Understanding The Riots
By Devon Bowers
Given light of the nationwide protests, especially in Minneapolis regarding the death of George Floyd, as well as other victims of police violence, this is a revised and updated version an article I wrote in 2014, defending the Ferguson uprising.
“Now, let’s get to what the white press has been calling riots. In the first place don’t get confused with the words they use like ‘anti-white,’ ‘hate,’ ‘militant’ and all that nonsense like ‘radical’ and ‘riots.’ What’s happening is rebellions not riots[.]”- Stokley Carmichael, “Black Power” speech, July 28, 1966
"The bourgeoisie of the whole world, which looks complacently upon the wholesale massacre after the battle, is convulsed by horror at the desecration of brick and mortar."
Karl Marx, "The Civil War in France" (1871)
In light of the uprising in Minneapolis, Atlanta, Washington DC, and other places across the country, many people have come out of the woodwork to condemn violent protesting and the destruction of buildings. However, we have to ask ourselves, what do they mean by violence?
When talking of violence in this context, it is rather strange. What people are condemning is property destruction, not violence. One can’t act in a violent way towards an inanimate object. Burning a building, whether it be a Target or a police precinct, isn’t violence, but in this context is pushback against a system where that has destroyed people for years. The murder of George Floyd and Breonna Taylor is actual violence. Two people’s lives were abruptly ended due to the maliciousness of the police. Storeowners have insurance, stores can be rebuilt and revived, we can’t revive Floyd, Taylor, or Ahmaud Arbery.
On a deeper level, this is where capitalism and racism intersect. One of capitalism’s main tenets is the dominance of private property and how it must be protected. We can see that this has been transcribed in law, such as with the Stand Your Ground laws. Yet, also within the larger society there is a lack of caring for black life. In any situation, the media and general public regularly engage in victim blaming and look for anything, anything at all to assassinate the character of those who died at the hand of the police.
This can be seen in the recent past, where the media bought up Akai Gurley’s criminal record when discussing his death at the hands of a police officer or when the New York Post published an article discussing Arbery being arrested for shoplifting in 2017. The publication of such information is done with the intent to demonize victims of police and white supremacist violence, allowing supporters of such violence to have an excuse as how the victims ‘deserved it’ and ‘simply got what was coming to them.’
We have also seen that the police will flat out lie to push their narrative. In the case of Breonna Taylor, police argued that her residence “was listed on the search warrant based on police's belief that Glover [Taylor’s boyfriend] had used her apartment to receive mail, keep drugs or stash money.” However, a postal worker noted that the police “did not use his office to verify that a drug suspect was receiving packages at Breonna Taylor's apartment” and that when a different agency asked in January 2020 if Taylor’s home was receiving suspicious packages, the answer was no. The no-knock raid went on unabated and then was justified based on knowingly false information.
With regards to the riots themselves, the larger society is asking why protesters don’t remain peaceful. The answer is two-part: peace has been tried and we are going to be condemned no matter what.
We have to ask this: Why would you think that people would remain peaceful in the face of constant violence? Why would people remain peaceful cases of police violence and police murder continue with no end in sight and usually no punishment for the offending officers?
Black people have tried peace before. We were peaceful in the 1960s when we were peacefully protesting for our civil rights and were met with racist mobs, firehoses, and dogs, we had crosses burnt on our lawns, lynchings, and a bomb put in a church. During all of that time we remained peaceful even as society enacted massive violence and repression against us. Yet, violence against the black community continues today.
The situation is currently such where if a black person is killed by the police, people immediately come out and find any way in which they can besmirch or blame the victim. This occurs even when it adds insult to death, as is the case with Floyd where the autopsy noted that his “being restrained by the police, along with his underlying health conditions and any potential intoxicants in his system, ‘likely contributed to his death.” Such a statement partially puts the blame on Floyd himself for dying rather than entirely at the hands of Derek Chauvin and the other officers who sat there and watched Floyd die.
The conversation drastically changes when oppressed people fight back. Not only is the violence denounced, but then it is used as an excuse to use massive amounts of violence against the oppressed, as we see currently with not only the National Guard being called up to suppress the uprising in Minneapolis, but also active duty military police units from all over the country are being prepped.
When people lash out against one incident, one may be inclined to call that violence, but when violence against your community has been going on for decades and people lash out, that’s no longer violence on the part of the oppressed, that’s called resistance.
When the question is raised of why aren’t there peaceful protests, it is also extremely hypocritical. Many have spoken out in person and on social media condemning the riots, but at the same time they are silent on the constant police brutality that the black community deals with and they are silent on the economic violence done against black communities, pushing them into ghettos where not only is there economic poverty but also a poverty of expectations.
At the heart of this is how society condones state violence, but condemns violence by individuals. This mindset is a serious problem as it only gives more power to the state and consistently puts state forces in the right, with the victims of state violence being forced to prove their innocence, a situation made all the harder due to people already assuming that the victim is in the wrong.
Many have pushed for peace, but peace and safety are not something the black people in America receive, whether we are just looking for help after a car accident, as was the case with Renisha McBride, or we are carrying a toy gun around, as was the case with John Crawford.
This is not the time to ask for peace. This is the time to say “No justice, no peace.”