I’ve been mulling over the recent events in the news regarding the deaths of Michael Brown and Eric Garner. I’m angry that there was no indictment for Darren Wilson or the officer who choked Garner to death, but it’s been a dull kind of anger that simmers under the surface of other worries and concerns. That’s part of my privilege as a white person; I can be upset at obvious injustice, but I have a difficult time making the anger feel personal when I know the injustice doesn’t target me directly. It’s been a struggle to find a way to express my thoughts on these events, because my inclination is to try to be silent and let people who are more deeply affected speak (I am, after all, a straight white guy, and my general experience is discussed all the time). At the same time, I also feel like I need to say something, even if it’s no more than agreement with all the people who say that a failure to bring the officers in question to trial (not even to a conviction!) is a miscarriage of justice.
I’ve also been thinking about the way many people have been clucking their tongues over reports of riots, particularly in the wake of Darren Wilson’s non-indictment. It frustrates me to hear comments about unruliness and disorderly behavior without any consideration of the reasons behind that behavior.
People behave in accordance with what they are feeling, and feelings are not something that should be dismissed lightly. When I read about people rioting, particularly black people, I assume that there must be cause. A pattern of direct hostility from police towards the black community in America is a good cause for anger. Rioting because there appears to be no other productive outlet for that anger is understandable. It’s not some mystifying alien behavior.
Let me repeat that: Rioting is a rational act in circumstances where the people involved have no other way to express their discontent.
Instead of judging the people to be morally stunted because they resort to violence, ask what reasons they have for going there in the first place. Listen to their experience. Consider how things look from their perspective. Ask yourself if you could avoid doing the same thing if you were systematically denied your human dignity at every level of society (and don’t give some crappy evasion about how that’s not what’s happening to black people in America, because that’s the experience being expressed, and it’s the experience suggested when a third of black men are incarcerated in their lifetimes and a black person is killed by police every 28 hours on average, so just assume, even if only for the sake of argument, that’s the experience being lived).
In our worst moments, humans rely on the reflexively violent nature that we’ve spent the entirety of our history trying to overcome. We lash out when we’re trapped in bad situations, and it takes a supreme effort to overcome that impulse when there’s nothing working in our favor. To say that you wouldn’t riot if put in a similar situation is just facile posturing, and it does no one any good as we try to suss out how to fix a glaring problem with our society.