By Robert Stephens
In the past, I’ve argued that riots, or insurrections, are rational responses to systemic subjugation. The riots in 2012 Anaheim and 2011 London saw numerous media outlets consistently paint these uprisings as irrational and criminal outbursts with no meaningful connection to politics. The scholarship is clear, riots/spontaneous insurrections are rational expressions of group solidarity. However, the political nature of the riots has always been a little more elusive. Fortunately, with the insurrection in Ferguson, MO following the murder of Michael Brown, we have clear proof of the sophisticated political agitation that often precipitates spontaneous uprisings by marginalized groups.
Anatomy of an Insurrection
Michael Brown, a Black teenager in Ferguson, MO was murdered by the police earlier this week. The first thing to understand about Ferguson is that it’s a city with a large concentration of poor and Brown people — yet under the control of overwhelmingly White institutions. Hours before the anti-police uprising would sweep the community, a crowd gathered at the site of Brown’s murder. Contrary to the belief that riots are merely mindless mobs predisposed to violence, the people of Ferguson were engaged in concerted political consciousness-raising leading up to the insurrection.
A video taken at the scene shows a number of political agitators talking with the crowd, transitioning momentary outrage into political unity. One speaker in particular, a young Black male dressed in black, offered a cogent political analysis that framed the injustice of police brutality as a byproduct of the community’s economic dislocation.
We keep giving these crackers our money, staying in they complexes, and we can’t get no justice. No respect. They ready to put you out [if you] miss a bill… We need to own our own, ladies and gentlemen… You got to be fed up.
What’s vital about a riot is its solidarity-building effect. They create strong feelings of common identity, usually in opposition to another group or force — an “us vs. them”. In anti-police uprisings, it’s simple to create that dynamic. However, in the case of gang and intraracial violence, “them” is us — the perpetrators of these crimes are the communities’ children, cousins, friends, neighbors. At one point during the rally, the woman holding the camera says, “Where the thugs at? Where the street tribes when we need y’all?”, and the crowd then begins to call on various street gangs to abandon Black on Black violence and unite in struggle against oppression.
Again, the crowd is not irrational and apolitical, they are attempting to use this moment to address the broader communities’ political needs. Though many claim that Black people don’t care about intraracial violence, what these statements demonstrate is that anti-police uprisings provide unique opportunities to unite the community in ways that seek to repair long-term issues like gang and intraracial violence — even when the specific target of opposition is the police.
Following the insurrection, participants continued to discuss the uprising in political terms. DeAndre Smith said, “I believe that they’re too much worried about what’s going on to their stores and their commerce and everything. They’re not worried about the murder.” The second man added, “I just think what happened was necessary, to show the police that they don’t run everything”. The first man then interjects, “I don’t think they did enough”.
In a second interview, Smith expanded on his belief in the riot as a viable political strategy.
This is exactly what’s supposed to happen when an injustice is happening in your community… I was out here with the community, that’s all I can say… I don’t think it’s over, honestly. I think they just got a case of what fighting back means, in St. Louis, the last state to abolish slavery. Do they think they still have power over certain things? I believe so… This is how they receive money: businesses and taxes, police stopping people and giving them tickets, taking them to court, locking them up — this is how they make money in St. Louis. Everything is all about money in St. Louis. So when you stop their flow of income.. they have things organized in a certain way… ‘we’re gonna eat, you’re gonna starve’, gentrification — put you in a certain neighborhood by yourself and see if you can starve… It’s not going to happen, not in St. Louis.
Smith identifies what so many “anti-racists” and leftists fail to understand — that racism is not an issue of moral character. He recognizes that the broader economic order facilitates and benefits from racial subjugation, and so, he’s looking for ways to intervene and disrupt that process. Not only is this a more substantive form of political analysis than what is often offered on the Left, but it’s perhaps the only way to successfully address entrenched racial hierarchy.
The Futility of Respectability Politics
Typically, when events like the Ferguson rebellion occur, well-meaning people rush to condemn the participants. At a minimum, they dismiss rioting as unproductive and opportunistic — a few bad seeds spoiling the bunch. This is precisely the attitude that Deandre Smith was pointing out in his first interview. Most detractors, many of whom are Black themselves, seek to police these communities with “respectability politics” — an attempt to make subjugated people present themselves in ways that are acceptable to the dominant class in a futile effort to make political gains.
