What it means to call Ferguson a ‘riot’

Cops Kill Kids

Why don’t we call it a “protest?”

BY ZARON BURNETT III

But 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. And what is it America has failed to hear?

– Martin Luther King Jr., “Other America”

When American media arrived in Ferguson, Mo., it saw what many believed to be a “riot.” There were burning buildings and angry black faces, shirtless young men stepping through shattered glass doors to loot a convenience store, there were citizens defying the orders of the police despite the threat of a violent response by authorities.

The protests in Ferguson looked different captured on smartphone by locals. The images and videos were shared on social media in real-time. Those images, like the ones of protesters pouring milk on the faces of suffering people in order to reduce the burn of tear gas, circled around the world at digital light-speed. As they tweeted text and images, this is how the rest of the world first saw these images of repression by state security forces. The reason the Ferguson protests went global is simple—those images were universal. A uniformed man in a mask, standing behind a riot shield, buffeted by assault rifles and tanks looks the same around the world.

It’s now clear that Michael Brown will be a name in the history books. Ferguson will be remembered as another turning point in the bloody history of police violence that so often occurs during the long hot summers of our American racism. The fact that outlets as diverse as the Washington PostViceChicago Tribune, Boston Herald, Reuters, CBS, and the Guardian all saw a “riot” will also be part of history. 

But we ought to consider: Is it possible that “riot” is the “thug” of American political activism? Is it a coded term used to evoke images of young black and brown men who pose a threat? How did institutional racism blind some from seeing that Ferguson is more than “another dead black teen story?” Why didn’t they see it for what it is: another development in an ever-strengthening global human rights movement?

One reason detractors focused on the riots and not the solidarity of the protesters was old habits, a long history of cops repressing rioting black Americans. During the 1960s, for three years in a row, America endured a series of long hot summers that were stoked to a feverish intensity and resulted in the fires of race riots. It started when a policeman shot and killed a black teen boy. The Harlem Riots began in July 1964 and touched off other riots around the nation.

The next summer, it started on the opposite coast. The Watts Riots of 1965 were sparked by a traffic stop of a 21-year old black man who was out driving his mother’s Buick. The Watts Riots were followed by a wave of violence in cities throughout the country. The next year the summer of riots began in Chicago. The inciting incident was—you guessed it—a shooting of a young Puerto Rican man by the police.

By 1967, the pattern was set. In San Francisco, the hippies called it the “Summer of Love.” The rest of the country called it the Long Hot Summer of 1967. There 159 riots in cities throughout the U.S. The most notable was the Detroit Rebellion, which occurred under Michigan’s Gov. Romney (aka Mitt’s dad).

On March 14, 1968, in anticipation of another hot summer of race riots, Martin Luther King, Jr. gave a speech called the “Other America.” No longer the favorite son of the Civil Rights movement, King was a man amidst crisis, both personal and social. Critics had begun to speak out against his calls to non-violence. Increasingly, the young and political-minded saw King’s plans as futile and instead they looked to direct action. As Malcolm X, Stokely Carmichael, and the Black Panthers had urged, many young black men and women presumed that only conflict would ever correct the centuries of American racism.

In his speech, King spoke of an America cleaved in two, split by its history of racism and economic repression. He defended his prescription of non-violence to cure the nation’s ills, as he confronted the newly seasonal problem of race riots. He saw that figures of American authority imagined young black men as brutish thugs and dependent niggers. He understood the coded language of his oppressors and knew the authorities would willingly destroy black bodies to feel free of their collective fear of black rage. Plus, he knew they would claim violence was necessary, in order to defend police officers and property.

When an individual police officer sees young black men as “thugs,” the officer presumes the potential for violence. The officer becomes afraid. Their fear shrinks their ability to think beyond the moment. Convinced they are fighting for their life, they will take one. And they justify shooting a young black man because it was “him or me.”

This is why the presence of a group of “thugs” turns what would otherwise be seen as a heated political protest or charged social demonstration into a dangerous riot that the police feel needs to be violently suppressed. The tanks and assault rifles are physical indications of the police officer’s level of fear.

In 2011, when Penn State students rioted (and they’ve hosted a few recent riots recently), they clashed with police, throwing bottles, rocks, and fireworks at the cops. And yet, the cops didn’t start firing tear gas into the crowd to regain control. Why? The police never feared for their safety. Even though the college kids flipped over cars, torn down light poles, and ran amok, they didn’t get gassed with poisonous chemicals like the protesters in Ferguson.

Just as it was in King’s day, there are still two Americas. In one America, white people carry assault rifles into Walmart and they happily shop. In the other America, a black man gets shot for holding a toy gun in Walmart. This is not coincidence. This is a pattern. And it’s one that dispossessed and marginalized people around the world recognize.

Palestinians in Gaza have been tweeting to the protestors in Ferguson, expressing their solidarity as well as offering advice on how to deal with tear gas. Tibetan Buddhist monks flew over from India to stand with the protestors and encourage a peaceful resolution to the hostility. Hedy Epstein, a ninety-year old Holocaust-surviving grandmother protested and was arrested. Concerned about the safety of the protesters, Amnesty International deployed teams of observers to watch for human rights violations. It’s the first time they’ve ever done that in America.

Now, the home of the free and the land of the brave is no different than any other repressive state in the eyes of Amnesty International. When juxtaposed against each other, the Ferguson cops, riding around on their surplus military APCs, so eager to use their LRADs and rubber bullets, look no different than Putinesque tactics of social repression.

The young man in Ferguson who has become Internet famous for the striking Pulitzer Prize-worthy photo of him throwing a flaming tear gas canister back at the police, looks nearly identical to any young Palestinian man throwing a tear gas canister back at the IDF. To witnesses around the world, Ferguson is far more than another sad chapter of American racism. It’s another battle for dignity and human rights in a loosely connected global movement against police state repression. A global consciousness is forming in response to the militarized response of governments around the world.

Despite the fact the police initially tried to intimidate a grieving community, the horror show scene they created in Ferguson is now an international spectacle. Ferguson is America’s Pussy Riot. It’s a wildly miscalculated use of intimidation by the State that highlights in clear resolution exactly how repressive we’ve become.

Other than the fact the police see them as thugs, what is so dangerous about what the Ferguson protesters and what they ask of their public servants? They want to know the truth of what happened to Michael Brown. They want justice to be done. For this request, they are sprayed with poisonous tear gas.

When Martin Luther King Jr. gave his “Other America” speech he aimed to heal the divide between what he called the two Americas, still painfully separate and unequal. Despite his misgivings about the violent nature of America, he looked beyond the struggles of the race relations of his day, he forgave his society for its lack of equality; he invested his hope and his dreams in love being shared freely by all neighbors, and to remind the world of the power of human dignity and compassion.

“I still believe that freedom is the bonus you receive for telling the truth,” King argued. “And I do not see how we will ever solve the turbulent problem of race confronting our nation until there is an honest confrontation with it and a willing search for the truth and a willingness to admit the truth when we discover it.”

What is it America has failed to hear?

Zaron Burnett III is a social commentator and humorous essayist. He lives in Los Angeles.

Photo via Shawn Semmler/Flickr (CC BY 2.0)