Why do Black people riot or the release of Black pain

“To be a Negro in this country and to be relatively conscious is to be in a rage almost all the time.”– James Baldwin

Last week I sat on a panel as part of the YWCA’s national Stand Against Racism event and the question was posed by our moderator, “Why do Black people riot?”

It was an interesting question, as several of us pondered whether a riot is a riot or if it is an uprising. Personally, I see riots/uprisings as the result of too many years of ill treatment and too much stuffing ourselves down to survive in a society that views us through suspicious eyes. I don’t know much about public rioting but I do know about coming home after a long day where the weight of my Blackness and thus “otherness” threatened to overtake me and my rage reached that critical peak where the toxicity needed to come out and I picked up a dining room chair and started beating it across the floor and wall in an attempt to let that toxic stew out before it stole my soul.

Considering that I am a middle-aged Black woman now living a middle-class existence and thus “respectable” in the eyes of many whites, it may seem as surprise to some that I have those moments when the rage comes bubbling out and spilling over. However, James Baldwin’s words above remain true, even in 2015. Which is why I am not surprised that as I write this, yet another American city is dealing with the aftermath of unchecked systemic racism and white privilege.

Another young Black man has lost his life at the hands of law enforcement. Freddie Gray, a 25-year-old Baltimore resident who was arrested after running and in possession of a switchblade. Now, while people will argue you shouldn’t run from the police, a lot of us Black people are afraid of the police these days considering what they seem to think they have a right to do to us once we’re in their clutches, and it isn’t at all evident that Gray was doing anything that deserved being eyed by the police to begin with (which might very well have added to his fear). As for the switchblade, it wasn’t like the police had X-ray vision, so let’s not be calling that probable cause, nor have I heard anything about him trying to use it on anyone. Somehow, this apprehension that never needed to be ended up with him being beaten and then cuffed (but not seatbelted, despite the rules that require it) in a police van, so that he could be tossed all over by the vehicle’s starting, stopping and turning, these combined abuses leaving him with a severed spine and crushed voicebox when he arrived at the police station. He died several days later and now Baltimore is in a state of emergency after several days of demonstrations which did include some incidents of violence.

Of course, the usual narrative as created by the mainstream media in these situations chooses to focus on the pockets of violence rather than on the circumstances that push people to this point. America suffers from an especially dangerous form of amnesia when it comes to racial matters. The average White American believes that Martin Luther King Jr. only dreamed of a world where kids of all colors played together, instead of knowing that he also uttered these words as well:

“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.”

America’s racial amnesia has reached the critical point of no return where the stark inequalities in our so-called post-racial era are shredding the very threads of this nation; racial inequities intersect with economic inequities, creating a toxicity for far too many Black people. Today’s younger generation of Black folks are tired of being tired and seeing a system that is rarely fair and just when you wear Black skin. This year alone, 104 Black people have lost their lives at the hands of law enforcement. Last year 26% of people killed by the police were Black in a nation where Black people are roughly 13% of the population and 40% of those Black people killed by the police were unarmed. The criminal justice system (like many institutions and systems in America) is stacked against Black people, and I’ve only been talking right here about those who end up dead. Those already grim numbers say nothing about the incessant stops while driving or walking (a few weeks ago, an older Black woman who lives in a wealthy community in Massachusetts spoke to me about how when she is pulled over while driving, the police approach her with hands on their guns…stories such as this are a norm, regardless of one’s social class as long as one is Black).

Yet every time another Black life is lost or another demonstration is broadcast,  Black pain is put on display to be consumed, dissected, judged and commented on by people who rarely have interest in creating the systemic, long-term change that is needed to right the scales of justice in this country. Nor do many of those gazing upon Black pain and anguish understand the divisions that sustain a separate and largely unequal America that exists along racial lines: That what white America takes for granted often is not the same experience for Black Americans and consists of things largely denied us. As long as Black pain is permissible and Black bodies are not seen as fully human and deserving of the full humanity that white Americans take for granted, I suspect that this cycle will continue to play itself out. The collective pain of Black bodies is simply too much to stuff down anymore and when that breaking point is reached it must come out by any means necessary. Whether the breaking of chairs or unrest in the streets, it must come out.

