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During the Ferguson protests last year, the majority of editorials and blogposts pinned to my Facebook wall or found on the opinion pages of mainstream media condemned both systems of oppression and violent reactions in the form of rioting and looting. But a smattering of articles — those that attempted to legitimize, validate, and excuse rioting — caught my eye.

An increasing acceptance of rioting

In defense of looting” was the first such piece that struck me. The writer, Willie Osterweil, offers a few “defenses” of looting. One is that looting and violence are good means of attracting media attention (which, apparently, is desirable, even though he condemns the media as “itself a tool of white supremacy”).

If protesters hadn’t looted and burnt down that QuikTrip on the second day of protests, would Ferguson be a point of worldwide attention? It’s impossible to know, but all the non-violent protests against police killings across the country that go unreported seem to indicate the answer is no. It was the looting of a Duane Reade after a vigil that brought widespread attention to the murder of Kimani Gray in New York City. The media’s own warped procedure instructs that riots and looting are more effective at attracting attention to a cause.

Another point is historical:

…the civil rights movement was not purely non-violent…. But it is also the emergent threat of rioting that forced JFK’s hand.

A third point is made that looting is a political statement on property ownership:

The mystifying ideological claim that looting is violent and non-political is one that has been carefully produced by the ruling class because it is precisely the violent maintenance of property which is both the basis and end of their power. Looting is extremely dangerous to the rich (and most white people) because it reveals, with an immediacy that has to be moralized away, that the idea of private property is just that: an idea, a tenuous and contingent structure of consent, backed up by the lethal force of the state. When rioters take territory and loot, they are revealing precisely how, in a space without cops, property relations can be destroyed and things can be had for free.

On a less abstract level there is a practical and tactical benefit to looting. Whenever people worry about looting, there is an implicit sense that the looter must necessarily be acting selfishly, “opportunistically,” and in excess. But why is it bad to grab an opportunity to improve well-being, to make life better, easier, or more comfortable?

…White people deploy the idea of looting in a way that implies people of color are greedy and lazy, but it is just the opposite: looting is a hard-won and dangerous act with potentially terrible consequences, and looters are only stealing from the rich owners’ profit margins. Those owners, meanwhile, especially if they own a chain like QuikTrip, steal forty hours every week from thousands of employees who in return get the privilege of not dying for another seven days.

Another piece, “Ferguson: In defense of rioting” was printed in, of all places, TIME Magazine. In it, Darlena Cunha writes:

Riots are a necessary part of the evolution of society. Unfortunately, we do not live in a universal utopia where people have the basic human rights they deserve simply for existing, and until we get there, the legitimate frustration, sorrow and pain of the marginalized voices will boil over, spilling out into our streets.

Now, as events unfold – both for good and ill – in Baltimore in the aftermath of the tragic, awful death of Freddie Gray, I saw the TIME Magazine article surface again. I also saw new pieces, including:

Hey, step back with the riot shaming.” The piece is a list of five rebuttals aimed at “riot shamers.”

Here’s another: “In support of Baltimore: Or: smashing police cars is logical political strategy,” which says:

Militance is about direct action which defends our communities from violence. It is about responses which meet the political goals of our communities in the moment, and deal with the repercussions as they come. It is about saying no, firmly drawing and holding boundaries, demanding the return of stolen resources.

Or, now, in The Atlantic, “Nonviolence as compliance” by Ta-Nehisi Coates of recent “The case for reparations” fame. Coates makes a number of good points in this piece, and perhaps he did not write the headline (they’re often written by copy-editors), but the headline does not serve the purpose of the editorial. The article is about the necessary mutuality of nonviolence – that it is not right for police and lawmakers to work for a violent, racist system, and then turn around and ask an angry public to be nonviolent.

When nonviolence is preached as an attempt to evade the repercussions of political brutality, it betrays itself. When nonviolence begins halfway through the war with the aggressor calling time out, it exposes itself as a ruse. When nonviolence is preached by the representatives of the state, while the state doles out heaps of violence to its citizens, it reveals itself to be a con. And none of this can mean that rioting or violence is “correct” or “wise,” any more than a forest fire can be “correct” or “wise.” Wisdom isn’t the point tonight. Disrespect is. In this case, disrespect for the hollow law and failed order that so regularly disrespects the community.

