Yes got-dammit, I cheered for the Baltimore “rioters”!
Amid incessant criticism from Whites and the Black respectability crowd, I saw the rioting and destruction of property in Baltimore that broke out at the end of April, following Freddie Gray’s funeral, as the outcry of a desperately traumatized and frustrated people. It was a message that in the face of daily devaluation and violence, the young people who took to the streets were fighting back against the mean-spiritedness that accompanies daily life in a blighted citadel of White supremacy. They were embracing a longstanding American tradition of resistance, all in the name of democracy, freedom, and progress.
While millions crowned disempowered Baltimore mother Toya Graham a “hero,” and even afforded her a Mother’s Day makeover for publicly assaulting and verbally berating her son, Michael Singleton, who was poised to throw rocks at the occupying police forces in Baltimore, I recognized Michael’s gesture as David rising up against Goliath. On that day, young benighted Black people stood before the world to let everyone know that we will not simply sing, pray, march, and preach racial aggression into submission. We will fight back, even at great risk to our own physical well-being. Even at the risk of being demonized by the first Black president as “criminals and thugs,” because we know that respectability won’t save us anyway.
With rocks in hand, theirs was a clarion cry: Black Lives Matter! And: Fuck that CVS!
The patterns of behavior and messaging of Black riots are well established. First, an unarmed Black person is injured or killed by police. Then, local residents protest. With their militarized equipment, their aggressive behavior and by their mere presence, the occupying police crank-up the anger, as the Baltimore police did when they cornered children as they left school, kept them from going home, and when they threw rocks at them. Neither protecting nor serving, the police are a source and fuel of these fires.
Embodying the lack of power and constrained voice, residents took to the streets to express their righteous indignation. Their rage and grief was visible; with each rock, each diaper taken from a store that has provided neither jobs nor food (the Washington Post noted that 30 percent of low-income mothers can’t afford to buy diapers), with each fire, we can see betrayal from a system that sees these residents as problems, if they see them at all.
Predictably, the mainstream media only opens its eyes and ears when rocks are flying, glass is shattering, and fires are burning. Yet, they don’t hear the pain, anger, anguish—they don’t want to acknowledge how discriminatory economic and social policies obscure the genocidal potential of White supremacy and produce hidden holocausts in our communities. And the media crafts language to color the collective perception that Black people are criminal, not the poverty and racial violence that produces the anger, hopelessness and rage.
The uprisings are “riots.”
The demonstrators are “lawless,” “dangerous,” “deadly.”
The righteous indignation is opportunism.
They ask: “Why are they destroying their own communities?” These residents don’t own their own homes (thank you Wells Fargo) much less an entire community. These rebellions are taking place in neighborhoods so desolate they often qualify as war zones, sometimes celebrated with a hit cable TV series to glorify the suffering.
The media complains that “vandalism, arson, and looting are just opportunistic violence—there’s no real political agenda,” as if Black people living in poverty don’t have the ability to be organized and intentional.
They say that “those people should take more constructive measures to improve their lot in life—like praying and voting and getting an education,” in complete denial of the forces so relentlessly working against them.
Lawlessness and thugs threaten “peace.” Never mind that peace was defined by the killing of unarmed Black youth, systemic harassment from the criminal injustice system, mass poverty, unemployment, divestment in schools, poor housing and inadequate health care.
Propelled by media-produced fear, the police presence grows. Guns drawn.
Using their tools of the militarized industrial complex, the police launched an assault with their tear gas, only to see more anger and instability. Baltimore Mayor Stephanie Rawlings-Blake and Maryland Governor Larry Hogan—needing to demonstrate that they are “tough on Black people”—called in the National Guard to restore “order” through curfews and other restrictions.
The message projected from the media, from the pulpit, from City Hall, from police, and from the public is clear: The unrest, and the disruptions to peace are because of “thugs” and “criminals.” The bi-partisan message across race, geography, age, and gender: “If only those thugs would act right, these problems wouldn’t be happening. If only Black people weren’t so violent and criminal, things would be all good.” Yes, there may be reasons for “unrest,” but ultimately the reason we cannot have nice things is because of “thugs” and their criminal friends.
As W.E.B. DuBois said, “How does it feel to be a problem?”
Last week a poll released by the Pew Center found that most people saw that the Baltimore riot was just an opportunity to be lawless. “About 61 percent say that ‘some people taking advantage of the situation to engage in criminal behavior contributed a “great deal” to the unrest,’ while 56 percent say the same about tensions between the African-American community and the police” according to the Pew Report. “Majorities say all five factors mentioned in the survey—anger over the death of Freddie Gray, poverty in some neighborhoods and the initial response by city officials—contributed at least a fair amount to the unrest.”
Our nation’s hypocrisy is glaring. As Howard Law School graduate Christopher R. LaMotte wrote in the Baltimore Sun editorial, “Why Do We Applaud Rebellion in Film but Not in Baltimore’s Streets?”:
“Over the past few years, Americans have spent millions of dollars to enjoy fictional rebellion. Combined, ‘The Giver,’ the ‘Hunger Games’ series, and the ‘Divergent’ series … have amassed over $2 billion globally… All of those stories deal with protagonists attempting to overthrow oppressive dystopian societies. Often … the characters accomplish their goals through violence, destruction and outright murder. So why do we admire these rebellious fictional characters while viewing those in Baltimore and Ferguson with contempt?
