How Should We Respond to Riots? By James Washington and Emma Johnson

Have you wondered: 

Why are people calling to “Defund the police? Isn’t that going too far?

Why do protests have to be disruptive?

How should we respond to riots?

This is the third installment, discussing “how do we respond to riots?”

James: The Black Lives Matter movement is and always has been a decentralized movement with no leader. The vast majority of protestors in June’s wave of demonstrations, the largest demonstrations America has ever witnessed, protested peacefully. In crowds numbering up to the hundreds of thousands in all 50 states. However, we have witnessed that the protests aren’t uniformly non-violent. The recent demonstrations are often condemned for “devolving into violence”, and I’ve even heard, “these protests/riots aren’t even about inequality”. As a student and teacher of history, I know that this rhetoric is nothing new. 

What do you see in this political cartoon?

I expect that this cartoon, intended for white audiences, might resonate with many who expressed the aforementioned ideas, had they come of age in 1968, and might resonate with many today if the image were adopted for contemporary times. 

This cartoon frames the civil rights movement as violent, criminal, and dangerous, as evidenced by the lifeless white body and extensive property damage. Perhaps even more important to analyze is what isn’t in this cartoon: The omission of King’s message elucidates the illustrator’s point: the protests aren’t even about racial inequality, they’re just about violence. King’s arguments aren’t even worth the ink it would take to print them. According to this cartoon, the property damage committed by individuals takes precedence over the unmentioned systemic violence that, in reality, fills the white space. This cartoon, much like the American government, demonstrates it is more concerned with property than Black lives.  

Dr. King responded to this type of rhetoric in 1966:

In your statement you assert that our actions, even though peaceful, must be condemned because they precipitate violence. But is this a logical assertion? Isn’t this like condemning a robbed man because his possession of money precipitated the evil act of robbery? Isn’t this like condemning Socrates because his unswerving commitment to truth and his philosophical inquiries precipitated the act by the misguided populace in which they made him drink hemlock? Isn’t this like condemning Jesus because his unique God-consciousness and never-ceasing devotion to God’s will precipitated the evil act of crucifixion? We must come to see that, as the federal courts have consistently affirmed, it is wrong to urge an individual to cease his efforts to gain his basic constitutional rights because the quest may precipitate violence. Society must protect the robbed and punish the robber. 

 I have known senseless violence every time a police officer has beaten me or thrown me on the ground at gunpoint, and systemic violence when I tried to address these brutalities. I still choose to be non-violent at protests. I feel as if my talents can be leveraged in a more productive manner; organizing, mobilizing, and educating. I am not encouraging riots in this piece. I do, however, understand that all riots, cross-culturally and historically, have material and sociopolitical roots. When riots inevitably bubble up after years of constant heat, you probably won’t find me playing my tiny violin to lament property damage. Instead, you can catch me trying to analyze and respond to the societal causes of the riots. 

According to a well-known anecdote, a German officer visited Picasso in his Paris studio during the Second World War. There he saw Guernica and, shocked at the modernist “chaos” of the painting, asked Picasso: “Did you do this?” Picasso calmly replied: “No, you did this!”  Today,, when faced with violent outbursts such as the recent looting in metropolitan areas, many liberals might ask: “Isn’t it you who did this? Is this what you want?” And we should reply, like Picasso: “No, you did this! This is the true result of your politics!”

There is an old joke about a wife who returns home earlier than expected to find her partner in bed with another lover. Her surprised partner exclaims: “Why have you come back early?” The wife furiously snaps back: “What are you doing in bed with another lover?” The partner calmly replies: “I asked you a question first-don’t try to squeeze out of it by changing the topic!’

The same principle applies to discussions of objective (systemic) violence and subjective (individual) violence: For those unaffected by or blind to systemic violence, their goal is precisely to change the topic. In this way, the question, “why have you come back early” is analogous to the question, “Why are they rioting?”. The lesson is thus that one should resist the fascination of subjective violence, of violence enacted by social agents, evil individuals, fanatical crowds: subjective violence is just the most visible (Žižek 2008). If we understand rioting as a symptom, we can redirect our focus to the cause. 

Emma: Consider it this way – riots are a legitimate form of protest in a society that values goods over human lives. Activists have been protesting and advocating for Black lives for years. And the large majority of these protests have been ignored because white Americans could opt out of the conversation, the work, and the movement. But when property is destroyed, because our society values property over people, it grabs people’s attention and they inevitably react. 

