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. Continue reading

Police Politics, Then and Now

The recent police shooting deaths of African Americans and the protests they have inspired have started a conversation about racial justice and policing. To some degree, I think that conversation is richer and more promising than it was in the 1960s.

Partly I think it is a matter of information. We simply know more about what police do on the beat, how to train them in the use of force, and what sorts of tactics most offend and anger urban residents. Those were new facts in the 1960s, at least to the broader white public. Even among scholars, before 1960 it was virtually unknown what police did everyday, in what situations they used force, how they decided whether or not to make an arrest, etc. The riots drew attention to these issues. President Lyndon Johnson appointed commissions to study policing and police-community relations. The U.S. Commission on Civil Rights, established in 1957, and the Community Relations Service, established in 1964, also gathered data from cities across the country. Not coincidentally, the fields of rioting and policing came to prominence in the 1960s. Continue reading