An image from the 1968 Baltimore riots.
The Baltimore looters and rioters have something figured out. If everyone struggling against racist police brutality was a peaceful marcher, we wouldn’t even be discussing Baltimore right now.
In the recent years of activism against racist police brutality, we have seen many peaceful marches, protests, vigils, and rallies. There have been hundreds of thousands of participants across the country and across the world. These are fabulous actions. These are people standing up, being seen and making their voices heard in public. A mass movement against white supremacy is vital.
Do these peaceful protests dominate the mainstream news cycles? How much time have important politicians given to peaceful protesters and their prominent leaders or their sponsoring non-profits? How much change has occurred on the ground?
But as soon as a Black person loots or riots, the MSM are ALL OVER IT. We saw this with Ferguson. Complaining about this fact doesn’t change it. Peaceful protests do not make headlines and do not dominate news cycles. Nonviolent protest is the safest tactic for most people, it allows for mass participation, and by demonstrating that large numbers of people care about this issue, it is an important part of the struggle to end white supremacy. But it does not do all things. Relying on a single tactic for such a massive undertaking is setting us up to fail.
Other tactics exist. We should use all tactics if we are serious about our goal. This is called diversity of tactics, and it has a very interesting history.
Looking purely at effectiveness: what brought the Baltimore Black community’s oppression to mainstream national attention? We have the rioters to thank. Flagrant injustices committed against them have gone unnoticed by the MSM for years. It was the rioters and looters, people who actually broke the laws that have unjustly targeted them, who took real risks to their livelihood and safety, who disobeyed the rules of capitalism, who brought this struggle to the mainstream national news. Peaceful protesting is not a tactic that succeeded in this way. It is safe, sanitized, controlled by “leaders” with agendas, and easily ignored.
Rioting is rational for the people under these circumstances. I think oppressed people, when the police, the government, the justice system, the media, and the wider society have failed them, have every right to rise up against their oppression using whatever means they deem necessary.
As one writer put it:
We’re observing bravery; racists and reactionaries will call it thuggery, and traitors will demand resistance be a little more polite–no rocks, no fire please. Respect the law that desecrates you, uphold the property relations that oppress you, and don’t forget decorum.
Liberals, entrenched community leaders and white allies do not like this tactic. They can be found blaming rioting and looting on “a few thugs” the “criminal element taking advantage of the situation” or my favorite, “outside agitators.” They still believe in respectability politics: that if Blacks can just prove to whites that they are Just Like Us, by living unimpeachable, perfect, Cosby Show lives, whites will suddenly dismantle institutionalized racism. This tactic was thoroughly debunked in the sixties, but clearly continues to hold allure for those who are afraid of what it would mean to take more drastic measures. It also reinforces that there are indeed certain contemptible Black people who must be separated out from the “good” Black people.
It hurts my ears to hear liberals mouth the phrase “outside agitators” to disown the most militant anti-racist-oppression agitators. That phrase has a history. It has a long association with Black uprisings against white supremacy and capitalism. To use that phrase is to tap into America’s disgusting history of justifying Black oppression and privation. Outside agitators were blamed for slave revolts because it was believed Blacks were too stupid to rebel against their enslavement. Outside agitators were blamed for various riots throughout the 20th century, including the Watts riots. George Wallace, the infamous Jim Crow-supporting Alabama governor, blamed Black organizing and rebellion on outside agitators. Often these agitators were painted as in some way socialist because property was destroyed. Communist agitators fomenting Black rebellion was discussed by the House Committee on Un-American Activities in the sixties.
Of course, as it turns out, the Baltimore looters and rioters were locals. Well-meaning liberals and allies need to cut it out with this “outside agitators” crap right now. What we have on our hands are local heroes, and it is wrong to rob them of their bravery by saying they couldn’t have done it. It must have been the communists!
Looters and rioters are the bravest participants of the protest against police brutality in Baltimore. They also have a very effective tactic when it comes to attracting media attention. As we move forward, we need to learn and adapt so that our battles against white supremacy can be more efficacious. This is more than theory: lives are at stake.
Further reading: here is a big information dump of background on the history of Black people in Baltimore and their encounters with racism.