I have a few partly formed, preliminary thoughts about some people’s reaction to Baltimore (originally posted on my friend Miles Kurland’s page as a comment, then on my facebook page, edited.)
What I’m mainly reacting to is the constant drone of people saying that rioting and anti-state violence in Baltimore is fully 100% wrong and will have 0% positive effect. That may or may not be true, but I have the impression that most of these reactions (mainly seen by me on Twitter, which does tend to lack nuance and detail) are of the knee-jerk sort and not well thought out. More importantly, perhaps, these reactions constitute, intended or not, a rejection of reasons that Baltimore is blowing up, a kind of punching down. The larger situation may call for something other than a simplified scolding of people engaged in behavior that is shocking or disturbing.
The only reasonable position is to not approve of riots, and to speak out against them. They are violent and messy and bad press for any movement.
The only reasonable position is to openly understand that when people are fed up they will do extreme things. That is not excusing the acts, it is understanding and explaining the acts. In some cases, it may even be appropriate to applaud such acts. We actually do this all the time. As a society we support many insurrections. We even try to incite them sometimes, almost always abroad of course.
Within the range of civil disobedience, there are actions that are less extreme and more extreme. It is very rare to start at the most extreme end of the spectrum. When the less extreme acts fail to produce results, more extreme acts are understandable, and in some cases necessary. When that fails to produce results, even more extreme acts are expected once escalation starts.
I think it is correct to use the American Revolution as an example, though the parallels are not (and need not be) perfect.
The American Revolution did not start with the forced Evacuation of Boston by attacking the established legal authority (the British military) with weapons and forcing them out. That was just the first effective act. the first meaningful win by the colonists. Before that there were attempts to change laws, to change local procedures for implementing existing laws, written and spoken protests. As that happened acts of violence and repression against the colonists such as the Boston Massacre started to happen and increased. That was met with even more peaceful and academic protest sprinkled with acts of civil disobedience that did not involve interpersonal violence. That did not work either, and was responded to with acts of military actions against colonists.
Then, Lexington and Concord, a draw; the colonists arms were destroyed, two British soldiers killed. This was followed by a full on military confrontation (the Battle of Bunker/Breed’s Hill) in which the colonists got their asses kicked by a superior and enhanced British military force. That was followed by a non violent but potentially violent act by the colonists (Ticonderoga) in which arms were illegally stolen by the colonists. At any point up to this time the British could have stopped further non-violent and violent repressive acts by listening to the majority of the people but they chose not to. They were not playing fair not acting as moral actors, we say now with the hindsight of history.
Finally, the British were driven out of Boston and full on war results.
Is it the case that every illegal act, especially those that involved violence and weapons, was not justified by the colonists? Had they held out for five or 10 more years with negotiations, political acts in their various legal bodies, etc. would the British have let up? All the evidence suggests not. We don’t look back at the Evacuation of Boston as an immoral or inappropriate act. We don’t in retrospect feel that the colonists were wrong. That could be because they won, eventually, but it is mostly because they went to full on insurrection after years of trying not to. One could say “they did it right.” But, at which point in time during the early days of the Revolution and the days leading up to it could an objective observer had said that at the time?
It may well be that the rioters in Baltimore lack patience and should wait two or three years, or a decade, before acting. Or even a few months. But as far as anyone can tell, police repression of minorities and the poor has increased not decreased, or at least continues apace.
Go look a the numbers. Oh wait, actually you can’t look at the numbers because some of the key data sources have been shut down by Congress or other forces. I would like to see a full accounting of this, please post any links about police-on-people violence over the years in the comments if you have them.
We would like an academic study of violence against the population but such studies that fall under the study of gun related morbidity and mortality are no longer subject to funding, by act of Congress, and as far as I can tell some of the key databases collecting pertinent information have been shut down and made unavailable.
The argument that people should be more patient because the numbers show this or that can’t be made because as part of this repression the numbers are no longer available or studied by people who can understand and measure data quality and reporting bias, etc.
So, really, the people who are doing, passively allowing, or benefiting from the repression don’t really have the right to say that a particular response to continuous class and race repression should be or not be a particular thing. It just isn’t a realistic option.
Stating that rioting is bad, then, is a reasonable thing to say but if it is the only thing you have to say, then you are part of the problem. If you say it along with a statement that one might understand what is happening, then it all depends on what you put first, foreground, prioritize.
We may be seeing a moment of change right now, this week. Or not. Hard to say. But insisting that the status quo is the only thing that is OK, is not a moral stand. The real situation is more complex. Everybody’s got to put their big boy pants on and start recognizing that this is complex, and that identifying repressed people who strike out after decades/centuries (depending on what you are counting) of violent repression by the state and society is so simplistic that it is either full-on ignorance or complicity with that repression.
Martin Luther King condemned rioting. But he also said this:
It is not enough for me to stand before you tonight and condemn riots. It would be morally irresponsible for me to do that without, at the same time, condemning the contingent, intolerable conditions that exist in our society. These conditions are the things that cause individuals to feel that they have no other alternative than to engage in violent rebellions to get attention. And I must say tonight that a riot is the language of the unheard.
The photograph at the top of the post was taken during rioting in Baltimore in, in 1968, response to the assassination of MLK.