“I agree with their goals but not their methods,” is an ancient American proverb, parroted by generations of moderates to show that while they support a movement and its mission, they would prefer if it obeyed the rules set forth by the same system it is resisting. And that familiar cry has never been louder as across the country, pundits, politicians, police officers, and former civil rights leaders are lining up to declare that they are here for Black Lives but absolutely not at the expense of buildings or goods. And while it is important to hear the outcry of working class Black people who may have lost property to rioters and looters, it is also important to recognize the power of riots and how they have been utilized, intentionally and unintentionally, to win real victories and elevate movements that would have otherwise been ignored. And while I am tempted to repeat the recently resurgent quote by Martin Luther King, I think that riots are not only the language of the unheard, they can also be vital for the strategy of the unheard.
It is worth addressing one of the most common arguments for rioting, that it is justified because of the everyday violence of the system. The system through its police, courts, schools, constant advertising, stories, and myths, wage constant violence on Black people, particularly poor Black people. While the most obvious forms of violence enacted by our system are carried out by police, they are not alone in their work. A Black child being arrested at their failing school, a family forced to live on the streets, and a Black worker forced to choose between loan payments and food are also suffering under violence inflicted by a system that benefits from their subjugation. A system designed and maintained by very real human beings like mayors and school principals who consciously or unconsciously replicate the systems necessary to maintain a Black underclass of society willing to work for lower wages.
This is most blatantly obvious in our shortened life spans and our increased likelihoods of dying while in the process of being born. For a stark example, In the predominantly white Chicago neighborhood of Streeterville, the average lifespan is 90, in the nearly all Black neighborhood of Englewood — just a few miles away — the average life expectancy is 60. 30 years are being stolen from the lives of the Black residents of Englewood, further compounded by an infant mortality rate of 14.5 out of 1,000, more similar to that of Syria at the height of the civil war than the U.S. national average of 5.7.
Given all this and the thousands of ways it is replicated across the nation, rioting is more than appropriate, it is just. Our ancestors rioted on the land that became colonies, on slave ships that carried them to this nation, and on the plantations on which they landed. And Americans seem to understand the justice of rioting when it occurs in far flung places. Where were the mass denunciations of the Hong Kong protesters? Where were the condemnations of Egyptian youth when they took the streets? Why could Donald Rumsfeld understand the necessity of rioting for Iraqis but not extend the same understanding to Black Americans? Americans love a good uprising, as long as it doesn’t involve a call for justice for those oppressed in the United States. This disdain for American uprisings is especially nonsensical, considering the history of rioting and property damage that made this country what it is today.
Rioting played an important role during the American Revolution, to the point where we celebrate one of their most notable riots, the adorably named Boston Tea Party. The very groundwork for the revolution was built on a foundation of riots, property damage, and outright violence. And while the nonviolent strategy of the civil rights movement is worth celebrating and uplifting, it is not reasonable to dismiss the usefulness of the rioting that accompanied and followed many of the waves of more traditional peaceful protest. The famed Civil Rights Act of 1968 was only passed after over 100 cities rioted following the murder of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. And anyone paying attention right now will notice the torrential downpour of reforms flooding city and statewide assembly rooms as politicians scramble to appease a movement that has already seized multiple police stations and infamously burned one nearly to the ground.
It is also worth noting the redistributive aspects of rioting. In an economic system that provides little opportunity for Black and Brown youth, looting allows for people from communities long looted by banks, property developers, and white supremacists to reclaim a tiny piece of their wealth. Hip Hop as we know it would not exist without this redistributive work. There were only a small handful of DJs in the Bronx during the early days of Hip Hop, it took the Blackout of 1977 and the looting that followed to really decentralize the culture and allow the Hip Hop scene to expand. Within a week, hundreds of sound systems were distributed to Black and Brown youth throughout the Bronx and thus a world dominating subculture was born.
Anyone that denies the effectiveness of rioting should be thoroughly questioned. On face value the research of Dr. Erika Chenoweth and Maria J. Stephan, showing that nonviolent movements are more likely to succeed than violent ones — 53% vs 26% success rates — , may appear to be dismissive of rioting and looting as tactics. But in reality, their research lumps rioting and looting under the umbrella of nonviolet movements, and research by Ben Case at the University of Pittsburgh provides further evidence that rioting has long been an important part of movements we consider nonviolent.
So if riots are effective, and deeply tied to our country’s progress, then why are they so readily dismissed? It is partially because they threaten the system and its tenets of property and profit over all else. While it is obvious why conservatives are not supportive of Black led rioting, liberal political leaders should have a deeper understanding from their very public worship of Dr. King. But the reality is that riots threaten the political power of liberal leadership. It creates an avenue outside of the realm of elections and non-profit organizing, for working people to seek power, and it cannot be easily controlled in the same way that normal marches and protests can. At the same time, the masses of liberals and progressives — and even many socialists — shun riots due to our poor education on history and our own obsessions with private property and wealth. Opposition to rioting is ingrained within our culture, despite it also being deeply celebrated in our fiction and fantasies of rebellion.
But we cannot afford such a luxury as dismissing riots. It plays into the hands of our enemies and allows for them to justify their violent repression. And there is enough evidence from Occupy Wall Street and subsequent movements that police and white supremacists engage in rioting and other forms of disruption as a means of discrediting our movements. Simply joining the chorus of people who seek to protect property at the expense of justice will not help us, in fact it will undo us. Instead, if we accept riots and refuse to denounce them, we can shift our culture and rob agent provocateurs and white supremacists of one of the many avenues they use to instigate violence and hate towards us.
I will admit that there are legitimate critiques of rioting. They can rob people of their businesses, their places of work, their homes, their hopes, and their dreams. While I think the real problem is a lack of a thorough social safety net and collective ownership over businesses — and to be real, we can’t ignore decades of underinvestment in Black communities and chalk it up to a a few days of looting — I am in no position to tell someone to simply get over the burning of their livelihoods. Instead I will suggest and promote the concept of strategic rioting.
Strategic rioting is the idea that rioting and looting can be deployed against specific targets that highlight the injustices of our system. Historically this has included police stations, banks, schools, courthouses, city halls, and other places where the leaders of our communities make decisions that inevitably enact various forms of mental and physical brutality against our people. Strategic rioting also aims to disrupt directly harmful parts of the system and stop them from functioning, whether that be destroying the equipment that will be utilized to dig oil pipelines through indigenous land, or preventing an ICE van from sending another human being to a concentration camp. It avoids targeting vulnerable businesses or those beloved by the public, in favor of targets at the heart of the social problems we’re trying to mobilize against.
This is all to say that rioting has long been a useful gadget in the trenchcoat of human resistance. It is not the only gadget, and it is far from the most important one. But much like we need to acknowledge and support our organizers, educators, caretakers, medics, and activists, we must acknowledge and support those that engage in the acts of property destruction that bring our pain and our movements the attention they deserve.