Riot v. Rebellion–Should We Still Care?

Once again, it appears, Americans are divided over whether the Baltimore uprising was a riot or rebellion. Were these criminal agitators or protesters in a just cause?

I sympathize with the argument that the events of late April were a political expression of grievances–an uprising. But I remain uncomfortable with some of the rhetoric of the “rebellion” crowd. When poor urban black residents fight the police en masse, torch and loot local stores (some of which are predatory), and defiantly posture in the streets, we should take their claims on the state seriously. We should consider their actions with a large dose of empathy. But I think it a mistake to downplay the violence and its costs, as I see some on the left doing. Aside from the obvious ethical issues, ignoring the violence misses the point of a riot–which is to strike back at perceived aggressors, to right a wrong.

I think part of the reason the “riot” v. “rebellion” debate matters at all is because of American racism. Racial conservatives have ruined the word “riot,” using it in the 1940s, the 1960s, the 1990s, and again today, to connote criminality, hooliganism, thuggery, and the like. They apply “riot” pejoratively to criminalize African Americans, a population that historically has carried the stigma of innate criminality.

The idea that poor black people riot because they are thugs remains widespread today. (Simply read the comments for any article about the Baltimore uprising.) But the “thug” narrative is not the sole property of racial conservatives. In the 1940s and the 1960s, many middle-class African Americans with prominent positions in the community condemned the rioters as criminals and thugs. Some of this was sincere class condescension. Some of it also was a strategy to shield an ascendant Civil Rights Movement. Black leaders clearly intended to head off a white backlash by placing the rioters outside the “black community.” White commentators and officials responded by praising them as “responsible Negroes.” That is, the strategy worked. But as a partial consequence, the “riff-raff” theory was given greater credibility.

The stress the liberal-left continues to place on “rebellion” or “uprising” is a counter-move in this conversation, which in large part is really a struggle over resources. Control the narrative and you can set the policy agenda. If we think of the rioters as criminals, then perhaps we need better tactics and weapons of control–more police, more tactical squads; heck, let’s even get tanks. But if we think of the people in the streets as the oppressed, then let’s scale up social provision. Let’s reform and build institutions that cater more to the urban poor. Let’s increase funding for healthcare, education, job training, etc. Let’s change police policy and practices.

When I started researching and writing about the 1960s uprisings, I struggled with what to call them. On a practical level, placing quotes around “riot” would inflict too much pain on the reader. I decided that I would use riot, uprising, and rebellion interchangeably. I do not think the uprisings in Rochester in 1964, Detroit in 1967, or Miami in 1968 qualify as “rebellions,” in that they were not targeted and coordinated actions with intent to overthrow the state. However, taken individually and collectively, they were rebellions in the sense that poor people systemically deprived of economic, political, and social power rose up with common purpose against oppressive local regimes. Their aims were varied and muddled. But their defiance of entrenched networks of racial power was undeniable.

For that alone they deserve the label rebellion. Although each event was local, collectively the scale of the tumult was so massive–and the targets so shielded from democratic accountability–that they belong in the pantheon of great American riots that aspire to more transcendent purpose than street squabbles: from Shay’s Rebellion to the Detroit Rebellion. Plus, within black communities, even those who were critical of the rioters still preferred “rebellion” or “uprising.” “Riot” was rejected by some for its connotation of irrational criminality. The 1960s uprisings were, after all, an assault upon Jim Crow conditions. To call them criminal hooliganism was to be willfully ignorant of this context. To call them uprisings or rebellions was to recognize the spirit on the street: a collective refusal to obey constituted authority and accept the lot America had assigned black people.

However, we should not ignore the violence that makes up a riot. Violence is a defining property of the event that tells us something about strategy and tactics. A riot also inflicts pain and suffering upon local people and institutions. Further, it tends to beget more violence. Recently, some commentators have claimed that the riot is the only way that African Americans have been able to draw attention to their plight–to get the white public and white policymakers to pay attention. That is only partially true. For the better part of a year the Black Lives Matter movement has captured national headlines through peaceful but disruptive street protests. Perhaps a riot is what is needed to energize the base–to get more people to join the marches and shut-it-down demonstrations.

But a riot will not win new allies. A riot is coercive–it forces state officials to pay attention with the threat of future disorder and destruction if demands are not met. Riots are both radical democratic acts and run counter to democratic decision-making. They shut down the space for debate. For this reason riots tend to alienate precisely those groups already hostile to the interests of riot-affected communities. As we can see in the “thug” narrative, many Americans are quick to identify criminal tendencies among African Americans. A riot can help revive and nourish that argument. It can lead to more tanks, SWAT teams, etc. A riot can–and did, in the 1960s–lend greater urgency to the idea that the best social policy for the ghetto is not anti-poverty money. That would only reward violence. No, this view holds, the appropriate response is yet more brute force.

Ultimately, I think the riot v. rebellion debate can devolve into political posturing that distracts from the hard, incremental work of building coalitions and organizing communities for social change. With this in mind, elevating the rioters into heroic rebels is as glib as dismissing them as criminals. It does nothing for those communities directly affected by the destruction caused by rioters nor terrorized by the police crackdown that traditionally follows. If anything, it draws attention to ourselves–those comfortably on the sidelines, watching a tragedy unfold while we squabble over the best or most correct interpretation. Really, we should be focusing on rebuilding and pressing ahead, working with the communities for the change that they desperately need.

Right now, we are living in that rare political moment when a majority of Americans–white and black–recognize that the recent police killings are not mere isolated incidents, but represent a pattern of abusive behavior. In the months and years to come we may look back upon Ferguson and Baltimore as springboards for the mobilization of political coalitions that seized this moment to align the police with constitutional democracy and secure the funds to revive and sustain urban communities. We may also look back upon those events as the prelude to much larger urban upheavals–the Harlems and Rochesters of our time, the uprisings that preceded the devastation of Newark and Detroit. Let us hope the former–not the latter–comes to pass.

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