So America is on fire… or at least parts of it are. Specifically, the city of Minneapolis is having a really bad time right now — in the wake of the murder of George Floyd a few days ago. But it’s not just there. There’s been protests in several American cities tonight, and some of them have turned violent. The CNN building in Atlanta was under siege earlier tonight. People have been gathered outside of the White House in DC in what’s been a pretty precarious situation. People are fed the fuck up. And they deserve to be. We got to watch a black man murdered live on TV and the Internet. AGAIN!
I thought about writing about this a couple days ago when I first realized this was going to get bad. I didn’t have it in me at the time. Frankly I was kind of busy with my dissertation. But also, I felt like it made more of a statement to just say “you know, I wrote about this six years ago with Ferguson and it’s still happening, so just go read that one.” So that’s what I did. I reposted the link to Facebook and Twitter, and then went back to my work, with the TV on in the background and checking in on social media every once in a while just to see what people were saying about it. And as I did it, I knew full well “this is just going to get worse and worse” especially with the idiot who occupies the White House.
(By the way… the idiot did not disappoint… If you’ve been paying attention you probably know about his dumbass threatening of shooting looters and trying to claim that doing so was to keep Floyd from not dying in vain. I don’t even have time to go into Trump’s fucking moronic ramblings right now… other than to say… as I tweeted at him “fuck you dude!” and also to say, about his explanation that he didn’t know of any racist history with the “when the looting starts the shooting starts” statement that the answer to that is “then you are too fucking dumb to be president… and frankly… too fucking dumb to even be a good racist”)
Anyway, if you’ve been watching TV or the internet in the last 24 hours or so, you know that it did get worse. It is getting worse. But one of the nice things is that this time around, I’ve seen more… let’s say “positive” reaction to the riots. A lot of people seem to “get it” this time. Part of that I think is just the cultural moment that we find ourselves in in 2020. Partly as a reaction to dumbass-in-chief, partly because of the efforts of the #BLM movement… and I think in large part because of the visceral reaction of sitting there and watching a cop very calmly crush the life out of a man without batting an eye while onlookers pleaded with him to stop. People just “get it” this time (which is why I think the viralness of the video is a good idea despite what some other people think. That’s another side point I don’t have much time for right now). And good. People get it.
But… not everyone… of course not everyone.
And the problem I have is that the people who are complaining… both on the left and the right are doing so in the exact same way. In a way that I find really troubling and so that’s what I need to rant on a bit here. I’ve had a few arguments… some longer than others… on social media in the last couple days (hell, years… since I wrote that original essay) about how effective riots are. Some conservative MAGA types like to claim “but Martin Luther King was against riots. He’d be disappointed in you. These are just a bunch of scumbags who want TVs.” Fuck those guys! On the other hand I’ve had some arguments with more liberal people who like to claim “but this is bad, because black people are just burning down black owned businesses. it doesn’t help anything. You’re destroying your own community” as though classism were not a thing conflated with racism in complicated ways and black people were a big monolithic profit sharing union which directly benefited from the enrichment of the few that are able to manage to own property and commerce in a tiny microcosm capitalist system that catered to other black people and even if they were that wasn’t still as problematic as fuck! I swear to God, the next white person who tries to explain to me that “you don’t understand, these people are destroying ethnic businesses. They’re destroying their own community. They’re only hurting themselves…” I’m punching you in the fucking throat. And you know what I may do it you’re a black person too…
Because, in either of those cases, it’s not that the decision to riot is a bunch of people got together and had a calm rational meeting and said “ok, well that’s it. I guess we torch the city!” No… it’s based on feelings that have boiled over from a continuous, systemic, dangerous and sometimes PURPOSEFUL ignoring of the struggles that they are going through. It is a decision of last resort.
For me, the straw here was Keisha Lance Bottoms, Democratic mayor of Atlanta, making a comment earlier tonight about the riots in her town. She’s upset. She’s rightly upset. But she said something that I hate. Something to the effect of (not an exact quote): “You are disgracing the memory of George Floyd. You are disgracing the legacy of Dr. Martin Luther King. When King was killed, we didn’t riot. Go home!”
NO… She is wrong. This is the same bullshit that the dumabass-in-chief was trying to get across. Yes, she’s way more eloquent. She is way more studied. Frankly, she’s at least 10x as smart as President Dumbass. But… she is also wrong. I don’t know that Atlanta rioted when King was killed. in fact, I’m pretty sure they didn’t. The city was mourning. They were having his funeral there. HOWEVER. That’s very misleading. Everyone else rioted! There were nearly 200 retaliatory riots across the United States the week that King was killed. More than 40 people were killed. Thousands of people were injured. There were tens of millions of dollars (in 1968 dollars) in damages as cities got burned. They called in the military. Not just the National Guard… the Army and Marines were deployed to some cities. It was called the Holy Week Uprising. Look it up! IT WAS BAD! REAL BAD!!!
Of course a lot of people don’t know that. It was 52 years ago. And we don’t talk about it much anymore because it doesn’t fit the narrative that we like to tell about MLK…. that he was this cuddly peace loving teddy bear that brought America together and ended racism and everyone loved him and mourned him when he was gone.
