Wherever black Americans congregate to protest racism, from Ferguson to New York to Baltimore, one series of criticisms crops up again and again:
There is no need for protests to turn “violent”.
The rioters are preventing peace from returning!
Why would they destroy their own neighborhoods?
These critiques are rooted in a fundamentally misguided notion of what a riot is. A riot is not the initiation of violence. Riots are the reversed expression of a violently oppressive institution: the turning of victim on assailant in righteous retaliatory anger. There is no peace to be broken, because black America has been subject to systemic white supremacist violence since its inception.
To call for riots to end is not to call for violence to end, it is to call for violence to return to being one-sided, an assault by America on black humanity. It is to cry uncle while continuing to rain down punches.
Violence is the language of white supremacy, writ scarlet across black bodies with every lashing, lynching, or police execution. The generationally persistent systemic violence against the humanity of black Americans has left psychic scars which visit the suffering of the father upon the son.
This violence stretches back to the very origin of blackness in America. Slavery tore Africans from their homes and families, thrust them into a violent and oppressive structure which treated them as capital instead of people, and wrung profits from their dehumanization.
Today, court and legal fees combine with systemic poverty to keep black Americans in a perpetual state of indentured servitude and debtor’s prisons. Slavery may be over, but as Atlantic Correspondent Ta-nehisi Coates put it, the fundamental relationship between America and African-bodied people still remains one of plunder, of using black bodies to prop up white American “exceptionalism”.
Jim Crow spelled out violence on the right of blacks to self-govern, the selfsame violation which led the original American colonies into a violent revolution against their British master.
In the years since the Supreme Court gutting of the Voting Rights Act, we have seen rulings that at least two states gerrymandered districts and implemented restrictive voting requirements specifically to suppress the black vote.
For black Americans living under institutionalized American racism, rioting is not a violent juxtaposition to peace. Rioting is black America embracing the violence inherent to their relationship with their country. Rioting is a retaliation of violence with violence.
When youth rioted in Egypt, we didn’t tut-tut and tsk-tsk and wring our hands when they disrupted traffic or threw bricks or stormed police lines. We didn’t say “I understand their frustration, but why do the protests have to turn violent?”
We asked why they were rioting, and we learned of a police body that beat them and tear gassed them and left their bodies riddled with bullets. We learned of chronic poverty, undereducation. We learned of a government that had stolen their vote and left them with no opportunity. And we rooted for them, supporting their – yes, violent – revolution against a government that had turned on them. Would that a mirror could be turned on America, that they might see their role reversal, might see the second-class citizens in their midst crying out for help, yet being ignored, exploited, and oppressed.
The riots sprouting up in Ferguson, New York, Baltimore, and other cities across the United States hail back to a long tradition of rioting to express systemic discontent. On December 16th, 1773, hundreds of protesters turned violent, destroying property and ultimately dumping hundreds of pounds of tea into the sea, a day that would later be known as The Boston Tea Party.
The Boston Tea Party was a riot that precipitated a violent and impactful revolution aimed at righting the wrongs of the day. Ferguson and New York and Baltimore are not isolated pockets of violence amidst a peaceful coexistence. They are but the front lines of a fundamentally violent expression of discontentment with a violent and oppressive system. They are a modern day Boston Tea Party for black America.