15 thoughts on “Why do Black people riot or the release of Black pain”

  1. A white woman from rural Maine, I wrote the following on my facebook account for the benefit of some of my friends who have expressed (through comments, memes, or links) that they don’t understand what the #blacklivesmatter movement is about. I have seen this through postings that emphasize “all lives matter” or “police lives matter” etc., etc. I thought that since you probably have more folks looking at your site, that maybe my reflections might encourage others to reflect on this. I posted this yesterday (2 May around 10pm PDT). I include the Spanish translation below the English:

    I believe that ALL lives matter – black lives, Native American/First Nations/Aboriginal/indigenous lives, women’s lives, police lives, veteran lives, Syrian lives, Nigerian girls’ lives, Mexican teachers’ lives, immigrant lives, domestic abuse survivor’s lives, sexual assault survivor’s lives, LGBTQ lives, socialist lives, workers’ lives, communist lives, political prisoners’ lives, displaced person’s lives, Somali Bantu war refugees’ settled-in-predominantly-Anglo-communities lives, all refugee lives, children’s lives, impoverished lives, migrant workers’ lives, single parent lives, this-abled (disabled) lives, Muslim lives, homeless lives, whistleblowers’ lives, addicts’ lives, Palestinian lives, journalist lives, Zapatista lives……

    I also believe that white lives, men’s lives, gun rights advocates’ lives, and the lives of all others in positions of power matter as well.

    Saying “black lives matter,” or highlighting police brutality/abuse/repression/assassinations of blacks by police, or participating in protests in Baltimore or across the country does not equate to saying “other lives don’t matter,” “black lives matter more than other lives,” or deaths of unarmed (non-black) people of all colors don’t matter. What it does is highlight the fact that blacks/Afro-descendants have been dehumanized throughout history, since the beginning of (African) slavery in the US in the 1600s and in Latin America in the 1500s. While you or I or other individuals may treat all people with the same respect, consideration, and openness (or think we do or try to), this dehumanization has become embedded in our political, social, legal, cultural systems through systematic and institutionalized racism that reaches far beyond any individual action.

    Drawing attention to the fact that “black lives matter” is a call for everyone to reflect on the structures that continue to degrade Afro-descendant communities and individuals and that normalize the white (and usually male) experience. Such structures have deep historical roots and because of this, many people are unaware that they continue to shape society today. For example, restrictive housing policies that were implemented more than a century ago have shaped those neighborhoods and cities today. Even if these policies are no longer legal, the social structures and institutional structures remain, as evidenced by, for example, the public education system (lower quality of teaching, larger classroom numbers). Lower budgets in majority black districts are generally linked to property values in school districts. These property values are lower because of the historical processes and laws from decades ago that restricted housing options for blacks, ghettoizing them into segregated areas. It’s not “because they’re black” that, for example, black students score lower on standardized testing (and we can talk about the ridiculousness of standardized testing at another time), as if there is an inherent intellectual difference or lack of desire to learn or anything else along those lines. It is because students in these districts have generally not been afforded the same educational opportunities because of the social and legal structures imposed on them that result in lower scores.

    And let me be clear that I’m not saying “all blacks” are the same, act the same, believe the same things, and have the same dreams – just as “all whites” aren’t racist, act the same or have the same dreams. As an anthropologist, I’m trained to examine the particular and to not generalize populations since this flattens differences, homogenizes communities, and reduces people to essentialized stereotypes (e.g. “all Muslims are terrorists,” “all blacks are thugs,” etc. etc.). In this vein, “black lives matter” is a call to challenge the language and terminology that mainstream media frequently use (be it Fox or CNN, though it’s more recurrent on some stations than others) that reflects and perpetuates stereotypes of blacks. Focusing on imagery of fires, looting, throwing rocks at police reinforces negative stereotypes connected to blacks as evil/violent/angry/wild/less intelligent/lazy, etc. that have endured over the centuries. It doesn’t question or examine *why* they are taking these actions nor why the media chooses to focus on these images instead of peaceful, marching, singing, or praying protesters or those mediating between different groups, or why they are celebrating the black mother who lay the smack-down on her son. Some outlets are beginning to rethink the use of the word “thug” though many others can’t seem to understand how this is discriminatory.

