Thursday, August 14, 2014

Ferguson, Rioting, and the Healing Power of Collective Revenge

Over the past few days, the US and increasingly, the world, has turned its attention to a previously unheard-of suburb of St Louis as demonstrations and destruction have erupted in the town of Ferguson, MO. In the wake of the public execution of an unarmed black teen at the hands of a white police officer, marches and demonstrations have escalated into full-blown riots, with protesters destroying police vehicles as they are attacked with LRAD, police dogs, and tear gas.

Rise in Power, Mike Brown

Public outcry has been widespread and vehement; even the way the media reports on the killings of black men by racist cops has come under scrutiny as demonstrations organize nationally in a "Moment of Silence" for victims of police brutality. What is a bit befuddling for some, however, is the level and intensity of community response against police brutality in Ferguson. Liberal sentiment of course condemns police violence; even our lackluster President has commented on the crisis. When it comes to rioting, however, and acts of property destruction? Largely liberals appear to echo the President-- there is no excuse for violence, either against protesters or police.

I met up with a dear friend last night for dinner. We've known each other for years, and he has watched my evolution from bleeding-heart liberal progressive to radical cop-hating anarchist. I also have seen his political evolution, and while he isn't exactly a radical, he certainly has become a little left of liberal (yes, Kent, it's true, stop calling yourself a moderate around my friends, are you trying to embarrass me?). While he was certainly not willing to disparage rioting protesters to my face, he had a very pertinent question that a lot of people are asking.

What's the point of rioting?

You see, rioting against police brutality isn't exactly a new thing. The efficacy of rioting in forcing institutional change worked particularly well for gay men; trans women and effeminate queer men burning cop cars at Stonewall, Compton's, and during the White Night riots definitely impacted public policy around queer male sexuality. Trans people appear not to have reaped the benefits, however, and race riots haven't seemed to have done anything to send a message to the Powers That Be that cops and the criminal justice system are inherently flawed and need to be replaced. I am old enough to remember the Rodney King riots, and things have seemingly gotten much, much worse, not better, since those days.

So what's the point?

First off, let's be clear: the majority of riots are started by police. I've attended many a protest, and yes, some of them turned riotous, and with perhaps one exception (and you can read an excellent piece on that occasion here), they were all started by some dumbass cop brutally arresting and/or beating someone in the crowd on flimsy pretense. Predictably and understandably, other people present got pissed and started throwing things at the armored and armed thugs in our midst.

Aside from who starts things, however, we need to admit why rioting happens. Liberal hand-wringing, conservative pearl-clutching, and politicians and police vowing crackdowns on eruptions of rage are frankly useless narratives to apply to what happens in places like Ferguson. We need to admit that riots do actually have a place in our political praxis-- and it's not necessarily in order to enact social change.

To be frank, I don't believe that these riots are going to make things better. They are not going to teach the murderous pig who gunned down Mike Brown a lesson (by the way, his name is Darren Wilson). They are not going to bring back the beautiful man who was slain by Wilson. Perhaps I'm pessimistic, but I also don't think they are going to halt the militarization of our law enforcement, in effect turning the cops on our corners into soldiers hell-bent on subjugating the people they police.

They have value, however. Aside from the obvious indicator to the world that yes, something is very very wrong in the US, the riots have personal value to those engaging in militant resistance. If a survivor of intimate abuse strikes out in vengeful fury against her abuser, I am going to accept that this is part of her healing. Exacting vengeance may seem a waste to those not experiencing that same abuse; it is anything but. Ferguson is a community abused by white colonizers, with the survivors lashing out and striking back against their abusers. This is not just about taking a stance against police brutality. This is about a community attempting to heal, and rejecting the police that prevent that healing.

This isn't just about Mike Brown, though his death sparked the protests that now have resulted in violent clashes with cops. The people throwing molotovs at the armored tanks occupying Ferguson have experienced abuse. They have experienced racial profiling, harassment, and violence at the hands of the people given power over their bodies and now they have had enough. If burning a cop car or trashing a franchised convenience store helps them to process that trauma... who are we to stop them? Haven't they earned their revenge after centuries of slavery, oppression, destruction?

Why exactly do we fear revenge? What may seem like senseless violence can actually have an important impact on the feelings of helplessness communities like Ferguson have forced upon them. Sometimes, many times, revenge is not just mindless reaction to fucked-up behavior. It's about taking power back from abusers. It's about refusing to be powerless.

I would posit that we have more riots coming in the future. Hell, if Detroit is any indicator our government "of the people" is hell-bent on finally signing over our entire lives to capitalist exploitation and white supremacy. Will rioting in Ferguson, in Oakland, hey, even here in lily-white Seattle change any of that? Probably not. After all, the opposition not only has all the weapons, but they are making more.

However, eruptions of outrage and anger are inevitable conclusions to the continued destruction of the poor, the black, the brown, the trans among us. The crisis of capitalism can and hopefully will come to a head in our lifetimes, and when that happens, don't sit around asking what the point is.

Because resistance is the point. Anger is the point. Collective striking against repression is the point. And yes, sometimes, revenge is the point.

Today there are national "Moment of Silence" actions planned across the US. My question is: when do we get to have our Moment of Anger? Our Moment of Howling? Our Moment of Resistance? Our Moment of Fuck No?

Perhaps Our Moment to Heal?