Ri­ots are as Amer­i­can as ap­ple pie

Times Standard (Eureka) - - OPINION - By Ricky Ri­ley Ricky Ri­ley is an At­lantabased jour­nal­ist and ed­u­ca­tor. This op-ed was dis­trib­uted by OtherWords.org.

Fol­low­ing the po­lice killings of Ge­orge Floyd and Bre­onna Tay­lor, na­tional un­rest has brought mil­lions of pro­tes­tors out from coast to coast. Most have been peace­ful — but not all.

Cop cars and po­lice precincts have been set ablaze, stores looted and van­dal­ized, stat­ues memo­ri­al­iz­ing racists top­pled. The po­lice them­selves have been re­peat­edly caught on video in­sti­gat­ing vi­o­lence and us­ing mil­i­tary-grade weaponry against pro­test­ers.

Crit­ics of the protests have fo­cused en­tirely on the loot­ing, of­ten ig­nor­ing po­lice bru­tal­ity. They’ll tell peo­ple to protest more like Martin Luther King, Jr., per­haps for­get­ting that he called ri­ots “the lan­guage of the un­heard” — and that King him­self was as­sas­si­nated.

Th­ese complaints lack a ba­sic un­der­stand­ing of Amer­i­can his­tory. His­tor­i­cally, peace­ful protests are rare. And as a po­lit­i­cal act, they’re fairly new.

Look­ing back at the early days of the Amer­i­can re­pub­lic, ri­ots, re­bel­lions, and acts of in­sur­rec­tion — from the Whiskey Re­bel­lion un­der Ge­orge Wash­ing­ton to Fries’s Re­bel­lion un­der John Adams — were so com­mon­place that the In­sur­rec­tion Act of 1807 had to be passed to sup­press them.

From 1800 to 1850, race ri­ots be­tween freed African Amer­i­cans and new im­mi­grants like the Ir­ish were fre­quent. An es­ti­mated 250 slave re­volts were sup­pressed by ex­treme force. Mean­while white Amer­i­cans also found time to riot over rent, taxes, and land dis­putes.

The next 50 years were no dif­fer­ent. Anti-im­mi­grant and anti-Catholic “Know-Noth­ing” ri­ots cropped up from Baltimore to New Or­leans in the 1850s, while the Col­fax mas­sacre in Louisiana saw 100 black men killed by a white mili­tia in 1873.

The la­bor move­ment brought fur­ther clashes. Chicago’s his­toric Hay­mar­ket Square ri­ots of 1886 called for the eighthour work­day, while the May Day ri­ots of 1894 shook Cleve­land over ex­tremely high un­em­ploy­ment. Through­out the early 1900s, po­lice clashed re­peat­edly with steel­work­ers, minework­ers, and other union­ists.

Black Amer­i­cans were ter­ror­ized by whites all the while, in­clud­ing in two of the most no­to­ri­ous race ri­ots in his­tory: Florida’s Rose­wood mas­sacre and the de­struc­tion of Tulsa’s Black Wall Street.

Peace­ful protests were not widely employed as a le­git­i­mate form of protest un­til the suf­frage move­ment. But even then, peace­ful protests were of­ten met with the same vit­riol as “vi­o­lent” ones — es­pe­cially when those protests were by peo­ple of color.

At the height of the civil rights move­ment in 1966, twothirds of Amer­i­cans had an un­fa­vor­able view of MLK in 1966. By the time he was as­sas­si­nated, about 75 per­cent dis­ap­proved, ac­cord­ing to a 1968 Har­ris Poll.

What fol­lowed? Ri­ots. A wave of up­ris­ings over­took 100 U.S. cities in wake of the slay­ing of King. But some­times, ri­ots work — th­ese “As­sas­si­na­tion Ri­ots” in April 1968 led to the di­rect pas­sage of the Civil Rights Act and Fair Hous­ing Act.

The next year, a trans­for­ma­tive LGBTQ civil rights move­ment be­gan with the Stonewall Riot.

For a more re­cent ex­am­ple, for­mer 49ers quar­ter­back Colin Kaeper­nick at­tempted to res­ur­rect an MLK-es­que peace­ful protest and was ef­fec­tively black­balled from the NFL. The right ridiculed him and de­nounced his fol­low­ers with ex­treme vit­riol.

How­ever, as the Ge­orge Floyd protests un­leashed a wave of anger, ma­jor cities an­nounced plans to move funds out of their racist po­lice de­part­ments. Other re­forms fol­lowed, with Min­neapo­lis even an­nounc­ing plans to dis­band its po­lice al­to­gether.

But de­bat­ing the ef­fec­tive­ness or moral­ity of riot-like protests isn’t as im­por­tant as ex­am­in­ing who can riot his­tor­i­cally and who can’t. White men achieved many po­lit­i­cal goals through ri­ot­ing. And ri­ot­ing by white sports fans is of­ten less de­mo­nized than even peace­ful protests by black and brown com­mu­ni­ties.

The real prob­lem may be that some Amer­i­cans don’t want marginal­ized peo­ple en­gag­ing in protests at all — “peace­ful” or not.

Peace­ful protests were not widely employed as a le­git­i­mate form of protest un­til the suf­frage move­ment.

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