Riots are easy to dismiss. They are also easy to demonize.
However, Robert Stephens II makes a case at Jacobin magazine for viewing riot as both meaningful and significant political acts.
Riots, like other forms of political action, can build solidarity. They can create strong feelings of common identity. The outrage in Ferguson quickly attracted marginalized people throughout the region. Rather than evidence of illegitimacy, the presence of these “outsiders” reflected the magnetic power of the political moment.
From the outset, the anti-police police rallies that preceded the riots had a clear “us versus them” dynamic. 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. The community was unified and ready to take action. The police were the problem, and they had to be stopped.
The crowd was not irrational and apolitical. They were attempting to use this opportunity to address their broader political needs. They knew that intraracial violence within the community was also an issue, and that in most cases the perpetrators of violence are the communities’ own children, cousins, friends, and neighbors. Though many claim that black people don’t care about violence within our communities, the crowd’s calls for gang unity demonstrate that anti-police uprisings provide unique opportunities to unite people in ways that seek to resolve long-term issues like gang violence.
Farther down the article, Stephens points out why rioting might at times be the only method of political expression available.
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 capitalism. 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 neoliberalism’s post-racial illusion…
Stephens also points out that riots have played an important part in our accepted political narrative.
From the Boston Tea Party to Shays’ Rebellion, riots made America, for better or worse. In the past, white rioters have had access to institutional power, which allowed some of their grievances to be legitimized and politically resolved, at least to extent possible in a capitalist society. The key for the Ferguson uprising, as with any unsustainable political moment, is to transition outrage and disruption into constructive political organization. Easier said than done — but it’s a better reaction than dismissing the riots and only making it more difficult for the people to accomplish this herculean task.
Riots not only happen, they are sometimes necessary. The Ferguson riots of the last few days appear to fall into this category.