America woke up today to news of riots in Baltimore. We’ve seen this before, too often. But what bothers me is the inevitable outrage directed at the protestors and rioters, rather than the systematic violence that created them. Riots are not the problem, but a symptom of something far worse.
A riot is like a fever. You know the feeling. The chill that won’t subside, and the fire in your skull. But the fever isn’t the problem. It is a problem, no doubt, but not the one that you have to worry about. Rather, it’s the warning sign that something is wrong. There could be a viral infection, bacteria, or something far worse than a rise in temperature, but it’s the fever that gets noticed. The fever grabs your bodies attention, and throws it into the fire as a cry for help.
We need to look at riots the same way. When a city breaks into a riot, we have to see past the broken windows and burning buildings into the cause of the violence. In Baltimore’s case, it is a gruesome, depraved act that left a young man dead. Police pulled up to Freddie Gray, he ran—because this is America, where police regularly kill black men—was detained, thrown into the back of a van without a seatbelt, and taken for a “rough ride,” a tactic used by the police for no other purpose than to criminally assault citizens. The ride left him with a nearly-severed spine, and one week later he died.
Remember those details. Remember that those were not thugs or criminals who did that to him. These were law enforcers. The very people called to bring the city of Baltimore to peace.
Ta-Nehisi Coates, a native son of Baltimore, summed it up beautifully:
“When nonviolence is preached as an attempt to evade the repercussions of political brutality, it betrays itself. When nonviolence begins halfway through the war with the aggressor calling time out, it exposes itself as a ruse. When nonviolence is preached by the representatives of the state, while the state doles out heaps of violence to its citizens, it reveals itself to be a con. And none of this can mean that rioting or violence is “correct” or “wise,” any more than a forest fire can be “correct” or “wise.” Wisdom isn’t the point tonight. Disrespect is. In this case, disrespect for the hollow law and failed order that so regularly disrespects the rioters themselves.”
While he’s right that there is no wisdom behind the riots, there is a rationality. In this context, for anything but a riot to emerge would be surprising. Whether or not it does any good is beside the point. It is a logical expression of outrage, and in some historical cases even revered. The American Revolution, after all, was essentially a riot over oppression. And that’s only the beginning of our country’s long history with violence, a history I couldn’t begin to explore here.
It is important to remember, though. Ironically, it is the same gun-proud so-called patriots who arm themselves for the inevitable war with a tyrannical government who are the first to criticize these riots, when they themselves fantasize about standing on the frontlines of such a battle. They fail to realize that this is what real tyranny looks like, on a local level, on a level that actually matters. I bring this up not to add fuel to a partisan fire, but to acknowledge that there is some truth to the ideology behind the rebellious attitude that flavors American politics. It is essential, and in Baltimore it is in action.
Calling for the rioters or protesters to incorporate peace into their tactics is asking the oppressed to exhibit a pattern of behavior that the state neglects. There is no sense in allowing an armed force known for brutality to continue policing a community that rightfully fears for its life. The riots will subside, and hopefully in the wreckage we can rebuild a system that adheres to justice. For now, it’s nothing but broken.