For less than one week in the summer of 2011, London blazed with riots, which sprawled throughout the capital and the nation. Police had shot dead Mark Duggan, an unarmed 29-year-old, in Tottenham, which prompted an eruption of property damage (an estimated $3.5 million worth), arson, and looting. Tabloid ink ran sticky with panic and racist, classist allusions to roaming packs of hooligans. The police cracked down hard: five days of chaos produced 3,100 arrests. The courts followed suit: a student was jailed for six months simply for looting bottles of water worth around $5 from a grocery chain.
And then there were the brooms. In the wake of the unrest, hundreds of well-meaning British civilians took to the streets, armed with brooms, to voluntarily sweep away the debris of the preceding rage-filled days. Keep calm and carry on. In-depth studies found structural racism, classism, and habitual police brutality to be among driving forces of the riotous rupture. But at the time a pernicious narrative insidiously emerged, pitting "criminal," "violent" rioters against the upstanding broom brigade who swept away the mess.
British Prime Minister David Cameron called the riots "criminality, pure and simple." There was nothing pure nor simple about the events of that August week. But wrongheaded politicians are not alone in seeking to reduce messy and complex events like mass riots into the "pure and simple" categories of "criminality" and order, violence and peace, goodies and baddies. All too often, rioting and looting get dismissed as the senseless counterpoints to peaceful protest.
We are seeing a similar line play out this week around the events in Ferguson, Missouri, where police shot dead a reportedly unarmed, black 18-year-old, Michael Brown. His body lay in the street for four hours before being removed. Police claim the teen tried to attack an officer in his car and grab his gun. Eyewitnesses countered this narrative, reporting that Brown was surrendering, hands in the air, when he was shot. Following a public vigil for Brown on Sunday, the St. Louis suburb was hit by rioting, looting, and confrontations with cops in riot gear. Confrontations with police and property destruction continued on Monday night.
In this instance, an interesting version of the "good protester"/"bad protester" fable is framing events. A number of reports suggest that the peaceful demonstration escalated into violence when police arrived in riot gear, aggressed demonstrators, and shot tear gas and "bean bag" rounds at gathered crowds — and, as photos attest, Ferguson is now a militarized police zone: cop cars guard the town's entrance; a journalist on the scene relayed to me that the media have been denied access to much of the area, wrapped as it is in police lines.
At face value, this version of events blames police intervention in Sunday's vigil for a shift from peace to violence. This is an important recognition of the cops as violent instigators; not for the first time are we watching how excessively forceful policing stokes rightful rage in a crowd. But a misleading framework is established by a narrative that sees a peaceful situation made violent by police aggression. Condemning the police here (which we must, whole-heartedly) should not come at the cost of dismissing these riots as merely an angry reaction to an isolated incident. The predominantly young, predominantly black people of Ferguson who took to the streets and stores had ample cause to riot beyond one night of confrontation with militarized cops.
There's no mistake in blaming police for provoking more rage in Ferguson following Brown's death. But rather the error lies in asserting that a peaceful situation existed in the first place. Sunday night's rally may have begun calmly, but a context in which yet another young, unarmed black teen has been shot dead by police, and riot cops stand stationed to shutdown even a shadow of dissent, is not a context of peace. State violence prevails and sits heavily over Ferguson this week. Mourning residents have limited options: endure this savage status quo with quiet resignation, or, acknowledging that there is already a state of violence, they can fight back.
To be sure, I am not lionizing all rioters. I will happily designate the cops as the villains in this scenario, and every scenario in which armed forces kill with impunity and use authority to harass, racially profile, and oppress. But that does not entail an unmitigated allegiance with every rioter, arsonist, or looter. My point, rather, is that I do not think this sort of disruptive activity should be demonized outright. Of course, riots can be racist, riots can be homophobic — they are not essentially one thing or another.
In a poor St. Louis suburb, where nearly a quarter of residents live below the poverty level, destruction is not so easily swept away. Michael Brown's parents have publicly called on residents to be peaceful. "Michael wouldn't have wanted violence," they implored. But even with this in mind, I don't decry the property destruction, the confrontation with cops (allegedly rocks were lobbed at officers), and I don't condemn the looting.
My opinions, of course, have zero material relevance to the people of Ferguson, I'm not there and cannot — would not — speak for them. But as I noted above, to urge that citizens remain "peaceful" all-too-wishfully asks for a peace that does not exist. Does it worsen such a situation to riot, loot, to be unruly and threatening? Black unarmed kids get shot dead and killer cops keep their jobs; it's already the worst.
