to make changes could understand. He knew his audience. I'm not sure that rioters are aware of this.
What I'm trying to say is that the best option for change is not standing by and taking more punches to the face -- but it also isn't screaming and smashing things until you get noticed. What America really needs is someone with perspective, patience, and intelligence to lead the movement for civil treatment of minorities from police departments because -- whether or not people have a "right" to riot, which they do -- this "foreign language" will not enact long-term change. It would be like walking into an American courtroom and screaming at the judge and jury in German; you will call attention to your cause in the immediate, but you likely won't get the end you seek.
Perhaps a better King quote to use as a battle cry is the following: "Means we use must be as pure as the ends we seek." This requires dialogue, discussion, and discourse. It means that someone who stands in defense of the minorities must make him- or herself represent the "ends" we seek as a country. They must walk the walk by leading civil protests, but they must talk the talk by speaking the language of the oppressor. This would seem to be the way toward enacting change.
It is sad that we must still deal with racial strife in 2015. I understand both arguments with regard to these protests. However, something I always like to remind people is that the truth doesn't need you to defend it. Our country -- and our world -- can often be unfair, unjust, and flat out ugly. This doesn't mean that we have to stand passively by while it happens, but it also doesn't mean we need to physically express our anger.
Now, more than ever, we need words. Words of strength; words of wisdom; and perhaps most importantly, words that can be understood by two groups of people who don't seem to understand each other.
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