The murder of George Floyd, a Black man, by a white police officer who knelt on his neck for nearly nine minutes has triggered protests across the US and UK. So far, people have taken to the streets for the Black Lives Matter movement in all 50 US states and in cities throughout Britain. Floyd’s death at the hands of Derek Chauvin, who has now been fired and charged with second-degree murder, was of course not an isolated incident, but the latest iteration of an insidious and systemic racism which exists in both countries and beyond.
Among the vast crowds of peaceful protestors, a small number have participated in rioting, including arson and looting. Subsequently, the actions of only a small minority have meant much of the popular and political discussion has been couched in age-old discourses of riot, violence and protest which can dismiss their legitimate cause. Rioters are framed as a mindless and dangerous mob, reaffirming racist stereotypes, and protests are used as a political football rather than a trigger for reform.
As is often the case with mass demonstrations of discontent, headlines and therefore the public consciousness are dominated by the behaviours of a minority. While the vast majority of protestors have been peaceful, it takes only a glance at the top comments on a Black Lives Matter Instagram post to reveal a slew of individuals condemning the violence, looting and arson of a tiny number. For these commentators, support for protestors equals support for violence; donating to their bail-out funds is immoral.
Others with a much more public profile have engaged in fear-inducing rhetoric. President Donald Trump has called protestors ‘lowlifes and losers’, ‘looters, thugs’ and perpetrators of ‘domestic terror’. Trump’s words were deemed so incendiary that Twitter added a ‘warning label’ on some of his tweets.
Meanwhile in the UK, Home Secretary Priti Patel responded to the toppling of a statue of seventeenth-century slave trader Edward Colston from Bristol’s city centre, calling it ‘utterly disgraceful’ and ‘a distraction from the cause’. Prime Minister Boris Johnson claimed that protests had been ‘subverted by thuggery’ after a comparatively tiny number clashed with police in London.
Those denouncing the rioting would argue that regardless of the motivation, injury to police and security offers and damage to property are unacceptable.
Leaving aside that those taking part in rioting are the minority, allow us to consider the historical and contemporary context in which these events are taking place. Namely, the centuries of systemic violence against Black people upon which the US and UK are built. Societies rooted in the profits from slavery and the slave trade, in the resources and labour of colonised lands and people, and a culture imbued with racism still today.
It was an act of police brutality against a Black man which triggered the current protests, by now a grimly familiar pattern on both sides of the Atlantic. For young men of colour in the US, police use of force is a leading cause of death; about 1 in 1000 Black men are killed by police. A Black Brit is nearly 10 times as likely to be stopped and searched by police than a white person.
But racism is also ever present in our judicial, educational and health systems, among many others. It is visible in the disproportionate numbers of Black people in British (and American) prisons; in the impact of COVID-19 on Black and other ethnic minority communities; in the near-absence of Black representation in much of our media.
So yes, looting is bad. Yes, businesses and public property have been destroyed. But many would argue they are a predictable response to centuries of cultural and physical violence exacted against Black people. Black Lives Matter activists will surely ask: where was the concern about ‘violence’ when young Black men and women were being killed in their homes, and in the street, by those supposed to protect them? Author and historian Ibram X Kendi said via Instagram: ‘Police violence has historically been the source of the violent rebellions of Black people and their allies’.
Applying the blanket term ‘rioting’ without any interrogation of its implications has customarily been used to absolve white people of any personal responsibility in the fight against systemic racism: ‘Why should we listen if they’re not willing to ask politely?’ Notwithstanding the fact that Black people have been protesting peacefully for decades – and continue to do so – Martin Luther King Jr said that ‘riot is the language of the unheard’. Maybe we should actually try to listen.
Trump is not the first (and certainly won’t be the last) state leader to incite fear about social unrest for political ends, rather than address its roots. His self-proclaimed status as the ‘president of law and order’ directly echoes the words of Richard Nixon, who applied the same playbook in response to unrest that followed the assassination of Martin Luther King Jr in 1968. It proved a successful tactic for Nixon, particularly in appealing to disaffected white Democrats. Trump may well be hoping to employ the same techniques to secure a second term in November.
The riots that occurred across the UK in 2011 in response to the police killing of Mark Duggan, a Black man, were similarly discussed within a political rhetoric of violence and moral degradation. Then Prime Minister David Cameron asserted that the riots represented ‘communities without control’. He went on to decry the apparent ‘irresponsibility; selfishness; behaving as if your choices have no consequences; children without fathers; schools without discipline’.
This was a social problem among rioters, Cameron implied; a symptom of the decline of the nuclear family and other indicators of societal demise. The death of a young Black man at the hands of police was overlooked because of the rioting and looting that followed. Cameron instead cast responsibility back onto the very community Mark Duggan belonged to.
Academics have long problematised the concept of a ‘riot’. Few would argue that the term has no value whatsoever, but many suggest that its use wrongly describes a mindless mob with no coherent cause. Academic and journalist Gary Younge pointed out in 2011 that ‘when a group of people join forces to flout both law and social convention, they are acting politically’. Younge has since spoken out about the rioting linked to Black Lives Matter, drawing attention to recent peaceful protests and the poor reception they received.
Social psychologist Stephen Reicher has shown that rioters typically demonstrate a social and political coherence, a shared cause which belies the implication that they are mindless aggressors. Indeed, one of the first buildings to be subject to arson was the police station in Minneapolis; this was no accident. But the narrative that the recent riots were caused by thoughtless thugs ties in neatly with the racist stereotype of Black people as aggressive and angry. In this way, its consistent application to anti-racism movements is unsurprising.
It is telling that the specific word ‘riot’ is absent from a lot of the media coverage, though incidents of violence have proven headline-grabbing. Many political commentators and figures are continuing to engage in age-old discourses. Focusing attentions on the small minority of rioters, while ignoring the root cause of their actions, is a common tactic of political distraction. Whether the electorate will fall for it remains to be seen.