    “Black lives matter” also draws attention to the fact that white America frequently appropriates and glorifies black culture but not the (black) people who make up this culture. It is meant to draw attention to not only the overt racism experienced by blacks, but also to micro-aggressions that they (and other minorities and sub-alterns) experience daily – such as throwing bananas on the soccer field when Ballotelli plays; comparing individuals to monkeys; jokes about fried chicken, grape soda, and watermelons; flying the confederate flag; hanging nooses anywhere; spreading feces on property that belongs to blacks; calling blacks the N-word (even in such progressive cities like Portland, Maine); etc. etc.

    The ‪#‎blacklivesmatter‬ movement is meant to challenge the symbolic and institutionalized racism that exists across the US. It’s meant for people in positions of power and privilege to reflect on and change their lack of knowledge about black people and culture, to question their belief that everyone has the same opportunities regardless of ethnicity, to reevaluate normalized values and beliefs, to re-humanize blacks. And it’s fundamentally a call to change the system that has failed black individuals and communities again and again and again…

    para mis amigxs hispanohablantes:

    Creo que importan TODAS las vidas – vidas de negros, indígenas, mujeres, policía, veteranos, sirianos, niñas nigerianas, maestros igualeños, inmigrantes, sobrevivientes de abuso doméstico y/o sexual, LGBT, socialistas, trabajadores, comunistas, prisioneros políticos, personas desplazados, refugios de las guerras, niños, empobrecidos, p/madres solterxs, personas con capacidades alternativas, musulmanes, indigentes, whistleblowers (que no tengo ninguna ideas como traducirlo), drogadictos, palestinos, periodistas, zapatistas…

    También creo que importan las vidas de los blancos, hombres y las vidas de toda otra gente en posiciones de poder.

    Pero al decir “black lives matter,” o destacar la brutalidad/abuso/represión/asesinatos de los negros a manos de la policía no equivale al decir “otras vidas no importan,” o “las vidas de los negros importan más que las vidas de otros,” o que las muertes de personas de todas etnicidades no importan. Lo que recalca es el hecho de que los afro-descendientes han sido deshumanizados a través de la historia desde el comienzo de la esclavitud (afro) en las américas. Aunque puede que ud. o yo u otros individuos trata(mos) igual la gente de toda etnicidad (o por lo menos intentamos hacerlo o pensamos que lo hacemos), la deshumanización ha sido clavada en los sistemas políticas, sociales, legales y culturales a través del racismo sistemático e institucionalizado más allá de cualquier acción individua.

    Al hacer hincapié al hecho de que “black lives matter” es una llamada para que todos reflexionemos sobre las estructuras que siguen degradar las comunidades y los individuos afro-descendientes y que normalizan las experiencias anglos (y por lo general de los hombres). Tales estructuras tienen raíces históricas muy profundas y por eso, muchas personas ignoran que continúan formar la sociedad hoy en día. Por ejemplo, las políticas restringidas de vivienda que eran implementadas hace más de cien años han moldeado los barrios y ciudades de hoy. Aún que las políticas ahora son ilegales, las estructuras sociales e institucionales permanecen, demostrado – por ejemplo – en el sistema de educación pública (calidad de instrucción más baja y más escolares en cada clase). Los presupuestos en los distritos de mayoridad afro por lo general son vinculados a los valores de la propiedad en esos distritos. Estos valores propietarios son más bajos dado a los procesos históricos y legales desde hace décadas que restringieron las opciones de vivencia para los afros y que resultaron en confinarlos (ghettoize) en barrios segregados. No es porque “son afros” que, por ejemplo, los estudiantes afros saquen notas más bajas en las pruebas estandarizadas, como si fuera una diferencia intelectual inherente o una falta de ganas de aprender o cualquier excusa por estas líneas. Es porque los estudiantes en estos distritos por lo general no han tenido las mismas oportunidades educacionales debido a las estructuras sociales y legales impuestos que resultan en marcas más bajas.