Pacifists warn that violence begets violence, and maybe so, but police violence is profligate and ongoing regardless. As such, I find little problem (indeed, little violence) in inflicting smashes and burns on inanimate property in these blood boiling circumstances, especially when it is the property of cops and consumer capital. I personally am not burdened by criticisms that such riotous behavior does not achieve desired goals for peace. I haven't seen politicking, appeals to justice, nor ordered, permitted street marches achieve much in ending state-sanctioned brutality.
Police treatment of young black and brown men around the country has illustrated that living peacefully is not an option; a man can be choked to death by cops for allegedly selling single cigarettes on a street corner. If broken windows and smashed up police cars serve even as mere emblems that the status quo is already violent, that a shiny patina cannot hold, then such criminal acts are worthwhile for that reason alone. Property damage seems a most minimal manifestation of rage appropriate in response to a killing like Brown's, and a world in which such killings are possible and not-unique.
Commentary on riots, especially when carried out by young, black and poor people, often becomes hyper-critical of the various targets of damage. There is marginally more sympathy for the act of smashing a Walmart window than a local mom-and-pop set up. Certainly, I'd rather see a retail giant, famed for workers abuses, be smashed and burned than I would a small, local business. But above that, I privilege the political force of a riot over the preservation of shop windows. Collective fury, inscribed onto urban terrain in broken glass and fire, can be an assertion of presence and power in the face of authorities, which would rather these young people remain invisible, silenced, imprisoned, or dead. The disruption and destruction says it all, and needs little accounting for in this instance. Revolutionary theorist Frantz Fanon put it well: "When we revolt it's not for a particular culture. We revolt simply because we can no longer breathe."
Looting was a focus of coverage during the London riots, as well as during the 1992 Los Angeles riots following Rodney King's brutal beating by police, and during the brief but intense unrest in Brooklyn's East Flatbush after cops shot dead 16-year-old Kimani Gray last year. It adds a complicated layer to questions about the ethics of rioting. It would be simple to demonize looters here in order to preserve some sort of ideological purity for those vandals, destroying in righteous anger alone. But I'll leave it to David Cameron to deem things "pure and simple."
Arguments that looters distract focus from rage at killer cops may be valid. I would hope, however, that concern for people over property would see concern about looting pale in comparison to anger at police violence. Looting is consistently decried as opportunistic, but I'm not sure opportunism is always such a bad thing, especially for individuals and communities for whom opportunity rarely comes knocking.
On Monday night, a QuickTrip convenience store in Ferguson was gutted by fire after being looted. DeAndre Smith, a 30-year-old from Ferguson, told the St. Louis Post Dispatch what the destruction meant to him. "This is exactly what's supposed to happen when an injustice is happening in your community. when you have kids getting killed for nothing... I don't think it's over. I think they just got a taste of what fighting back means," he said.
No one can predict how long the rioting and police crackdowns will continue in Ferguson. U.S. municipal police forces have some talent for foreclosing long-term, street-based dissent. The boxy cityscapes of suburban America, with wide roads and flat expanses, as well as our sharply gridded metropolis lend themselves to control by law enforcement. In Athens, Greece, by contrast, winding alleys and tight webs of intersection, the very shape of the city and the layout of its neighborhoods provides a helpful terrain for continued unrest. Urban sprawl leaves U.S. towns like Ferguson in relative isolation, easily occupied and surrounded by police; the 1992 LA riots also played out in residential, migrant neighborhoods some distance from the city center — they were quelled in six days.
It is likely that Ferguson won't look like a war zone for very long. The LA Times' Matt Pearce, reporting from Missouri, told me that he had heard a rumor that demonstrators were considering taking up guns and the legacy of the Black Panthers is reportedly resonant in the beleaguered town (New Black Panther members are joining the Ferguson fight, reports have alleged.) But that does not mean that peace will be restored. There is no peace there, nor anywhere where deaths like Brown's are even possible.
We can continue to watch Al Sharpton speechify in front of weeping families, we could walk in somber marches, holding signs, we can wait for the next unarmed black kid to die by police bullet. We can fake the peace, but we should not be so blind to think that the "war zone" of police violence stops at the patrolled edges of Ferguson. I repeat here the words of late philosopher Bernard Williams, who noted that "to say peace when there is no peace is to say nothing." In Ferguson, with broken glass and fire, something is being said.
Follow Natasha Lennard on Twitter: @natashalennard