What is a Riot? Who are the Victims? Updated

Posted on August 9, 2011

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The London riots have reminded me of the Rodney King riots of the early nineties in more ways than one. There are of course some superficial similarities—both Rodney King and Mark Duggan were black, of course. Neither was apparently innocent of the charges that led to their brutal encounter with police. That brutality, however, was a constant of the experience of the poor in both communities, acknowledged as a shame by civil discourse from time to time, and largely ignored in every other significant way. It’s been true of riots for the entirety of the urban age that they are the last ditch scream by a forgotten populace that something is wrong. But once they begin, that scream becomes the property of the media, to define and pitch the way they see fit, and often with certain narratives in mind.

When the Rodney King violence sprang up, I was a bit ambivalent about it, just beginning to understand a feeling that I now know well—shock, without surprise. I wasn’t surprised that the verdict exonerated police, but I was shocked that the video evidence of the beating of King could be so heinously interpreted by a jury.

At the time I was living in San Francisco’s Mission district, one of the poorer areas of the city, populated mostly by Latinos at the time, but on the verge of rent-raising wide-spread gentrification. The night of the Rodney King verdict, people from throughout the city took the opportunity to loot and vandalize the downtown shopping district, which I found pretty distasteful. At the same time, I wondered what my role was if any; was I supposed to be demonstrating? Was there any point? I had heard of a demonstration that was starting by the BART station the next day, and I decided to get a burrito and check it out.

I was unaware that the police chief at the time, Dick Hongisto, with a martial law emergency ordinance in hand, had surrounded my neighborhood with conscripted city buses and an army of riot police. To be clear, they police did give an order to clear the streets. But I hardly understood what they were talking about. It was a Saturday afternoon. Middle aged ladies grocery shopping, people strolling, me eating a burrito, the putative demonstration was nowhere to be seen. They arrested 700 or so of us that day, and disappeared us in another county’s jail.

That night, I’m told, Hongisto reassured the community that although the act may have seemed extreme, “no windows” had been broken in the city that night. There had been, of course, no looting in the Mission, and little evidence that the looters downtown had emerged from the Mission. But still it was a narrative that caught on readily, ignoring the fact that no one in the Mission even seemed to care about the riots in LA, or condone the looting downtown.

Ironically opposite assumptions were made about the LA riots. While they were depicted sometimes as a Black revolt, other times as a looting and violence frenzy, and even as a cross cultural race war between Koreans and Blacks, the reality is that the majority of people affected by the riots in LA were Latinos—Latinos filled up the jails, they experienced an inordinate number of deaths and injuries given their small share of TV and newspaper attention. Though this was never a secret for those who wanted to know, the riots have historically been depicted as a race-based explosion of anger—and to a certain extent they were. But they were also an explosion of economic based anger in neighborhoods forgotten by society. Some of that anger was, indeed, expressed by looting. Because when a society cordons off entire communities as low status according to income, that exclusion brings anger. And, indeed, when people who have little are given the chance, they’ll take a bit more for the same reason—because they never stood a chance of getting those things through hard work and playing by the rules. The narrative was not a literal black and white one, but the press eager to make a riveting story of the events, made one of it that continues to this day.

Rioting does send a message. But its not necessarily the one we’re prepared to hear, nor are the answers simple or ones we may be comfortable with. What the real message of rioting has always been is that the society itself—its values, the way it apportions benefits and status–is in trouble, not just one sector of it.

Update: This great essay tackles the issue of looting, which I think is especially important given that many are saying that any political implications of the riots are undermined by the fact that people are out to simply loot–especially those looting luxury items. There is a political dimension to that, as I noted above, and it has to do with the entire society, not just the element rioting it. When people are bred into a culture that prioritizes brand name products and electronics as the only way to know whether one is happy, one can expect that the people who can’t afford those things are going to find themselves experiencing some dissonance.