    Y déjenme explicar que no digo que “todos los afros” son todos iguales, ni se comportan por igual ni tienen los mismos sueños – tal como “todos los anglos” no son racistas, ni se comportan por igual ni tienen los mismos sueños. Como antropóloga soy capacitada en observar y analizar lo particular y no generalizar las poblaciones ya que esto homogeniza diferentes comunidades y reduce las personas a estereotipos esencializados (p.ej. “todos los musulmanes son terroristas” o “todos los negros son gánster.”) En ésta manera, decir que “black lives matter” es una llamada que retemos las palabras que utilizan los medios (sea Fox o sea CNN) – palabras que reflejan y perpetúan los estereotipos de los afros. Al enfocar en las imágenes de los fuegos, de los saqueos, y al tirar cosas a la policía reafirma los estereotipos negativos de los afros como malos/nefastos/violentos/enojados/perezosos/menos inteligentes, etc. que han perdurados por muchos años. No interroga o examina el por qué han reaccionados así, ni por qué los medios enfocan en estos imágenes en vez de las imágenes de los manifestantes pacíficos, cantando, rezando o los que arbitran entre diferentes grupos, o por qué celebran la madre afro que dio un golpazo a su hijo manifestante. Y mientras algunos medios están re-pensando su uso del término “gánster/thug” muchos otros no entiendan como ese término es racista.

    La consigna “black lives matter” también llama la atención al hecho de que los anglos estadounidenses muchas veces se apropian de y glorifican la cultura afro pero no a las personas (afros) que forman esa cultura. También quiere llamar la atención no sólo al racismo público pero también a las “agresiones micros” que ellos (y otros minorías y subalternos) experimentan cotidianamente – tales como echar guineos a la cancha cuando juega Balotelli; comparar cualquier afro a un mono; hacer “chistes” sobre pollo frito y sandías; poner la bandera de los estados confederados de américa; poner horcas; utilizar la palabra “n” y otro tras otro ejemplo.

    El movimiento ‪#‎blacklivesmatter‬ intenta desafiar el racismo simbólico e institucional que existe a través de los estados unidos. Hace una llamada a las personas en posiciones de poder y privilegio que reflexionemos y cambiemos la falta de conocimiento sobre las personas afros y las cultura afro; a cuestionar la creencia que todos tenemos las mismas oportunidades sin considerar la etnicidad; a reevaluar los valores y creencias normalizados; y a re-humanizar las personas de descendencia afro. Y fundamentalmente es una llamada a cambiar el sistema que ha fallado a las personas y las comunidades afros una y otra vez…

  2. The thing that strikes me is that there is not more rage and the patience among people of color is even more astonishing …. got to have real inner strength here given such circumstances.

    • I agree Viola! I wish the media and the public would focus more on the patient and peaceful people, the volunteers who clean the mess, that hold the line between the violent protesters and the police. We should be celebrating them!

    • I am constantly astonished also that there is not more rage among people of color. I think a lot of our rage is turned inward though and against each more often than we are probably aware of and/or admit. For those that think it’s one singular incident that sets people off, you are already at a loss. When you consider the constant 24/7 dehumanization, brutalization and degradation, especially among the poorest of people of color, in ways large and small, all it takes is one singular incident. And the rage bubbles forth. If you constantly pick a sore, one day it will erupt. The bubbling point for Baltimore was Freddie Gray, tomorrow, sadly, it will be some other person and city.

  3. I don’t feel confident that I am able to understand, commiserate, or empathize because my unearned privilege swaddles me to such a degree that to suggest “I get it” is akin to suggesting that I get what it must be like to see the ultraviolet spectrum or live in a 12-dimensional world.

    But without a moment’s hesitation I can agree with Martin Luther King: “And I must say tonight that a riot is the language of the unheard.” And so I listen.

  4. Thank you as always. Look forward to your posts wherever they appear. I hope you and your family got that springtime cold treat – ice cream, gelato eventually. Keep finding ways to release the steam in ways that are not harmful to your person, keep your humanity and soul intact. Great quote by Mr Baldwin, and a reminder that MLK had more than one speech we should remember.

