Later On

A blog written for those whose interests more or less match mine.

Arthur Chu has a good column on the Baltimore riots

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Arthur Chu writes in Salon:

So let’s get this out of the way: I don’t like riots.

Nobody likes riots. Money is lost. Property is destroyed. People get hurt and killed. Riots become a reason to institute martial law and brutalize citizens, generally with little regard for what those citizens did in the riot.

People who participate in riots don’t tend to be happy at the time or look back fondly on their memories of them afterward. People who get disingenuously accused of “liking” riots hardly ever express anything close to an actual “pro-riot” sentiment.

Let’s get something else clear right away — the term “riot” isn’t all that useful. It describes any disorganized outbreak of violence, but people running out and breaking things for the fun of it is not the same as violence in response to ongoing injustice.

And the outbreak of violence by the oppressed is not at all equivalent to the outbreak of violence by the oppressors; a “race riot” is a term for two very different phenomena. The destruction wrought by minorities who are “punching up” is partial and temporary; meanwhile when an oppressive majority decides to punch down, the destruction tends to be total and permanent.

That asymmetry is the fundamental problem with violence as a tool of revolution. Of all the ways to try to strike back against oppression, violent insurrection is one of the costliest, most painful ones for the people doing it–the brunt of the economic and personal damage ends up borne by the oppressed, not their oppressors. Violent resistance is a dangerous gamble that the attention drawn to the cause will outweigh the bloodshed likely to follow in the name of “law and order”–and it was this tactical consideration, as much as spiritual considerations, that made Martin Luther King Jr. preach pacifism.

If you want a hot take from someone on why rioting isn’t a good thing but also isn’t some terrifying harbinger of total anarchy, Dr. King already gave the definitive one 38 years ago. Yes, he famously and forcefully condemned the “Long Hot Summer” race riots of 1967 in his “Where Do We Go From Here” speech, but went on the following month to challenge the nation’s social scientists to get past facile, simplistic “Riots are barbaric and bad” rhetoric. His diagnosis was that riots are a painful symptom of oppression–and, like most painful symptoms, useful as a warning but dangerous as a distraction.

The real danger? That the complacent middle-class TV news-watcher’s emotional reaction to broken windows and burning buildings drown out any possible understanding of the long ongoing history for which riots merely serve as colorful punctuation.

That’s the worst result that can come of violent unrest–all the times it has, as Dr. King lamented, failed to change anything and indeed provided ammunition for the opponents of change. In 1992 an act of police brutality went viral and the city of Los Angeles burned; afterward, the LAPD not only failed to reform but spent the next five years getting worse, with the riots themselves serving as handy justification for police brutality. It’s this knowledge that can make a man like David Simon utter chilling words of empathy for an angry young man with a brick in his hand while nonetheless pleading for that young man to stay home.

But Dr. King didn’t spend that much time condemning riots–he spent far more of his time condemning people who spent all of their time condemning riots. Hence the 1968 quote spreading through Twitter like wildfire, that “a riot is the language of the unheard.” King understood that trying to solve the problem of “riots” instead of trying to solve the problem of oppression is like feeding painkillers to a patient with a gushing open wound. That broken windows matter less than broken spines–and as long as spines are being broken, no condemnation from you or me or Dr. King himself will stop windows from being broken in response.

King’s charisma and rhetoric did not, as some mythologists like to pretend, . . .

Continue reading.

Written by Leisureguy

2 May 2015 at 1:12 pm

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