James: Existing in a system that values property over human life leads a number of people to ignore property rights as a method of calling attention to society’s misaligned priorities. Our country is steeped in the history of rioting in the face of oppression. Was the Boston Tea Party, which resulted in the destruction of $1,700,000 worth of property, not a riot?

Of course, there are also those who genuinely don’t care and aren’t affected by the cause and instead just want to capitalize on the moment and revel in destruction. There are also those who actively disagree with the movement and seek to paint the movement in a negative light by instigating violence. There are myriad motivations for participating in a riot, and we would be remiss to understand these riots in a monolithic fashion. 

Emma: Author and activist Kimberly Jones said it best when she compared the American economic system to Monopoly. She asks what it would be like, to be kept off the board for 400 rounds, having to forcibly play for your opponent instead of yourself. And then for the next 50 rounds, you have to give up everything you earned off that board. Every time you earn something, you’ve built some wealth, it’s destroyed or stolen by your opponent. And then, after these 450 rounds, you’re finally told, okay, catch up. 

But you can’t catch up, because the social contract is broken. It has been repeatedly broken by white Americans and white Americans in power. If the social contract has been obliterated by white Americans, what does it matter if a Target is destroyed when Black families are struggling to support their children? What does it matter if a building is burned down when Black people are being murdered in the streets by the police?   

When people say “racism is bad, but the rioting has to stop,” they are innately putting more value in the property being destroyed over the Black lives that have been destroyed by racism for centuries. If you disagree with the act of rioting, reframe it as “rioting is bad, but the racism has to stop.” Rioting is a symptom of systematic and systemic oppression, not the cause. And if we dismantle white supremacy in America, folks won’t have to riot to have their voices heard.

James: I intend to dam up the upstream waters, where the river runs deep and slow, rather than attempt to dam up the churning rapids, after the water has already gained destructive momentum. Rather than wasting my efforts trying to control riots, I instead devote myself to addressing the despicable conditions that precipitate riots. 

James is a multiracial High School Teacher in Washington D.C. He received a B.A. in Political Science, Education, and Africana Studies from Haverford College, and an M.S.Ed. from The University of Pennsylvania Graduate School of Education. He’d almost always rather be surfing or playing the blues. His (current) favorite books are The Dispossessed by Ursula Le Guin and Ecclesiastes.

Emma is a white Master of Social Work student at NYU. She received a B.A. in Political Science, History, and Women’s and Gender Studies from the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. She’s slowly but surely learning how to roller skate and is growing her collection of plants one new green thing at a time. 

A note to our readers from Emma Johnson: 

I think if I’d been told we should defund the police ten years ago, I’d have the same reaction as a lot of white people: shock, confusion, dismay. I grew up in a wealthy suburb and was raised to trust the police. After all, what bad things had they ever done to us? But my understanding of the police first began to shift when I saw how horribly the police treated my friends who were rape and sexual assault survivors. Police officers blamed them for their assaults, told them they should have known better, and accused them of exaggerating, seeking attention, and making it all up. I began to realize the police weren’t here for us, they only serve themselves and the dominant power structures. 

Identifying as a queer woman has also been key to my changing views on police. There is a horrifying history of police violence against women and queer folks, whether it’s the high rates of domestic violence women in partnerships with police officers face (40% of police officer families experience domestic violence) or the brutal history of queer oppression. You can’t look at these relationships without considering intersectionality and understanding that whatever struggles white women or white queer people face, women of color and queer people of color face tenfold. 

I don’t have a comprehensive answer on how to have productive conversations about power and racial oppression with other white people. However, I think a lot of white people view power as a zero-sum game and are desperately afraid that if they give up any of what they have, they will be oppressed in the nightmarish ways in which we’ve oppressed Black and brown people. I think white people need to call out and call in the explicit and implicit racism of their white friends and family members, no matter how comfortable silence might be. Silence is violence and complicity. We also need to call out and call in other white people because we’re in a privileged position to do so: I’ve seen how often white people take other white people more seriously than Black and brown people – yet another aspect of white supremacy we need to challenge. 

I think it can be helpful to frame defunding the police as a societal good that benefits all people, including white people. Oftentimes, people who benefit most from the current power structures have limited empathy. If they don’t think it affects them directly, odds are they’re not going to care. But whether they want to consider it or not, defunding the police benefits white people. Everyone benefits from expanded social services. Everyone benefits from a less violent world. Everyone benefits from dismantling oppression. And while it’s frustrating and flat-out stupid to have to frame activism in a way that appeals to the oppressor, it’s one of the more successful ways I’ve been able to have conversations with the other white people in my life.

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