  5. Recently I have been trying to imagine how I would react if i was black in Baltimore. It has been a topic of conversation among my friends. Many of the friends say that they don’t know. I think I do. The frustration would surely overtake me.

  6. I do not believe violence is ever the solution, but I can understand the anger and frustration that cause it. The media focuses too much on the violence and not near enough on the cause. We white folks have very little/no concept of the shit people of color have to put up with day in and day out.

    • I appreciate your comment. I don’t think the people who are expressing the level of outrage they are experiencing by destroying property, even hurting some cops in the process, are even remotely thinking its a solution though. Even that is a white man’s privilege. What I’m talking about is the Boston Tea Party. A bunch of white men destroying the property of other white men. What they did was very right, it seems, it was only property and nobody got killed. Their actions set in motion a movement for liberation from taxation without being able to represent for their case for fairness and consideration of expenses, labor, seasonal issues, etc., before those other white men who owned the property. A story so important to the national pride that it gets taught even in the poorest of neighborhood schools, even to youngsters whose skin color and that color’s relationship to a vile and mostly secreted history has denied them fair representation in the halls of justice. So, how did the seeds of the current destruction get sowed among these youth? Maybe these ones being identified as “thugs” are still young and hopeful enough to be praying their actions will set in motion a movement bigger than the static quo bringing the same old, tired labels of “wrong” and “criminal” to actions that cry out “you’re hurting me”, “you’re not being fair”, and “I’m mad as hell and I’m not going to take it anymore”. I would like to applaud the mayor or Baltimore for not sending out tactical squads armed to the teeth like in Ferguson. The National Guard are a peace keeping force with a huge factor of neutrality. They don’t work for a locality or even a state. They work for all of us. And if it’s expensive, well, OMG… Not much more than the cost of getting some planes in the air. The Guard sleep in their tents, eat the same grub, just out of a can and get paid whether they are on maneuvers or not. I like it so much better than the local popo out there with uzi’s putting up a screen for the yahoos back at the office to get their lies together. I do not believe that Freddie Grey’s take down was non-violent. The very fact that he was on the ground indicates violence. The fact that he was apparently on the ground elsewhere before he was on the ground where they took the video really speaks to violence. I’m so pissed!

      • Thank you Amy for sharing your perspective with me and opening my eyes a bit more. I am having trouble though wrapping my brain around how my belief that violence in all it’s forms is unnecessary, is white privilege. Or are you saying my white privilege protects me from the level of disenfranchisement that non whites endure daily and therefore I have no experience of the level of fear and anger that explodes into violence?

        • Neither, Tami. I would have to say I agree that violence is never a solution. My anger isn’t at you. Nor was I aiming the rest of my post at your perspective, rather noting the painful failure of our culture to notice that teach people that destruction of property is a cornerstone of our liberation from foreign rule, then inflict enough social pain on a group of people who were originally brought here against their will so that they seek liberation from this outside torment. It doesn’t surprise me that these young men pick up the same tactic as was the choice of the outraged (even before the Boston tea riot). If we taught something else? It does seem like we are making it ok for white people to riot for rights, but not ok for black people to, but that’s not directed at you, rather at all of us, at this racist society and culture. Your question about having experience (of the level of fear and anger) is a good one. I have puzzled on that one, because I was homeless a long time ago, but for about 18 months and I recall getting so angry that I tried to knock down a wall of a shed on property that belonged to someone I felt had a part in my homelessness. But what if I hadn’t had that experience? Would I be able to walk in the shoes of the disenfranchised? I think so, so I imagine you can. There certainly is a wealth of literature and even film for the delving. There are three difficult things for me with regard to violence. I accept that it happens still today. Our system remains insufficiently evolved not to be essentially thriving on it. That bothers me hugely. The fact that violence by African Americans will be met far more harshly that violence by whites (for example what happens after a soccer riot, not much, with misdemeanor charges or light sentences). This bothers me hugely again because it causes more violence. And finally, nothing ever seems to change with regard to systemic violence, In fact, when I open the lens to include the global picture, it seems to be getting worse. What responding to you is helping me to see is how my anger is verging on becoming pent up self righteous indignation that only action outside the usual charitable reading program is going to cure. I want to see the violence of the oil powered, suck the earth dry prison industrial waste of human life shift to wind and solar and I want our companies to require that African Americans and Native Americans (which includes “hispanic’s”), including those with a criminal record, get the jobs of building the turbines and the panels. I see no insult. It’s not an apology for the egregious wrongs done, but it would be a start.

