Understanding the Role of Destruction in “Riots”
Late Friday night, I spent hours sitting on the floor with my computer in my lap watching a protest unfold in our city over the police murder of George Floyd in Minneapolis on May 25. Early in the evening, my mom and I planned on attending the protest. We made signs and found out exactly where people were gathering. As the night went on and police started deploying tear gas, my mom decided she couldn’t safely take her sixteen year old daughter to a protest of that nature. I found myself becoming frustrated with the people I saw on the news “looting” and burning. For a moment, I allowed myself to believe that it was those people who were keeping me from being able to protest safely. I told myself, as I’ve heard throughout my life, that if the people didn’t loot and burn, then the police wouldn’t have to deploy tear gas, and I could safely fight for my society. Of course, I’ve always been aware that people wouldn’t loot and burn if the police hadn’t murdered someone in the first place. Still, I find myself slipping into the mindset of attributing the risks of protesting to the “rioters” destroying property, instead of to the police using violence against protesters. I’m aware that that misperception is a product of the fact that I’m white. Last night, I realized that it was unsafe to go, not because property was being damaged, but because humans were being physically attacked by the police. Now, for the first time in my life, I understand why people “riot” during protests. I choose to put the words loot and riot in quotation marks, because they are racially charged. I am using them because these are the words we typically hear when discussing protests of this nature. It’s important to scrutinize the assumptions we make when we hear them.
When the framework of our society turns in on itself, and the people we trust “to protect and to serve” start murdering citizens in the street, why not riot? Society is a contract that we agree to participate in because it serves the greater good. Every day we stop ourselves from stealing what we want or need, because it’s been ingrained in us that if we do, society will fall apart. It’s simply not what you’re supposed to do, so we don’t. I admit that I have spent most of my life wondering why some people become destructive during protests, but I’m just starting to realize the relative insignificance of that question.
Why are we distracted by the destruction of property while police are using violence against peaceful protesters asserting their right to free speech and Black bodies are lying in the street? It’s critically important to distinguish between vandalism and violence. I’m well aware that many of us are devastated by the police’s recent actions, but the time and energy we spend focusing on property destruction is time and energy taken away from thinking about the root of the problem. Do not let the “rioting” distract you from the human cost of police terror. The destruction of property is a fitting backdrop for the destruction of society. While we might not like to admit it, if not for the literal flames that accent the cries of the supporters of George Floyd and other people who have fallen victim to police violence, protests would not get sufficient media attention. When stores are sacked and burned, we disproportionately hear about it on the news, and that amplifies the attention drawn to this particular injustice. It’s important to note that the vast majority of protesters do not engage in the destruction of property. Clearly, much of the destruction that does occur at protests is perpetrated by people who are not involved in the movement. The next time you watch the news and see looting and burning, do not allow yourself to be distracted by the destruction. Ask yourself not why the stores burn, but what and who is causing our society to burn. Ask yourself why the police target Black bodies. Ask yourself how they can get away with it. Ask yourself what you would do if it were your brother, your father, your mother, or your teacher. Ask yourself what you can do to help solve this problem. These are the questions that we must be asking. Police who assault and kill Black people spend less time behind bars than the peaceful protestors who risk their lives to stand up for our society. Because the police have broken our social contract, it is incumbent upon us as young people to fully understand and explore this problem that we have inherited, in order to come up with an effective way to fix it. It is not a matter of property. It’s a matter of life and death.
I plan to attend a social-distancing car caravan protest organized by The Anti Police-Terror Project in support of justice for George Floyd and Breonna Taylor on Sunday, May 31. It will take place from 2:00 to 4:00 PM. Cars will gather in the parking lot at Middle Harbor Shoreline Park at 7th St and Middle Harbor Road at the Port of Oakland. I encourage you to join us.
Editor’s note: The Radar and this article’s author do not condone vandalism