If everyone loved King, he wouldn’t have been shot in the head. And that’s not just James Earl Ray. King was on the FBI watchlist. He was widely considered a terrorist by people. Any of your super MAGA friends (the same ones who hated the Colin Kaepernick kneeling protest) that are posting memes that say “this is a protest, and this is a crime” with MLK’s picture on the “good” side…. make no mistake, those are the assholes who would have been calling him “nigger” and screaming he should be lynched. For most Americans in 2020… especially white ones… you maybe learned two things about MLK in history class… he “had a dream” and he was killed. That’s it. If you’re lucky, you maybe learned a third thing. That on March 9, 1965, he marched across a bridge in Selma, non-violently! And that was the turning point for the Civil Rights Movement. It’s the event in the meme that everyone shares about how great he was at non-violent protest. What maybe you don’t know is that that march he was at… That was two days after the first time they tried to march across the same bridge and the cops beat the shit out of everyone. It’s called Bloody Sunday. Look it up! King was there putting himself in harms way in what could have turned into a much more violent protest. What made King great was that in face of being one of the most hated men in America, he kept his composure. He kept his non-violence stance. At considerable risk to himself he preached his message. And for all his troubles… he got shot in the fucking head. People seem to forget that part.
See, it’s not convenient. It makes it hard for America to feel good about itself if they dwell on the fact that the man we’re supposed to view as the 20th century’s greatest hero… GOT MURDERED FOR HIS TROUBLES. It feels icky. Just like it feels icky to remember that after he was martyred to the cause of non-violence… there was a solid week of rioting in his name. And it also feels icky to think about the fact that those riots are an important part of the Civil Rights Movement. Not just the Holy Week Uprising. I mean the riots of the ENTIRE Civil Rights movement.
You see… for all the rhetoric about King… he didn’t “solve racism all by himself.” And I mean, not just because he didn’t end racism. But also because he wasn’t alone. And I’m not just talking about Malcolm X either. I mean that his non-violence movement was not alone. Yes, he was a key figure during the Civil Rights Movement. Yes, his big thing was non-violent protests. But that was just HIS thing. During the hey day of the Civil Rights movement from 1954 until 1968, while King was staging these protests… there was a lot of rioting going on. Do you know what happened in Los Angeles only 5 months after the Selma march that everyone loves? A traffic stop escalated into a six-day riot that left 34 people dead and 1000 people injured and devastated 46 square miles of LA. It’s called the Watts Riot. Look it up!
This happened a lot during the Civil Rights movement. In fact almost constantly. There were literally 159 race riots over the course of like two months in 1967. 85 people died. Thousands of people were injured. Over ten thousand people were arrested. It’s called the Long Hot Summer. Look it up! Which was sort of MLK’s actual point. You know how you have that one black friend who keeps sharing the King quote that “Riots are the language of the unheard” and you mostly ignore him… I mean, if you’re an asshole MAGA type, maybe you tell him he’s wrong… but otherwise you maybe just say “oh yeah… good point” but you don’t really think about what that means? Well, what it means is actually super important. MLK was trying to use non-violent protest to get people to listen to him so that violent protests didn’t erupt. Do you know how I know this? I know because HE SAID SO. But he also knew that the inevitable result of NOT listening to him and not bringing racial change was that there was going to be rioting. And I quote:
“But at the same time, it is as necessary for me to be as vigorous in condemning the conditions which cause persons to feel that they must engage in riotous activities as it is for me to condemn riots. I think America must see that riots do not develop out of thin air. Certain conditions continue to exist in our society which must be condemned as vigorously as we condemn riots. But in the final analysis, a riot is the language of the unheard. And what is it that America has failed to hear? It has failed to hear that the plight of the Negro poor has worsened over the last few years. It has failed to hear that the promises of freedom and justice have not been met. And it has failed to hear that large segments of white society are more concerned about tranquility and the status quo than about justice, equality, and humanity. And so in a real sense our nation’s summers of riots are caused by our nation’s winters of delay. And as long as America postpones justice, we stand in the position of having these recurrences of violence and riots over and over again.”-Martin Luther King, The Other America (1967)
Over and over again… You see, because Martin Luther King was not the be-all-end-all of the civil rights movement. What he was, was Colin Kaepernick, 1960s edition. You know “that son-of-bitch that disrespects the troops and doesn’t deserve freedom because he won’t stand up when a bunch of white people tell him to and celebrate how great America is”? Yeah… him! You see… just because you don’t use the word “nigger” that doesn’t mean you don’t mean it. Kaep has done a ton of good for this world. He has caused a lot of change. But it’s not enough. Because he’s one guy… and the change doesn’t come… sometimes, there’s riots!
And sometimes, there’s not. Even if you’re one of the people who AGREES that #BlackLivesMatter, and you post your tweets with hashtags and maybe even donate. Do you remember Ahmaud Arbery? We were all super upset about his murder a few weeks back. We had video. It was right in our faces. People got mad! Good! You know… for like two days! And then everyone forgot and went back to the very important job of arguing with each other over whether or not masks worked to fight COVID-19 and if it was time to open back up the world up in a week or a month and can we meet in groups of 10 or 25 or 200? Black Lives Matter… but not as much as … you know… getting a haircut. We forgot, because he didn’t get a riot.
And THAT was the message of Martin Luther King. Riots are the language of the unheard. And they are unheard because no one is listening. And you’re not listening now. Not really. When you are more concerned with the methods or location of protest, then you aren’t listening. When you are more concerned with the destruction of property or whose property it is, then you aren’t listening. When you’re more concerned with whether it is appropriately a riot or a protest, then you aren’t listening. You aren’t listening to the people telling you black lives matter. You are not listening to the large segments of black society who do not have justice or equality or humanity. You are not listening to Kaepernick and why he was kneeling in the first place. And if this were 1965, you wouldn’t have listened to Martin Luther King. Not really. You would have paid a little attention… for a little while… until you didn’t. Until you needed a fucking haircut. “And so in a real sense our nation’s summers of riots are caused by our nation’s winters of delay. And as long as America postpones justice, we stand in the position of having these recurrences of violence and riots over and over again.”