One of the pitfalls that comes from being labeled a “rioter” is the lack of understanding a rioter’s actions receive. “Peaceful” and “civil” means of expressing concern have already been used, and it grows increasingly clearer that those concerns addressed with peaceful means receive insufficient attention, or at least not enough attention to provoke a change that will liberate the disadvantaged. At this juncture of repression begins the search for ways that the bodies of disempowered people can thoughtfully respond to an inequitable system of governing, even as their legal rallies aren’t thoughtfully recognized.
Forcing the marginalized into more “lawful assemblies” as well as pushing for compromises that meet little of the demands of disempowered people will ultimately create catalysts. Riots make headlines because the damage caused is at a level commensurate with what our government does to the marginalized, but with a speed that commands our immediate attention and “disapproval.”
That kind of attention and disapproval is shared throughout the public when riots are covered as senseless acts of aggression, causing many to respond with, “I understand the problem, but that isn’t the way to go about it.”
It is necessary to make attempts to recognize the cause of any public mobilization, especially when it comes from groups pushed to the edges of the margins. What is often asked as a result is, “How could people destroy public property like that?” instead of asking, “How has current legislative action been able to trigger this kind of volatile response?” For starters, rioters, rather than the key players creating policies that initiate riots, more often receive the brunt of the negative criticism.
It is a constitutional right to assemble peacefully—that is to say, it is your right to organize a way of speaking publicly without anyone being legally obligated to listen to you. Organize campaigns that speak out against the mistreatment of mentally or physically disabled students in public schools, despite an already established entity conducting hearings of their own to determine the most correct course of action. Assemble marches in solidarity with families who have been victims of police brutality, but know that states still hold more power in heavily militarizing the department tasked with protecting you. Protest on Capitol Hill despite the fact that armed guards prevent you from establishing a line of communication with lawmakers. Our country has developed a habit of responding to protests with little legislative action, and then delegitimizing subsequent rioters because they are “not doing it right,” even if they had already spent years doing so according to the rules. Public protests are crucial. They legitimize concerns and bring attention where there is hardly any, but protests are only a step in a progressive direction.
When public officials, news media, and even Facebook friends suggest acting in a more civilized manner as a response to rioting, it is akin to being in a school where discrimination occurs and the administration reserves for you a spot in the least populated part of campus to demonstrate.
When people suggest “civility,” they usually mean taking public conversations home and being grateful for your lot in life here. This directly stagnates the next best way to communicate displeasure with the way you and your community are being mistreated. It will also hinder the way people can legally resist when the space they’re living in, in the margins, continues to shrink. Damages to public property certainly halt any kind of progress, and do reinforce negative images of those involved, but there must be concerted efforts to figure out the reasons behind these outbursts. Protests, riots, peaceful demonstrations, public acts of resistance, these all very well bring attention to a given issue, but genuine change comes from holding a seat at the table where these laws are formed. More often than not, those in the margins are at an immense disadvantage in gaining a seat of any kind, let alone sharing a space in the house.
In a speech at the American Psychology Association’s’ annual convention in Washington D.C., Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. said back in 1967 of riots that, “They may be deplored, but they are there and should be understood.” Choosing to riot instead of protest requires our attention, no matter how disagreeable the action. It is necessary in making legitimate progress that we understand why riots happen and how they are more than acts of destruction, but most importantly, we must take into account the parties that actually trigger them.