Opinion: Protests, Riots and Looting – The Why Behind the What
My goal this weekend was to avoid social networks and social media as much as I could. It pains me to say that the recorded concentration of violence against black people, unrest in Columbus (along with many other cities), and the reaction to that unrest has weighed pretty heavily on me. Still, I felt compelled to write this post to try to explain the why behind the what. Why are people protesting, rioting and looting?
My name is Chase. I’ve lived in Columbus since 2003 when I came here to study print journalism at The Ohio State University. I’m originally from Detroit. My mom lived through the 1960s Detroit Race Riots and my Grandmother lived through the 1940s Detroit Race Riots. I have been extremely fortunate to have kept my job since the COVID-19 epidemic, but some of my friends of all colors have not been so lucky (this becomes important later). I consider myself fortunate because I have not had to worry about struggling to pay bills, feed a family, or find a new job. Even in my blackness, I have some privilege.
I think it’s important to say that I’m not condoning some of the behavior I describe below. Like most things in life, I seek to understand the underlying reason behind the action, even if I don’t agree with the tactics.
Let’s Talk About Protests:
The goal of a protest is to get attention from the majority and the powers that be. Protests are meant to disrupt daily life and steal focus to draw attention to a particular problem or issue. During the civil rights movement, black people utilized tactics such as sit-ins, bus boycotts and marches to protest segregation and the mistreatment of colored people. In more recent years, we’ve seen people of color, along with allies of all walks of life, take a knee, wear “Black Lives Matter” t-shirts and host rallies. The goal was to get your attention in hopes that you would help us in our plight. Some of you did.
But along the way, we were labeled unpatriotic, thugs, lazy, or worse. Even with those peaceful protests, we continued to see violence against people of color. At some point, folks come to the conclusion that their peaceful protests aren’t working…that the steps they are taking to try to get your attention to enact change aren’t working. It is in those moments of frustration when individuals involved in peaceful protests may resort to different tactics. They may resort to rioting.
And unfortunately, riots are really good at getting people’s attention. Think about how many posts you’ve seen on social media outlining damage done to local stores and restaurants in the last 72 hours. Compare that to the amount of posts your friends, families and colleagues have shared focused on violence against minorities or the resulting peaceful protests.
The riots got your attention.
Let’s Talk About Riots:
The biggest thing to remember about riots is that rarely are they the result of a single incident. There is a phrase that I’ve bastardized from The Dark Knight: Evil just wants to watch the world burn. The vast majority of people aren’t evil and they don’t want to watch the world burn. It takes a great deal of mistreatment, abuse and suppression to make them act out violently. Detroit’s Race Riots of the 1940s and 1960s were sparked by singular events, but it was a culmination of abuses that spanned decades that finally made people lash out in anger. Peaceful protests hadn’t worked for them, so they resorted to difference tactics. What you saw this weekend was an eruption of anger from people who can no longer contain it.
It goes without saying, but being black in America is simultaneously exhausting, dangerous and terrifying.
I’m an avid cyclist. I started cycling years ago in order to participate in Pelotonia and it has become a passion of mine. But every time I go out for a ride, I am terrified. Hate crimes in the U.S. have increased dramatically since Donald Trump took office and I am terrified that someone could gun me down like Ahmaud Arbery in Georgia. I am terrified that I could be attacked walking in a neighborhood I don’t look like I belong in. I am terrified going into a store with a face mask because I might seem intimidating to the store owners. I am even more terrified that someone may call the police on me…the police who I’m supposed to trust with my safety and well-being. Add on top of this the fact that I’m gay and the world becomes even scarier to exist in. To cope with this, I make myself as least threatening as I can. I smile and wave to everyone I cycle past. I try to be as overly nice to strangers as I can, even when I don’t have the energy to. I have to do this to survive. It’s a mask that I wear and it takes a great deal of energy to maintain it.
This is not unique to me. Black people (and minorities in general) have felt this our entire lives. The violence against black people that you see today isn’t new – we just have the ability to record it so the world can see what we’ve been experiencing firsthand for centuries. When you see people rioting, it is because they are exhausted, angry and terrified.
And when a person is angry, they act irrationally. Sometimes acting irrationally means saying something you don’t mean to someone you love. Sometimes it means breaking a window because protesting peacefully resulted in being pepper sprayed. This is especially frustrating when just weeks ago, we watched armed white people throughout the U.S. yelling at police officers with no repercussions whatsoever. A few years ago, Philando Castile, a black man, was pulled over. When he notified the police officer that he had a gun, legally, he was shot to death for his troubles.
Let’s Talk About Looting:
One of my favorite musicals is Les Miserables. Jean Valjean is put in prison for stealing bread to feed his family. Theater goers never look at Jean Valjean as the villain because although he is breaking the law, it is for survival, not malice. In his own words, “My sister’s child was close to death and we were starving!” Javert, a police officer responds, “And you will starve again unless you learn the meaning of the law!”
While not as bad as Cleveland or Cincinnati, Columbus is a segregated city. Gentrification is pushing minorities further away from where they work and the neighborhoods they’ve lived in for years. Unemployment hits minority communities much harder than it does our white counterparts. Add on top of that, unemployment is excessively high due to COVID-19. Some of my friends, who are very much middle class, struggled to connect with the unemployment office to get access to financial support. But some of them were able to rely on money they saved or family members to fill in the gap. That is not always the case with others.
Remember when the government shutdown in 2018-2019? It wasn’t more than two weeks before middle class Americans were waiting in food lines because they didn’t have enough money saved to buy groceries. Imagine being lower class with even less. Sometimes survival means going without meals, but that can only last so long. Sometimes you have to resort to different tactics. Looting isn’t unique to riots. The aftermath of Hurricane Katrina left an already struggling population so desperate for commodities that they too resorted to stealing.
It’s easy for us to blame the individual looting, but we must also condemn the system that made them resort to such measures to survive. Remember, most people aren’t evil and don’t want to watch the world burn. They want to live and provide for their family. They want to work, build a career, and take pride in what they’ve been able to establish. Jean Valjean stole bread to feed his sister’s child and he is seen as heroic. Theatergoers seek to understand his struggle. I challenge you to do the same with looters today, even if you don’t agree with their actions.
So What Now:
The unrest in Columbus and cities throughout the U.S. will come to an end. The 1992 L.A. Riots, one of the costliest and bloodiest in modern history, eventually settled down. But, if you want to prevent future riots, you must participate in solving the underlying issues that your minority neighbors experience on a daily basis.
Demand better training for our law enforcement and stronger consequences when they cross the line. Vote for people who have plans to solve social economic problems that exists not only in minority communities, but communities of all colors (but particularly in minority communities). Stop turning a blind eye to gentrification in Columbus in the name of progress and demand that politicians do something to help solve it. Don’t wait until a riot breaks out for you to say or do something. Act now.
June is Pride Month and I always like to remind folks that the Pride celebration we see today started with the 1969 Stonewall riots. The six-day uprising led mostly by transgender people of color, was the culmination of decades of abuses and transgressions against LGBTQ people.
Listen, I don’t support violence or destruction of property. But because America is more concerned with how people protest instead of why, I hope this helps you understand the motivations behind the actions. If you want to stop riots and looting in the future, stop looking at what people are doing and help solve the underlying problems that caused them to do it. Otherwise, one day, some other group that has tried peaceful protesting to no success will resort to different tactics to get your attention.