When rioting feels like the only option

There have been a million peaceful protests — and still African Americans keep getting killed

A protester.
(Image credit: Illustrated | Getty Images, iStock)

Watching violence erupt across America in the wake of George Floyd's death in Minneapolis has been terrible. But the unrest should come as no surprise. The haunting video of Floyd crying out for his mother as he died beneath the knee of a white police officer shows just the latest in a very long list of senseless, oppressive acts of aggression against African Americans. Floyd's death may have been the breaking point, but it was not the beginning.

Eric Garner, Philando Castile, Walter Scott, Tamir Rice, Stephon Clark, Laquan McDonald, and Breonna Taylor were all killed at the hands of police. Ahmaud Arbery was killed by white vigilantes — one of which was a former law enforcement official — while he was out for a jog. Sandra Bland died in jail after a traffic stop for failing to signal a lane change. These deaths were splashed across the news and played on repeat in social media feeds and met, largely, with inaction or injustice. For every violent, racist confrontation between a white law enforcement official and an African-American caught on video, there are no doubt dozens that go undocumented. How many times can the black community be expected to watch their loved ones be targeted by a system rife with systemic racism? How long can they be expected to endure stop-and-frisk, racial profiling, and a million other non-lethal indignities before the dam ultimately breaks?

There have been a million peaceful protests — and still the deaths continue.

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There has been much discussion about the "discussion" we need to have about race — and still the deaths continue.

There have been any number of efforts to reform police departments, yet bad cops still get their jobs back all too often, or move on to the next town when they have run out of chances. What's more, those reforms haven't rooted out a culture of policing that allows so many officers to look the other way while their "bad apple" colleagues mete out brutality. Meanwhile, President Trump moved into office and ended federal efforts to fix policing practices.

And so the deaths continue.

I cannot and will not endorse rioting or mob violence, and it's worth noting that the vast majority of protesters taking the streets are doing so peacefully. But the injustices being rebuked are so large that it is not enough to say "don't riot" or to promise justice if only those living with injustice in their daily lives go through the proper channels. It is downright obscene to put the burden of right behavior on black Americans while accepting or encouraging a status quo of police violence and lawlessness.

There have been cries for black Americans to redirect their frustrations into voting, even as the Supreme Court and so many state legislatures have worked to make voting that much more difficult. The court in 2013 struck down portions of the Voting Rights Act that kept states with a history of discrimination from changing voting rules without federal approval. That decision has had expected results. Florida legislators created a virtual poll tax to prevent convicted felons — disproportionately black — from regaining their voting rights. (A federal judge just ruled that scheme unconstitutional, but the state is appealing.) Texas closed voting sites heavily used by black and Latino residents. And these are just a few examples of the efforts to curtail minority votes.

America has told black citizens there is a right way and a wrong way to fight back against the terrible wrongs they have endured, and then watched in silence as judges and elected officials assured the "right" way was neutered or largely rendered ineffective. How can anyone be surprised that frustrations are boiling over?

Meanwhile, we live in a culture that celebrates a link between violence and freedom. America was born in a deadly, messy revolution that started, in part, with a destructive riot — a fact we gleefully commemorate with explosions every year on July 4. And every schoolchild knows that chattel slavery in America didn't end because of pacifism, but only after a bloody Civil War had been fought. We praise the pacifism of Martin Luther King Jr. — usually without noting that even he was sympathetic to the psychology behind riots — but we more often make heroes of the men with guns. Our leaders speak of "Second Amendment remedies," and white anti-government protesters routinely carry long guns and signs threatening the "blood of tyrants."

Violence against injustice and for freedom is something America honors unless it is done by black people. What a horrible, hypocritical line of thinking.

Again, this is not to endorse rioting, or any form of destructive protest. But no one can expect black Americans to wait patiently while their sons and daughters die. White Americans like myself need to examine their parts in bringing this moment about, and deal with our hypocrisies on the topic. White Americans need to listen more, much more, to those who live with and have studied racism — people like Adam Serwer, Nikole Hannah-Jones, Roxane Gay, Jamelle Bouie, Jelani Cobb, and others, even and especially if it makes us uncomfortable. Then we need to help ensure that all the democratic ways of seeking justice — peaceful demonstrations, voting, and police reforms — can truly, effectively bring about real change.

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Joel Mathis

Joel Mathis is a freelance writer who lives in Lawrence, Kansas with his wife and son. He spent nine years as a syndicated columnist, co-writing the RedBlueAmerica column as the liberal half of a point-counterpoint duo. His honors include awards for best online commentary from the Online News Association and (twice) from the City and Regional Magazine Association.