Riots erupted in cities across the country this weekend after the death of George Floyd, and the destruction was widely condemned by the president, local elected officials and many members of the African American community. (Dictionaries define “riots” as “a violent public disorder, specifically: a tumultuous disturbance of the public peace by three or more persons assembled together and acting with a common intent.”)
On social media, users called the arson and looting “disgusting” and “reprehensible.” In response to a trail of vandalism across downtown Louisville, Kentucky, where EMT Breonna Taylor was fatally shot by police in March, Mayor Greg Fischer said the “violence and destruction is absolutely unacceptable.” President Donald Trump called the protesters in Minneapolis “thugs.”
Historians and sociologists said reflexively condemning the actions as reckless or self-defeating minimizes the extent of people’s rage. Floyd’s death has become part of an all too familiar pattern of confrontations between police and African Americans who lose their lives over minor offenses. For all the denouncements, there are many who defend riots as the actions of those who have exhausted every other way to be heard.
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“I’m 58 years old now. I don’t remember a year that there wasn’t half a dozen cases, spectacular cases of police violence. You could do a New York Times front page, just like you did of the COVID deaths, and easily get 100,000 names, beginning in 1960, of people who died,” said Robin Kelley, a professor of history at UCLA who studies social movements in the USA. “My wife asked me this question last night, ‘Do you think this is right?’ I said, ‘What other choice do people have?’ “
The riots, experts said, are demands for justice among those who claim they’ve been unfairly targeted for years. They ignite when people feel as though they have nothing left to lose, when the usual channels for affecting change in a democracy – nonviolent protest, voting – have been ineffective.
People need not condone the riots, experts said, but they ought to understand them.
What is ‘violence?’ Definitions matter
Many news headlines used the word “violent” to describe the escalating demonstrations.
Kelley questions the term’s use when “violence” is defined as attacks against property, rather than against people.
For nearly nine minutes, white Minneapolis police officer Derek Chauvin knelt on Floyd’s neck as he pleaded for his life, gasping for air and calling for his mother. Most rioters set fires, sprayed graffiti and smashed vehicles.
Language choices matter: The term “riot” is loaded, and it’s why many use “rebellion,” instead, experts said. One suggests reckless violence. The other signifies political resistance to oppression.
“The term ‘riot’ tends to connote a senseless venting of frustration, of destroying your own community and all these other things that are counterproductive, as if there couldn’t be political value in urban unrest and forcing the system to examine itself,” said Darnell Hunt, dean of social sciences and a professor of sociology and African American studies at UCLA.
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Hunt argued that the term “looting” minimizes the political implications of what people are doing when they rob stores.
During the LA riots in 1992, which erupted after four LAPD officers were acquitted in the beating of Rodney King, there were scenes of people “looting” basic necessities, he said.
“You had a huge immigrant population that was barely getting by, barely surviving, and people were going to drugstores and ‘looting’ diapers, things to make ends meet in their families,” he said. “To minimize that as just, ‘Oh, people are just looting,’ completely robbed it of the political content and the political possibilities that people are trying to communicate by taking a risk and getting involved.”
Police stations, liquor stores: Symbols attacked
Experts said it’s important to pay close attention to what rioters set ablaze.
“It is tragic, and it is a loss of people’s livelihoods in many cases. But when you actually look at what’s being burned and what’s being destroyed, and what’s being saved, there’s an interesting pattern,” Kelley said.
Often what’s destroyed are symbols of violence and oppression, he said: In Minneapolis, the police station. In Ferguson, Missouri, the convenience store where Michael Brown was accused of stealing. In city after city, liquor stores, which many see as complicit in the subjugation of their communities.
Hunt said that during the LA riots, businesses that were spray-painted “minority owned” were largely left alone. He said he’s seen similar graffiti in Minneapolis. Many businesses are boarded up, with messages spray-painted on the plywood. “Please don’t burn,” one read. “Babies inside.”
“People are making the distinction between businesses that are owned by these large multinational corporations versus those owned by people in the community who, like them, are struggling to get by,” Hunt said.
Contributing: Trevor Hughes