      • The Boston Tea Party is just another American Urban myth. Instigated by Boston’s wealthy merchants to circumvent the fact that they were not only illegally operating an intercoastal trade from Nova Scotia and the British West Indies to Boston ports without paying their justified taxes as British Citizens but they were very afraid as well that the United Kingdom would soon crack down on their very profitable “Middle Passage” trade of “black skinned” Africans. And the pretend “thugs” here were those “red skinned” native tribal people being destroyed in the process. I would hardly use this as an analogy here !

        • Ah, I think it’s all the more reason for the analogy! Exactly, white violence based on infringements on their right to do violence is taught in schools as the something altogether different, as a righteous act. Now, its possible that it’s not taught that way in very privileged schools, but I doubt it. These myths are being preserved in the sugar coated history taught in schools. But kids can only take what they hear in schools at face value, and the idea that there is a point at which “all good men” may be driven to misbehave for a good cause is a part of the larger American myth. That’s BS isn’t included in the lesson. So, maybe some kids think it could work. I’m not saying they are right. I love the mother who was afraid for her son and made sure, despite her smaller stature, that she got his attention and got him away from becoming another contributor to the violence. But I just wonder how we say these kids have ever been properly taught. If they’d heard what you wrote above, they might be more disdainful of violence, because truth has a way of freeing people. Thank you so much Viola for the valuable information I certainly never had told to me before!

          • Yes the teaching of American history is rather sanitized – if taught at all. Actually at that time of the
            “Boston Tea event” taxes on Tea coming from the East Indies under the auspices of Dutch merchants had already being lowered …..however the ” white privilege” that had begun in Boston when England refused to tolerate the illegal smuggling by John Adams and his merchant buddies ….. took off on a course of its own when British passed other laws in an attempt to control their very wayward British Mass. Bay colony. What Boston found so intolerable was the passage of the Quebec Act by England whereby Catholics in Quebec Canada were to be given the same rights as Protestants. Determined at that point that the British colonies were to be inhabited by only the “WASP” … that is, the White Anglo-Saxon Protestant….. every “other “since that time ….. has had a difficult time in assimilating here.

          • Amy I was not thinking you were directing anything at me. I am a white Maine native. So because I am a middle aged white who grew up in a state that at the time had an almost not existent “other” population, there was very little, if any, opportunity to see that privilege, or to even have a concept of it. I try to be more conscious of this systemic bias and teach myself to recognize it. I was just seeking to understand what you were referring to as white man privilege in my original post.

            Human nature is human nature and we are messy . We all possess light and dark traits, thoughts, motivations, and intentions. I think it is wise to assume the interpretations of historical events are just that, someone’s spin. We are masters at justifying what we want and what we do to get it. But often the motives are for the greater good, cause it feels good to do good, to help others is self empowering. I believe this has been true forever, so I try to remember to look at history through that lens. So yes the American Revolution was motivated by greed, power, and self interest but there were some pretty damn good positive motivations too!

            It is outrageous that white sport competition riots are given the old “boys will be boys” treatment and often reported with a wink and a nod but meanwhile, the pockets of violence that erupt during protests by people of color cause outrage, recriminations, and condemnation. It makes no sense. Violence and destruction of property over a GAME, is senseless. I mean it is not as though they have had a lifetime of being told that because of the color of their skin they are less deserving of anything good, but are certainly suspect of perpetrating criminal acts anywhere, anytime.

            Is there more violence in the world or are we just more globally aware of it?
            Maybe there is more violence, but there is also a global consciousness awakening going on. There are humans around the globe who practice mindfulness, who understand we are in this together. I believe there is a shift happening and perhaps if there is indeed an increase in global violence, it is because it is in it’s death throes. I choose to believe we are creeping toward enlightenment.

Comments are closed.