A First-Person Account of Rioting While White

“These criminals/hoodlums cared nothing about Gray! These rioters did not know Gray, we’re [sic] not at his funeral and are using his death to insite [sic] riots, burning property and stealing!”

“Very disappointed about the violence taking place. As of now it’s 3 miles from our house, so not worried. Just disappointed.”

“I really think most people won’t get involved [with the cause], they are just gonna say ‘fuck these people for fucking my car up’…With my income right now and the amount I would have to pay for property damage in a social injustice riot like this, I honestly would ONLY care about the property damage.”

These are only a few of the ignorant comments that have been darkening my Facebook feed in response to the civil unrest in Baltimore (I won’t even touch the ever-present “this isn’t about race” straw man). My white “friends,” people I have known and in some cases even respected, are self-righteously complaining about blocked traffic, inconveniences to their commute, the “savage” behavior of “criminals.” From atop high, white horses, they are shaking their heads and disdaining the “senseless” and “random” violence, rather than stepping outside of their sheltered selves to consider the limitations of their experiences. They cluck their tongues at how the riots are just “reinforcing negative stereotypes,” and how pointless it is that “those people” are destroying their own communities.

And yet, this kind of violent unrest is not as foreign to white people as some of us like to think. On the night of April 4th, 2011, I watched and, regrettably, partook in exactly the same violence and destruction that the white people of America have been so quick to condemn. Except in this case, the riot was not related to a distinct pattern of police brutality or the deaths of innocent people: in this case, the riot was a celebration. Allow me to highlight, as best I can, the difference between the political actions of the oppressed and a truly senseless riot.

The students of University of Connecticut would riot whether they won or lost, my friends and I discussed, as we packed up a bottle of cheap vodka and a megaphone and drove the forty minutes to their campus. It was the final game of the NCAA championship, and after seeing the videos of rioting at VCU the night before, we knew the campus would explode regardless of the game’s outcome. As a white girl from an upper-middle class family attending one of the country’s most expensive liberal arts schools, I was aware enough of my privilege to know I didn’t have much to fear from rioting — but not aware enough to see the horrible profundity of that double standard, or my participation in it. It is with a very keen sense of personal shame and responsibility that I look back now to give a first-person account of the privilege of white rioting.

It started as a small spark, but quickly grew into an inferno. As we stepped on to the empty campus, a single white man burst through a set of double doors and shouted, “UCOONNNNN!” His drunken cheer was accented by the shattering of a glass bottle he had thrown as he ran exuberantly into the quad. A horde of (overwhelmingly white) students followed in his wake, along with more shattering glass. Suddenly, we were engulfed in a sea of fervent white faces that stormed across campus, throwing bottles, knocking over trashcans, and ripping up anything not bolted to the ground.

I climbed a tree to get a better vantage point as the crowd continued to grow, and from that height I was able to see the lazy efforts of UConn’s public safety to stem the burgeoning riot. Two officers pulled away a drunken student who was fruitlessly trying to upend a dumpster. They watched others cover the tree in toilet paper, yelling half-hearted commands to stop that sounded more like suggestions. Students were brawling; debris ranging from sneakers to rocks sailed through the air. Only after the tree was set on fire, with me and many others still sitting among its branches, did the public safety officers actively attempt to control the scene. I saw them pulling people away and attempting to detain them, but still without the use of any restraints — let alone the rubber bullets, pepper balls, and tear gas that have rained down on people of color during the unrest in Ferguson, New York, and Baltimore. The people in the streets were not afraid, they were not reacting out of anger or fear — they were genuinely enjoying themselves.

As the tree burned, unchecked, we fled from the quad, following the tumultuous crowd of screaming sports fans down the streets of collegiate Connecticut. At one point, as I jumped up and down on a stranger’s car, shouting nonsense into my megaphone, an officer approached me and told me to get down and get out. With the appalling arrogance born of a lifetime of privilege, I told the cop to fuck off at 80 decibels, jumped off the car and ran into the street with no fear of repercussion. The officer told me I was formally banned from UConn’s campus, but he made no move to physically remove me, nor did he give chase when I ran. Taking all of this completely for granted, I skipped away past yet another student-set fire, ringed by cheering “fans” who shoved and threw one another to the ground while public safety picked off those too drunk to argue with them and got their student information. There was no riot gear, no SWAT team called in. Students paraded through the streets wearing their privilege on their backs.

I saw only one single instance of real force used against a student, despite the widespread violence of the students themselves. This particular student was thrown and held to the ground while fighting violently, after having attempted to topple a large dumpster into the crowd. I watched these students — the vast majorities of them white — “destroy their own community” and attack one another out of celebration for their basketball team. And in the news the next day, there were mentions of the “fanaticism” of the fans and the word riot was thrown in here and there, but always written off with the “boys will be boys” sensibility that seems exclusively applicable to white perpetrators of violence and crime.

I am not suggesting that the UConn public safety is a uniquely non-violent or ineffective force; I suspect these same officers would have behaved quite differently if they were on the scene in Baltimore. There is a fundamental double standard in how society views rioting and it is implicitly racist. The people who posted the quotes at the beginning of this article attend schools like VCU and UVA where sports-based rioting is accepted, even encouraged in certain circles. But when it comes to serious, political civil unrest borne out of the collective pain and suffering of oppressed minorities, some of us white folks cannot, or will not, extend even the slightest attempts at empathy or understanding. What is happening in Baltimore is not a frivolous display of revelry, but a serious reaction to deep-seated institutional injustice. The people of color in Baltimore are rising up and revolting because they have been left with few choices — when peaceful protesting is ignored and property is valued over black lives, what else is there to do but make yourself seen and heard, whatever that may take?

My fellow white people, get off those high horses and open your eyes. We must look beyond our own experiences, recognize the institutions that oppress of people of color and stop the spreading fires of racism and violence that have run rampant throughout our society since its establishment. Recognize these systems of racism, and recognize that you have benefited from them your whole lives, regardless of your socio-economic status or your gender.

It is a privilege to be able to turn off the news and relax. It is a privilege to not fear for your life or the lives of those around you when you walk down the street in your own community. It is a privilege to look to the police and politicians and see people who look like you, looking out for your interests. It is a privilege to go through the justice system and actually expect to see justice. Do not say our justice system is broken — how can it break when it was never truly just? The white privilege I witnessed and experienced at the UConn riot is not unique — where was the outrage for the riot over pumpkins? Or the countless other sports-related riots in white communities? The consistent ignorance and dismissal of white riots is just one example of the pervasive, pernicious racism that is still very much alive in America, despite our black president or your token black friends.

We can only begin to fix our society if we, as members of a privileged class, acknowledge our privilege and actively work to undo the systems of racism and inequality from which we benefit. The unrest in Baltimore is not random or senseless; it has a very clear, specific cause and until we are all willing to recognize and work against our society’s implicit systems of oppression, the fires of injustice will continue to burn. Take it upon yourself to start stamping out the flames.