When a Protest Isn’t a Riot

I can understand the fear and anger we experience when a protest takes a violent or destructive turn.  What I have difficulty with is the immediate condemnation of these acts with little to no understanding, let alone condemnation, of the violent and destructive acts that would lead to a protest in the first place.

Throughout history, protests were defiant acts of communication in the face of incredible injustice.  One thousand people marching and shouting in the street is not a riot, it is a protest.

Riots, on the other hand, were actually tools of oppression and domination that were used against minority groups of people.  Remember Kristallnact?  The pogroms?  Have you ever heard of the Tulsa Race Riots?  These terrible, deadly acts of violence were calculated retribution for the grave “sin” of the Jew or the Black person to assert his or her dignity.

Not everything labeled as a “riot” was as calculated as a pogrom, though.  

Oppressed peoples would reach a point where the cost of not speaking up outweighs the risk of violence or death from the oppressors.  And the people would protest.  Governments, police forces, people in the “majority”, etc., would react violently to these protests and then call it a riot when things became violent and deadly.  But that’s just propaganda intended to control and shame people who have a right to protest unjust laws and systems.  No one wants to be a “rioter” and no one knows how to be an effective protester. And so good people sit idly by while laws are created to keep the disenfranchised unable to better their station in life.  Systems are created to keep minority populations in cycles of incarceration and poverty.  Voting districts and voting rules are changed to keep minority communities unable to elect representation.  People in the system become arrogant of their invulnerability and begin to act with impunity.  Cops terrorize their neighborhoods because “who would believe “the black kid” over a “good, upstanding member of the community.””

And people protest.  And a drunk white woman starts screaming the n-word at the protesters.  Tempers escalate.  And then the powers that be have all the justification for calling this event a riot and continuing in the subjugation of these people who don’t know their place.

And then we play victim and be perplexed about why some of these rioters would destroy their neighborhoods.  And we think whatever line of white privilege bullshit that makes us feel superior and righteous in our choice to turn a deaf ear to the cries of our Black brothers and sisters.

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3 responses to “When a Protest Isn’t a Riot

  1. How can you know that all demonstrations by those you believe to be oppressed are only violent because of the response to the demonstrations, and not the demonstrators themselves? That is your baseline assumption, which appears to be completely beyond challenge. Is it ever possible that even some of those you believe to be oppressed act inappropriately?

    So, when there is some riot in a town that won, or lost, a sports championship of some sort, by your logic can we assume that whoever is participating is by definition not among the oppressed, because their actions are unjustified? Or, do we assume that because the actions of the allegedly oppressed are always justified, there must be some justification, for example, for the riots after the Phillies won the series in 2008, in Chicago after the 2002 Bulls win, or in 2009 when the Lakers won?

    I’m not trying to argue who is or isn’t oppressed. Rather, it is your assumption that whomever you believe is oppressed are blameless in anything that looks like a riot. Sometimes people, oppressed or not, act badly. Giving an entire group a pass based on their membership in a group hardly seems respectful of individual responsibility or dignity.

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