Ray Ajemian: Why we riot

Friday, June 5, 2020 - 2:33pm

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It seems that every time we see another display of police brutality, people argue about what the appropriate response to unprovoked killing should be. One man is killed, and a hundred people who never met him are quick to tell you that an eye for an eye makes the world go blind, but it’s easy to say that when you’re not the blind one to begin with. Riots are easy to write off as ill-meaning chaos if you don’t understand how or why they happen, and in a country built by riots, that should not be the case.

Many have made up their minds about the “why” — anger and poor morals. This reductive view of the Minneapolis riots isn’t a new explanation, but it’s widespread to the point that even the mayor, Jacob Frey, claims the protest is no longer about protesting, but violence. Instead, critics focus their arguments on “why not” to riot, citing three major reasons I’ve seen other than simple moral outrage: the destruction of a community, increase in crime and a lack of relevance to the supposed subject of protest. Here’s why they don’t make much sense.

The “destroying your own community” argument is probably the most common in the discussion about Minneapolis. Fortunately for the rioters, a community is not a series of buildings. It is a population of people. This report showcases the economic impact of the 1960s race riots showing a decline in Black-owned property values. This loss in property value doesn’t account for the leaps made in civil rights during this decade that made life more liveable for said property owners. And, if we are to consider economic destruction, what are we to make of the white flight from cities to suburbs that helped create the climate for those riots? Certainly, the white families who took commerce out of cities en masse and left them destitute played a role in harming their former communities. The truth is that Minneapolis rioters have no intention to destroy their own community. The buildings being looted are in the vein of AutoZone and Target, massive chains that aren’t specific to the city at all, while small local businesses remain intact — while they may have suffered some residual damage — were not directly targeted. And, as it turns out, that particular Target has a long history with the Minneapolis police, the very subject of the riot.

Another reason this point falls apart is that many rioters aren’t part of the community. Minnesota Gov. Tim Walz claims 80 percent of the rioters aren’t from the area, though there isn’t any way to verify the steep statistic; with protests happening all over the country right now, including here in Ann Arbor, it seems unlikely that people would need to travel far to find one. More likely is the presence of agent provocateurs, people who try to provoke others to commit a crime so that they can be punished. Police are known to go undercover at protests and escalate things — at the 2008 Democratic National Convention protest, undercover detectives staged an altercation with the police commander which resulted in the liberal use of pepper spray by a cop who wasn’t in the loop and who thought the commander was being attacked. A similar staged arrest led to a fight between bystanders and police in riot gear at the 2004 Republican National Convention protest. Sure enough, police have repeatedly incited unprovoked violence at the recent protests, even against who they know to be journalists rather than protesters.

Next, riots do not lead to more crime. Long-term changes in crime rates are more easily tied to changes in police behavior, and those trends aren’t in favor of the police. For example, Baltimore police noticed fewer crimes after one of their officers killed Freddie Gray and the number of shootings spiked drastically within the area. This could mean that, as the article puts it, Baltimore police “stopped noticing” crime after the murder by one of their own, or it could mean that their misconduct caused the increase in violent crime; neither option is flattering. After a string of events starting with the death of Eric Garner, the New York Police Department staged a strike, and rather than seeing more crime, they saw less. The authors of the report pointed not to deterrence by police violence or a drop in how many crimes were reported, but that “aggressively enforcing minor legal statutes incites more severe criminal acts.” In other words, an overbearing police department created the climate for violent crime — without them, there were fewer instances of all but the most severe offenses.

The final condemnation of riots is that they are irrelevant to protests because they’re either only about opportunistic crime or they don’t successfully prompt change. As the National Review author I cited puts it, “People don’t commit arson to make a political statement. What does burning an AutoZone even communicate if it could be translated into politics?” However, there is no form of protest more profound under a capitalist economy than the redistribution of goods, especially when unemployment rates are reaching close to 20 percent alongside billionaires’ profits. Legitimate protesters use looted supplies to support the cause and their communities, like the Minneapolis protesters taking milk to help those who had been tear-gassed (the subsequent theft of expensive goods was carried out by people unrelated to the movement). On top of this, peaceful protestors are also among those cleaning up after demonstrations in their community. Meanwhile, police officers have been seen destroying the property of others to impede protestors. The most pressing issue today is how capitalism interacts with and often jeopardizes human rights — of the dying poor in a nation with billionaires, of sweatshops overseas, of the pollution produced by mass production of goods. I can think of nothing more emblematic of the injustice at hand than juxtaposing those outraged by a burning AutoZone with those outraged by the murder of their neighbors.

As for success, there is no universal outcome, but as a queer American, I can promise you that riots against police were the single most effective tool for LGBTQ+ people in this country. If people hadn’t thrown bricks at cops at Stonewall the movement would never have taken off; San Francisco drag queens who destroyed police cars and broke windows in 1966 were finally granted social services and dignity. Martin Luther King Jr.’s March on Washington got laws passed peacefully, but the majority of Americans disapproved of him despite his nonviolence, even if we like to believe he was successful because he “won hearts by conveying respectability,” as one civil rights activist wrote. King was assassinated regardless of his peaceful tactics, just like Black men are shot whether they’re unarmed, handcuffed or running away. The clear message is that protest of any kind will be met with violence and death; to derogate protesters for breaking windows borders on cruelty.

We in Michigan should be sympathetic. The 1967 Detroit Riots were some of the biggest in American history, and yet we forget. White protesters storm our capitol with guns to scream in the face of police — in a time where distance can save lives — and leave untouched so the same stay-at-home order protesters can call the unarmed people of Minneapolis “violent and unlawful” a month later. How would you feel if it was your brother being arrested on live television for doing his job, or your father choking under someone’s knee? Would you sign a petition, or would you riot?

Ray Ajemian can be reached at rajemian@umich.edu