I’m down with Coates’ work here for sure, but the headline suggests that, by protestors practicing nonviolence, people are somehow betraying the cause, somehow becoming pawns of the system, which is simply not true. And, not only is it not true, it’s dangerous.

Responding to the riot-defenders

After reading these articles and a few others like them, I find at least five unique “defenses” of rioting. While there are points in here that seem, in a way, reasonable, most of them seem at the same time logically or morally deficient. Here are responses:

  1. Riots are a good means of attracting media attention

Granted, violence and vehemence attract reporters and their cameras because action is what drives the news cycle. In the first place, while that may be true, we should not perpetuate the problem. If we say, “The American public loves violence on TV so we must be violent,” we are only feeding the beast of bloodthirsty media and furthering a culture obsessed with savagery.

Second, there are plenty of means of attracting media attention that are nonviolent – peaceful protest among them. But even if we somehow excuse rioting and looting as better means of holding the camera’s eye, what other worse sins could we later excuse? If the goal is to get on TV, there are plenty of other horrible crimes that could be committed, and none of them should be justified.

  1. Riots have historical precedence

This is a very valid point – the most reasonable of the five. It is absolutely true that violence and the threat of violence have spurred change in many times and places throughout history. Revolutions are usually built on violence.

I will not refute this point. The only thing I will say is that the precedence for violence is at least partially offset by the precedence for nonviolence, especially concerning the matter of discrimination in America. And, in places where violence led to change, I submit that it was violence hugely more strategic, coordinated, and intentional than the opportunistic impulse to loot and destroy “a cell phone store, poultry market, and 7-Eleven.”

  1. Riots are a means of “making a statement”

Violence makes a statement, though it is rarely a good one.

I would caution that two of the most common examples I’ve heard cited in comparison – the Boston Tea Party and the riots of the Arab Spring – are not really being imitated in the riots in Baltimore or Ferguson. The Boston Tea Party, for example, was not a selfish burglary of property; it was not the 18th century equivalent of cleaning out the Mondawmin Mall – it was a clear, deliberate condemnation of the 1773 Tea Act. What is the looting of a CVS a condemnation of?

And the violence of the Arab Spring was generally more strategic in that it targeted centerpieces of the system and the corrupt regime. Are we meant to believe that kids and young adults robbing a QuickTrip or burning local businesses are really out to “make a statement?” If a statement against power was the aim, it would seem more logical to burglarize and burn a government office, police station, or a big-business headquarters – not the local mom-and-pop shop.

At bottom, random acts of violence don’t make a statement for positive change.

  1. Riots are neutral because many of these kids are presumed guilty whether they riot or not

This point should make us all feel sad and ashamed. It is terrible and terribly wrong that so many young boys are vilified, turned into suspects and threats for no reason other than the neighborhood in which they were raised or the color of their skin. We cannot demonize our children. We must not demonize our neighbors.

That said, it must also be noted that, even in the tragic state when a boy is guilty until proven innocent, it does not make moral his pursuit of actual guilt. Even if I am thought to have committed a crime, it would not justify me going ahead and committing it. As a species we answer to an inner moral compass and an outer moral code. The fact that it is not always upheld does not grant us permission to ignore it. The fact that it is applied unfairly does not make it void. Vehemence perpetuates more vehemence. Rioting only legitimizes the presences of riot police. But violence among young boys does not have to be a self-fulfilling prophecy.

  1. Riots are legitimate because the police also use violence

This point is not stated by Coates or Jesse Williams – and I don’t think they would agree with it – but it could be misread in their recent writings. I think what both men are wisely saying is that the American public must condemn violence whether it comes from black teens or white cops. We must rebuke police officers for their abuses the same as we rebuke kids for looting a gas station and the same way we need to rebuke frat boys for destroying property after a football game.

