A riot is at bottom the language of the unheard. It is the desperate, suicidal cry of one who is so fed up with the powerlessness of his cave existence that he asserts that he would rather be dead than ignored. —Martin Luther King, Jr.
A fallacy circulates in the local and national conversations about the unrest in Ferguson, Missouri. Two separate and distinct protests are not taking place. Mayor James Knowles attempts to bifurcate these actors as those individuals marching and assembling in prayer “in an organized and respectful manner” and those who go out at night “co-opt[ing] peaceful protests and turn[ing] them into violent demonstrations.” This dichotomy is false and wrongheaded. The activists that march in the sunlight and those that loot under streetlights are born of the same righteous indignation. Outrage and responses to injustice are fluid. In the on-going discussion of the current turmoil, the efficacy, omnipresence, and symbiosis of violent protest throughout American history has been forgotten. Social unrest and peaceful protest are neither discreet nor disconnected, but interrelated tactics on a protest continuum. After memorandums, petitions, and marches fail, insurrection becomes a direct line of communication from the downtrodden to the power structure that benefits from ignoring them. Gazing back on previous uprisings, we clearly see Ferguson in their reflection.
Between 1965 and 1968, 329 urban rebellions took place in 257 American cities, resulting in nearly 300 deaths, 60,000 arrests, and hundreds of millions of dollars in property loss. The precipitating factors for these events were complex and often intertwined. Clearly many Blacks felt embittered following the Civil Rights Act of 1964 and the Voting Rights Act of 1965. These laws transformed the South but had limited impact in the urban North. High wages and stable employment dwindled due to deindustrialization and automation. Economic and race oppressions acted as co-conspirators, systematically shutting out Black working-class people. African Americans resided in substandard housing, learned in outdated classrooms, played in unequipped parks, and suffered abuse at the hands of municipal police. These deficiencies alone were despicable. African Americans’ lack of opportunity for genuine redress, however, made their situation untenable. For working-class African Americans violent protest came to be viewed as a viable and necessary option.
Black America’s dissatisfaction and disillusionment did not end in the era of dashikis and naturals. African Americans face similar or worse obstacles than they did in 1967. Whereas much has changed in America since the Black Freedom Movement, glaring inequalities remain. Over the past fifty years the Black unemployment rate has consistently been twice that of white Americans. Educational inequality remains prevalent. Black students are three times more likely to be expelled from school than their white counterparts. 33% of secondary schools with the highest percentage of Black and Latino students do not offer chemistry, a quarter do not offer Algebra II. Police harassment remains a constant threat. African Americans are incarcerated at a rate of nearly six times that of whites.
Despite such stark evidence, many Americans congratulate themselves on conquering racism (as seemingly evidenced by Barack Obama’s presidency) but remain deaf to the real legal, political, and economic barriers that prevent African Americans from achieving equal status. Unfortunately the only time the general public pays attention to the ongoing efforts of the most marginalized and disillusioned Black Americans are when buildings begin to burn. The taking of a young Black man’s life does not garner much attention; but the stealing of junk food from a QuikTrip over the same issue thrusts police brutality into the laps of those who choose to overlook it. Protestors and witnesses around the world are asking themselves an important question: Is this what it takes to get noticed?
History seems to indicate the answer is yes. Urban rebellions, both in the contemporary moment and the 1960s, must be understood as a continuation of previous political jockeying and protest through so-called “legitimate” channels. If activists judge traditional mechanisms for change as ineffective, they will employ noninstitutional tactics. In shifting protest outside of the established spheres of power, non-traditional political actors are placed on parallel footing with the State. The sixties’ revolts brought a swift though short-lived change, affirming to many that only in the fires of rebellion could a new political order be forged. In response to the revolts, funding flooded Black urban communities bringing job programs, educational opportunities, and recreational facilities with it. This influx of cash, however, represented a liberal patch to treat the symptoms of racial oppression, not a cure for the disease itself. Ferguson ignites in the relapse of this illness.
The rebellions regardless of their era constitute a complex beast: part mirror, part springboard, part dirge. Violent revolts reflect society’s socioeconomic, racial, and gendered disparities in the most profound way. Insurrections launch articulate action and foment revolution. Uprisings also intone the closing of this very avenue for change, as the State becomes savvier in containing these events. Day or night, nonviolent or violent, communal protest symbolizes a taking back of power, an assertion of worth, the ultimate cry for justice and acknowledgment.
Ashley M. Howard
Loyola University-New Orleans
Book Review Editor, The Black Scholar