What started as a philosophy promulgated by black elites to “uplift the race” by correcting the “bad” traits of the black poor has now evolved into one of the hallmarks of black politics in the age of Obama, a governing philosophy that centers on managing the behavior of black people left behind in a society touted as being full of opportunity… But the politics of respectability has been portrayed as an emancipatory strategy to the neglect of discussions about structural forces that hinder the mobility of the black poor and working class. Frederick Harris, The Rise of Respectability Politics
Following the 2011 London riots, respectability politics was a major media narrative used to condemn the insurrection. Now, three years later, some people are admitting that it didn’t work. After speaking out against the London riots in 2011, Pauline Pierce later realized that capitalism, not the riot, was the true threat. Despite her doubts about the political viability of rioting, she knew that it was gentrification, and not rioting, that was destroying the neighborhood. In the 3 years since the London riots, she has seen her Black and Brown neighbors displaced by trend-seeking White people eager to “discover” and “develop” the neighborhood.
Three years ago, I shouted down young men as they burnt cars on the streets of Hackney, where I live. Now they come in beards and bobble hats instead.Places such as Kingsland Road and Mare Street have become the trendiest places to be, but that has bought unrest of a different sort. The people who live here are not happy.There are a lot of issues with the social cleansing that is becoming increasingly evident around here… Money has come in since the riots, and that is all well and good, but it is not benefiting the poor people. The regeneration funds given to the council have been spent, in part, on a fashion hub. How is that helping the youngsters in the borough?
For me, since I made that speech that evening, it has been a three-year journey and one that has been very difficult at times. I have sometimes wished I’d just kept my mouth shut altogether and continued on my way home. Pauline Pierce, White Hipsters, not Black Looters, are now Threatening Post-Riots London
Whereas riots are often galvanizing community events with the potential to unleash concerted political energy in dynamic and unpredictable directions, the stale politics of respectability only leads to further marginalization and dislocation. Malcolm X, in a 1964 speech before the Oxford Union, borrowed the words of conservative lightning rod Barry Goldwater and said, “Extremism in the Defense of Liberty is No Vice; Moderation in the Pursuit of Justice is No Virtue.” He understood that disruption, even extremism, was required in the face of subjugation.
Now, it’s possible to disagree with the political utility of violent insurrection — but these communities’ responses to subjugation must be discussed in political terms and not simply dismissed out of hand. We live in a political context of neoliberal racism, where race-neutral policies are being used to deepen racial hierarchy and any overt attempts to address racism are being dismantled or outright dismissed. These policies only intensify the economic dislocation and poverty experienced by those at the margins.
What both the local news interviewees and the crowd at the scene of Brown’s death seemed to understand was that they needed to disrupt the interplay between racial subjugation and neoliberal economics. They felt that a march or some other acceptable form of benign indignation would not address their political needs. — and they weren’t wrong. Many of us rush to condemn these types of disruptions because we’re actually content with neoliberal racism’s post-racial illusion. Like Deandre Smith observed, we identify more strongly with broken windows than broken people.
At the scene of a burned down Quick Trip, someone left a sign addressed to Quick Trip, their “corporate neighbor”, in the hopes that the business would return. On its surface, addressing the effects of insurrection is an important political concern. However, instead of being concerned for the working people that lost their jobs, and offering to find ways to make sure that they are supported, this person identifies with their “corporate neighbor” and is worried that their shopping routine will be disturbed.
This mindset is intentionally cultivated by media and law enforcement as a way to protect the economic interests of the powerful and prevent solidarity among marginalized people. Lauren Friedman, writing for the Scientific American, finds that preventing this sort of disruptive group identity is a key strategy for maintaining order.
Malcolm X’ speech also reminds us that media is a key instrument of subjugation because it determines which acts are respectable and which are extreme and thus illegitimate. Instead of following that familiar script, let’s use media to push back against narratives about this Ferguson community being irrational and criminal. Let’s find ways to honestly observe and discuss their political needs, rather than simply dismissing their responses.