Some disclaimers before I begin: I want to recognize and draw attention to the fact that my interpretation of events comes from an especially privileged background. I am a white, (mostly) cis man, from an upper-middle-class background. While I am gay and do have some limited understanding of the perspective, I don't pretend to compare my understanding of sexual and gender oppression to racial oppression. And as such, everything I say is limited in that respect. For a fuller understanding, listen to those who are the oppressed. My purpose here is not to try to overshadow those voices, but use the platform I am afforded to promote theirs.
It's hard to know where to start when talking about a topic that is so pervasive it feels impossible to break down. Ultimately, the starting point has to be one of recognizing that there is oppression. Racial oppression is real, and we can't go anywhere in this conversation without recognizing that. If you think that race is no longer an issue in society, please take my advice from earlier and go talk to those you think are your equals. Listen and absorb their lived experiences. Look at our system and how it disproportionately effects Black Americans: profiling, arrests, convictions, sentencing - and those are only criminal issues! The system is rigged and it's definitely not rigged against White Americans.
This is the easiest part for people to accept. Granted, this is due to the fairly liberal circles that I've put myself in so it's not necessarily the easiest for everyone; but, once we accept the fact (yes it is a fact) that racial oppression is still an issue in America, then things start to get complicated and divided even amongst otherwise amiable liberals.
The worst way this manifests is when a dialogue about oppression moves from directly addressing the issue to skirting around it by talking about how people should deal with their oppression. And from this we are bombarded, from all sides, with images and messages of peace; of understanding; complacency. When we look at successful civil rights movements, we see those who enacted peaceful protests; we see images of marches full of smiling people holding signs often claiming equality in the name of sameness.
Look at one of today's most successful campaigns: same-sex marriage. How did it grow? What message does it send? It grew through peaceful, political campaigns. Activists working day and night lobbying legislators, talking to the public, and doing all of this with a smile to their target group's face: promoting the idea that same-sex couples aren't changing anything, that they are the same as heterosexuals, that we "gays" aren't angry and radical. I don't want to knock the lobbying and campaigning. There is a huge value in grassroots movements which I've learned from being a part of them. But they aren't immune to criticism and putting forward an image of assimilation, which is problematic.
What does this message of assimilation do? It humanizes the oppressed. They are transformed from this radical monster to something familiar and relatable. Assimilation is what informs these conversations around Baltimore and civil disobedience. Seeing the oppressed Black Americans, who are rioting and angry and desperate, we remove the humanity from them. Calling these people "animals" or "thugs" or talking about controlling their actions denies their humanity. When we look at them through that kind of lens we deny them their right to feel and to be affected by their oppression - sending the message that their feelings are invalid and that they should only be upset in a way that is deemed "acceptable" by their oppressors.
While stripping these people of their humanity in the name of civil obedience, consider too that we are also valuing their group's experiences and lives as lesser than the property that they are damaging. When we say that riots are "not ok" because of the destruction they cause, we communicate that our property matters more to us than they do. Think about that. Our cars and our windows are being placed on a higher priority than the lives of human beings.
This isn't fair or right for us to do to our fellow persons. We can condemn the violence without stripping people of their dignity and humanity. To do this, we must start by recognizing where the violence stems from. Riots- of the political nature- are born out of desperation. They are a symptom of a system that isn't working. A system which is not just leaving behind an entire group of people, but actively fighting against them. Riots are the result of struggles which have been tireless and endless and don't seem to be getting any better. When the oppressed raise their voices and are drowned out by their oppressors or their pleas fall on deaf ears; that is when violence happens.
Recognizing this context is essential to not invalidating people when they react violently to their oppression. It's the difference between chastising the mentally ill and showing compassion. Allowing for empathy with their plight and keeping this empathy at the forefront of our discussions insures that the respect these people deserve as humans is maintained but still allows us to be critical of their actions. This is where the now viral (partial) quote by Martin Luther King Jr. gets its force.
"...I would be the first to say that I am still committed to militant, powerful, massive, non-violence as the most potent weapon in grappling with the problem from a direct action point of view. I'm absolutely convinced that a riot merely intensifies the fears of the white community while relieving the guilt. And I feel that we must always work with an effective, powerful weapon and method that brings about tangible results. But it is not enough for me to stand before you tonight and condemn riots. It would be morally irresponsible for me to do that without, at the same time, condemning the contingent, intolerable conditions that exist in our society. These conditions are the things that cause individuals to feel that they have no other alternative than to engage in violent rebellions to get attention. And I must say tonight that a riot is the language of the unheard. And what is it America has failed to hear? It has failed to hear that the plight of the negro poor has worsened over the last twelve or fifteen 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 and humanity."King, the most prominent beacon of non-violent protest, demonstrates beautifully the power we can give those who are rioting while still actively being ideologically opposed to their actions. I hesitate to use this example but the expression "condemn the sin not the sinner" comes to mind.
But, even when talking about MLK and the non-violence movement, it is important to remember the context of it all. Part of the reason why King was so praised and given the attention he got was because of the backdrop of the very riots he condemned. This is still true today, perfectly exemplified by the situation in Baltimore. How much media attention did the protest (that went on for six days) get? Next to none. If there hadn't been any violence, how many people do you think would have even been aware a protest happened? It probably would have gotten some attention in a few local papers, maybe a few bloggers, and thats it. Another gathering of voices into the void. And this has been the case for the majority of movements throughout history (if not all of them). Civil rights? Look at Malcom X and the Black Panthers movements. The LGBT movement? Stonewall.
These cataclysmic violent reactions to oppression are the catalysts of social justice movements. Why? Because thats what the media feeds off of. The media doesn't like to report on the quiet (or loud), peaceful protests. Those are "boring". They don't bring in the same number of viewers as a murder or a riot. And this is true of media on all sides of the political spectrum. The only time we start to hear the voices of the protesters is after the violence has permeated the airways, which makes riots almost necessary to any movements' beginnings. This culture of only paying attention when there is violence allows the media to brand the oppressed as 'less than' and unprincipled, turning us against the oppressed rather than the oppression.
But the violence serves as a call to arms, raising awareness that you are not alone in your discontent, showing that people are willing to fight for their dignity, and gives people platforms to speak out on. What statements were we getting from officials and politicians about the problems of Black Americans before this exposure? Even now the leaders of the protest, which served as the backdrop to the Baltimore riots, gain exposure because of the attention garnered from the riots and by condemning the violence which ensued. The sad truth is that, while we condemn violence, it has a very identifiable purpose as a political tool and we need to recognize the historical and political importance it has by listening to and learning from the narrative that rioting tells.