The mutuality here is not a mutual acceptance of violence, nor a legitimation of revenge, as though we so deeply long to live in an eye-for-an-eye kleptocracy – it is a mutuality of peace and respect. As Williams says in his Twitter essay, “There is nothing ‘black’ about rioting,” there are legitimate grievances, and we’d do well to heed history and contextualization. We need to be egalitarian in our coverage and criticism of all wrongful violence, all destructive pathologies, all corruption and evil.

Sadly, inevitably, more young black men will be killed by police. Sometimes justice will be served, sometimes it won’t. America cannot wait for justice; it must pursue it.

But rioting and looting are not forms of justice. And we cannot allow their “defenses” to take deeper root in the American soul.

Changing the narrative on Martin Luther King, Jr.

Of the “defenses” of rioting I’ve seen, the appropriation and alteration of Martin Luther King, Jr.’s message of nonviolence is one of the most disturbing because, like an olive branch, his words are symbols of peaceful protest. And they are more than symbolic; they are themselves prescriptive, healing, reconciling. That should not be corrupted.

As a confession, I am no expert on Martin Luther King, Jr. I liked my history classes, I’ve read a fair amount on nonviolence and protest, and I watched Our Friend, Martin as a fourth-grader, but I don’t claim to be a worthy biographer.

Still, I cannot help but feel that MLK’s legacy is being, suddenly, hijacked. Today, in a bizarre twist of history-writing, people are imposing meanings on him he never intended. People are invoking him to add credibility to their own nihilism, their own carousing sprees.

King was always held up as the paragon of nonviolence – along with Jesus and Ghandi. Literally, these are the three names most synonymous in America with peaceful movements and the nonviolent transformation of culture. I trust I do not need to cite references to prove King’s premise of peace. Read his books. Watch Selma. Heed the historians.

But now, since Ferguson and even more pronounced during Baltimore, a growing minority are trying to paint a darker, violence-tolerating MLK. As though peaceful protest has outlived its usefulness. As though nonviolence were just a trend, something that can now be scoffed at.

“Martin Luther King would not condemn the Baltimore riots…. He wasn’t closed off to all violence…. He wasn’t as peaceful as we’ve made him out to be.”

Rarely, but increasingly, these are the sorts of things I’m actually seeing written and hearing said.

Far and away the most common citation?

This line: “…riots are the voice of the voiceless,” or, “…a riot is the language of the unheard.”

I’ve seen this at least a dozen times in the last three days — never once cited in context — most of the time as a way of minimizing or even condoning looting and rioting.

Always, we should be striving for historical fact over fiction and an accurate portrayal of people – even and especially cultural icons. But I believe that by trying to alter MLK’s philosophy and character to one tolerant of violence is to cheapen his legacy and harm his cause.

The evidence that such commandeering of Dr. King’s words is incorrect in its interpretation is, scarily enough, in the sentence immediately before — before King said, “…a riot is the language of the unheard,” if only we’d stop to read it in context.

The preceding sentence in his 1967 Stanford University speech called “The Other America” is, “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.” King used the phrase on other occasions, but never did he follow it up with, “…so rioting is now okay.”

Even more context from his Stanford speech drives the point home:

Let me say as I’ve always said, and I will always continue to say, that riots are socially destructive and self-defeating. I’m still convinced that nonviolence is the most potent weapon available to oppressed people in their struggle for freedom and justice. I feel that violence will only create more social problems than they will solve. That in a real sense it is impractical for the Negro to even think of mounting a violent revolution in the United States. So 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.

King acknowledged, as we must continue to acknowledge today, that too many black Americans, poor Americans, disenfranchised and minority and immigrant Americans, are “unheard.” Eric Garner and Freddie Gray have been forcibly silenced. But violence is no way to honor them, no way to progress, no way to be heard.

Americans need not be patient about racial equality. We must be proactive, even provocative, in moving toward a better future. Because, as King said in the same speech, “Time is neutral. It can be used either constructively or destructively.”

Americans must overcome despair with hope, violence with peace, destruction with construction. What we must not do is become destroyers ourselves.

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