America Aflame

“A riot is the language of the unheard.” - Martin Luther King Jr.

America+Aflame

Christina Suh

The infamous video of George Floyd’s death at the hands of brutal police officers has had a groundbreaking impact on American society. In eight minutes and forty six seconds, the glaring racial injustice within law was highlighted. In eight minutes and forty six seconds, the Black Lives Matter movement was intensified. In eight minutes and forty six seconds, our eyes were opened to a problem that has existed for centuries.

Response to this cruel and unwarranted event has varied, ranging from an eruption of social media campaigns to peaceful protests to riots on the streets of our cities. The latter method of protest has sparked great controversy, as people argue whether demonstrators should avoid this violence, or if it is indeed a necessary means of communication. 

Rioting is in no way a new concept; violent forms of civil unrest have existed for decades, and have resulted in variable outcomes throughout history. The Haymarket Square Riot of 1886 followed failure to improve poor labor conditions. The Zoot Suit Riots of World War II were simulated by the racial tensions between Caucasians and Latinos. The Stonewall Riots of 1969 demanded attention for LGBTQ+ rights. These landmark protests have been destructive — but they’ve also often paved the path for serious reform. 

Riots, however, aren’t always limited to politics. In fact, they’ve become a common aftermath of sporting events. In 2018, thousands of Philadelphia Eagles fans gathered downtown to celebrate their Super Bowl win. Looting and property damage quickly signaled that the fun had become dangerous, but police’s response to the Eagles fans was tame compared to their current stance towards the African-American movement for justice. After an athletic victory, a riot fueled by overwhelming pride spilled into the city’s streets and cops countered the chaos by greasing poles. After an innocent man’s murder, a protest fueled by outrage and a desire for societal change was met with a barricade of military-grade equipment. Even before any “rioting” occurred, police mobilized with ammunition as a quick-fix solution created a threatening environment, casting a dark shadow and forewarning of the violence that was to ensue. 

Stemming from Minneapolis, Minnesota, these current-day riots have become just another part of nightlife in dozens of cities. By using choice words and selecting the most sensational coverage, the media predisposes its audience to oppose the cause. It fails to separate destructive protest from incidents of reckless looting without a purpose. People picture overturned vehicles and buildings on fire as the face of the movement instead of following the escalation in a discussion about African-American oppression. Watching this whirlwind spiral towards “barbarism,” they ask: what is this violence achieving? Although a valid question, we must also look back to ask ourselves: how did we reach this point?

Protests have occurred in all fifty states, displaying an unprecedented unity for a common cause. The demonstrations that have dotted our country’s map in the past week never began with riots. But violence feeds violence, and the conflicting encounters between police and civilians escalates the unrest in the streets. Social media has spread photos and videos of police responding to unarmed, peaceful demonstrators with excessive force, only adding to the already existing resentment against law enforcement. When innocent people are tear-gassed, maced, pepper-sprayed, and shot with rubber bullets by the exact institution they are protesting against, their shared resentment only culminates. Such violence only builds increasing awareness of racial profiling in a corrupt system, and this additional emotional push elicits an equally violent response. These riots represent a bubbling animosity that has reached its boiling point.

People love to argue that violence isn’t the answer and that peace is a much more appropriate route for change. But when NFL quarterback Colin Kaepernick chose to kneel during the national anthem in order to draw attention to racial inequality and police brutality, an action emblematic of “peaceful protest”, Americans were furious. Removed from the NFL and the target of internet hatred, Kaepernick faced backlash for his “problematic” and “anti-American” actions. This sports star became a political symbol and his athletic career ultimately met its demise. Some NBA players also took a similar stand against systemic racism when they entered the court in shirts emblazoned with the message “I Can’t Breathe.” While this saying has recently resurfaced as a political statement in light of George Floyd’s death, they were also the famous last words of Eric Garner, a 29-year-old unarmed black man who died in 2014 after being restrained in a chokehold by NYPD. This gesture, too, did not go without a public response. Remarks that these players shouldn’t break dress code rules or push a political agenda infiltrated the media. They were told this wasn’t the right way to protest.

It’s apparent that people dislike talking about uncomfortable issues, no matter the manner in which the topic is introduced. After years of peacefully waiting for improvements and developing a growing understanding that protests are never truly welcomed, the Black Lives Matter movement recognized the effectiveness of riots. Aside from a history of success, riots speak volume and signal the need for change. Violence forces the bigger problem into the hands of those in power. Violence is the language that leaders are most susceptible to, as it poses a secondary problem that they’ll be held accountable for. 

The ideas of English philosopher John Locke boiled down society to be a contract. The government is only as strong as the governed, and without mutual benefit, the contract ceases to exist. In his video monologue, political commentator Trevor Noah piggybacks on Locke’s Enlightenment concepts to ask, “When you see George Floyd on the ground and you see a man losing his life in a way no man should ever have to lose their life at the hands of someone who is supposed to enforce the law, what part of the contract is that?” Looting and lawlessness becomes an unfortunate, yet inevitable, outcome when the governed believe that this social contract has been broken. They no longer feel the moral obligation to follow rules because their government continues to uphold a racially biased system despite majority cries for reform. Protestors intend our government to hear their concerns. Supporters of the Black Lives Matter movement are tired of experiencing and witnessing racial injustice. While this fire may have been sparked by the murder of one African-American man, these flames continue to engulf the nation, because the kindling has been set by decades of segregation, inequality, and racial profiling. These growing tensions and lack of progress has led to widespread outbreaks of violence, and while violence should never be promoted, these actions reflect nationwide anger and frustration. They scream for change and reform that is long overdue. The only hope we have to save a broken and hurting society is to stop screaming back and start listening to their message.