When Katniss (Hunger Games") shot an arrow into some highly complex … equipment in Catching Fire, the audience didn't think less of her for destroying someone's property. In Divergent, when Tris hurled a knife into the villain's hand … no one shook their heads and said ‘She's going about this the wrong way.” Yet when Black people throw rocks at police officers who routinely terrorize and even kill members of their community, the public is quick to demonize the victim and defend the oppressor.”
And as you open America’s history book, it is clear that the history of looting and rioting has shaped the foundation of the nation. Stealing and dumping tea into the Boston Harbor—forget the rule of law; destroying their own community; a riot has been reimagined as a party all in the name of freedom.
The founding rioters secured liberty and democracy for some through destruction, theft and murder. Just ask the Native Americans and the slaves and the ex-slaves who endured the genocidal violence of Jim Crow. Historically, many riots in the U.S. were racial pogroms where Whites destroyed entire Black communities or committed mass murders of Black people who were living in thriving communities, thus offending and frightening Whites. Other riots broke out between Black and White working-class communities, like Chicago in 1919 and Detroit in 1943. But since the end of slavery, there have been NO examples of Blacks engaging in mass attacks on or murders of White people.
The danger of forgetting, and ignoring this history, is that we lose context. We see how the language of the media and other organizations devoted to prop up White supremacy went from calling young Black men “hooligans” to “thugs.” It’s clear that White riots have historically been designed to keep Black people in the place to which Whites have assigned them. Today, that includes the police brutalizing and snuffing out Black lives. And when Black people—who have historically never had the power of the law or government on their side, to protect them or champion their cause—explode in grief, anger and frustration, they are routinely blamed for not better accepting their ongoing oppression.
Institutionalized looting is still looting. And this history continues. Consider the criminal looting of the Wall Street bankers who robbed countless working people of their life savings and homes through foreclosure. The looting of Baltimore, along with many other cities, took place long before April 2015 with subprime loans, gentrification, the shipment of manufacturing jobs overseas, and the replacement of schools with prisons.
What we saw in Baltimore and previously Ferguson was not a riot but an uprising. While Martin Luther King said “riots” are the language of the unheard, “riots” are actually the tools of the heard, the powerful, and the privileged; uprisings and unrest is the language of the unheard.
Black people take to streets to protest injustice, to vent pent-up frustrations over oppressive conditions. We are consistent in what some term as “rioting,” which is always sparked by a blatant and violent act of injustice in our communities, often at the hands of police, and the lack of consequences for taking Black lives with impunity. Whether everyone agrees that it is the most effective response, Black people’s “rioting” always has political underpinnings.
Black uprisings are always sparked by blatant injustice—these days, often via videos that provide eyewitness accounts. Blacks do not mobilize to roam White neighborhoods, or attack groups of Whites out of fear or resentment. While many White riots attacking Blacks were sparked by rumors of Blacks attacking Whites, we never see the reverse.
But the bigger question is this: Why do people—especially Black people—act as if rioting is not useful? After all, riots and uprisings have led to major changes in our nation’s laws. Where would the USA be if not for the riots that broke ties with Great Britain?
Riots and uprisings are forms of protest, screams for inclusion, cries for change, demands to stop killing us, and assertions that #BlackRageMustbeHeard #BlackVoicesCount and #BlackLivesMatter. It is expression of sadness and anger that in America, on the streets of Whiteopia, on its airwaves, and within the halls of power, property is more important than Black lives. It was denunciation of moral fabric that prompts more outcry for a broken window than a dead man’s broken spine.
These uprisings are righteous because they have a purpose: to move society forward, to obtain justice where there has historically been none, and to do whatever we can to fight back against that which threatens our lives and refuses to recognize our humanity.
Even during the civil-rights movement, which was characterized as built around principles of Black nonviolence in the face of White violence, riots, uprisings and other acts of violence were part of the movement as well. Newark, Watts, Attica, and Baltimore. Even those moments that have come to symbolize nonviolent direct action were also moments of rock throwing and targeted outrage. As Bull Connor unleashed dogs and water hoses, some Black youth withheld violence while others threw rocks in the face of anti-Black racism, and armed enforcers in Mississippi declared: “We will shoot back.” The successes of the civil-right movement are owed these moments of spontaneous rage. They each played a role and ultimately brought a wave of progressive civil-rights legislation. Those on streets of Ferguson or Baltimore are part of this history. In any other context, we would be painted as heroes and sheroes, standing valiantly for our freedoms and rights.
Michael Singleton, the 16-year-old who was poised to throw rocks at the Baltimore police, symbolizes the spirit of youthful protest and righteous rage that gets overlooked during these riots. But like so many throughout history and around the world, Michael felt he had to do something, and if a rock was the only thing he could pick up and if getting ready to throw it at the invading forces was his only hope, then he was at least willing to take that stand and assume that risk.
What’s being missed is the fact that young Michael wasn’t doing anything wrong. He was shaping history! Just like students in the Soweto riots in 1976, just like students in Birmingham in 1963. Obedient, well-behaved oppressed young people do not make history. The ones that get into the streets and riot do spark change, do incite progress, and do make history.
And I will always cheer that on.