A Riot Is the Language of the Unheard, a reminder
A few months ago, I felt compelled to write an installment of News for the Well-Intentioned, Semi-Informed Layperson about the Darren Wilson/Michael Brown case in Ferguson. Not for any outlet and not for any particular purpose, but just because I felt so helpless and despondent when that was going down. While there are countless differences between the events in Ferguson and what’s going on in Baltimore right now, they do stem from the same root problems in our country, and I feel that same despondent hopelessness as I follow what’s going on in ‘Charm City’ only 40 miles from where I sit. Maybe more for myself than anyone else, here’s a selection from that Ferguson piece that might help give some context to this infuriatingly heartbreaking situation.
Why People Are Mad (From a Non-Legal Perspective):
It Is A(nother) Reminder That The Justice System Isn’t Fair
To keep this local, Ferguson receives nearly one-quarter of its revenue from court fees. According to a recent report from the MISSOURI ATTORNEY GENERAL’S OFFICE, with primarily white police forces that rely disproportionately on traffic citation revenue (like in Ferguson), black people are pulled over, cited and arrested in numbers far exceeding their population share. In Ferguson last year, black citizens received 86% of stops, 92% of searches and 93% of arrests, despite the fact that police officers were far less likely to find contraband on black drivers (22% versus 34% of whites). To quote the New York Times directly, “This worsens inequality, as struggling blacks do more to fund local government than relatively affluent whites.”
And because black people have reached the suburbs in significant numbers only over the past 15 years or so, fewer suburban black communities have deeply ingrained civic organizations. This is why the mostly-black city of Ferguson has a white mayor, a school board with six white members and one Hispanic member, a City Council with only one black member and, drumroll please, a 6% black police force.
White People Still Aren’t Getting It
As experimental rockers The Butthole Surfers said in “Pepper,” their seminal 1996 hit, “You never know just how to look through other people’s eyes.”
Social networks’ problematic information-siloing effect might have something to do with it — “the social networks of whites are a remarkable 91% white,” with 75% of whites having entirely white social networks without any minority presence whatsoever — but white people seem to have a lot of opinions about this issue without ever admitting the truth: no matter how many black friends one may have, or how many MLK Jr. quotes one reads, it is impossible to truly understand the black experience in America without, ya know, actually being black.
And it’s making them say and do some really stupid things.
There’s the glaring stuff, like Cardinals fans taunting peaceful protestors who gathered outside a playoff game by calling them crackheads and telling them to ‘get jobs’ and ‘go back to Africa’ and the fact that people were donating to Darren Wilson’s defense fund with gratitude for removing a “savage” from the community, but then there’s the subtler, more insidious examples of ignorance.
When you hear people condemn the riots because they ‘impede social progress,’ you’re hearing people who don’t understand that, as MLK Jr. himself put it, “a riot is the language of the unheard.” What is happening right now is not a strategic response coordinated as a result of one poorly-handled trial, but a reactive culmination of decades of mistreatment. Right before that famous phrase about “the language of the unheard,” MLK Jr. explains:
It is as necessary for me to be as vigorous in condemning the conditions which cause persons to feel that they must engage in riotous activities as it is for me to condemn riots. I think America must see that riots do not develop out of thin air. Certain conditions continue to exist in our society which must be condemned as vigorously as we condemn riots.
Not to mention, as Ta-Nehisi Coates so eloquently reminded us in The Atlantic:
“Taken together, property damage and looting have been the most effective tools of social progress for white people in America. They describe everything from enslavement to Jim Crow laws to lynching to red-lining…The Civil Rights Bill of 1964 is inseparable from the threat of riots. The housing bill of 1968—the most proactive civil-rights legislation on the books—is a direct response to the riots that swept American cities after King was killed. Violence, lingering on the outside, often backed nonviolence during the civil-rights movement.”
(And just to go ahead and quote my conclusion from that same piece…)
This is Killer Mike, Atlanta-bred rapper and one half of the of the wonderful hip-hop group Run The Jewels, and if you’re heart doesn’t break a little listening to this then we need to have a talk:
Credit: (AP Photo/Patrick Semansky)
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