Protesters Don’t Owe You Peace

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Police K-9 units were deployed to manage crowds of protesters during the Birmingham Campaign of the civil rights movement in May 1963. Such actions brought massive negative publicity to the city in the national media. © Birmingham News

“If we don’t have it, you aint gonna have it either, ‘cause we gonna tear it up…I don’t see why they don’t understand that. This flag is drenched in our blood — they know what they’ve done to us…” — Fannie Lou Hamer

“Lock us behind gates, but can’t tame us. Used to be stay safe, now stay dangerous.” — Nipsey Hussle

A great crowd snaked from Pan Pacific Park through Beverly Grove toward Santa Monica, the westernmost bound of West Los Angeles. At a stop in front of the Grove, an organizer from the Los Angeles chapter of Black Lives Matter took the mic. The conclusion of their uproarious speech was to point out to the large, diverse crowd that historically, uprisings in the city led to the destruction of their own communities — in 1992, for example, the riots which followed the acquittal of officers charged with using excessive force in the arrest of Rodney King, decimated South Central. This time, they determined, it would be different. These protests against the continued police brutality would take place in the “white” parts of the city — the West side — home to Hollywood, Beverly Hills, Santa Monica. Melina Abdullah, one of the leaders of the LA chapter of Black Lives Matter told the Times: “We want to go to places of white affluence so that the pain and outrage that we feel can be put right in their faces.”

The backlash to this organizing decision was swift and, shortly thereafter, violent — the city imposed mandatory “curfews” across the county as early as 1PM, reminiscent of “sundown town” days of old where Black travelers were liable to be harassed or brutalized if found in certain cities after dark. To enforce the curfews, police forces were proactively deployed in full riot gear, which, in the same manner as bringing a knife to a fist fight, is an escalation in and of itself. Many well-meaning allies set out to criticize the action on the grounds that the protests were “peaceful”. The problem with using the qualifier “peaceful” is two-fold: the implication that there is a protest “type” where it would be acceptable to use military force and chemical weapons on their own civilians (there is not) and the fixation on methods rather than what people are protesting for.

The militarized reaction to protest action is microcosmic of the institution of policing itself. Policing is rarely about people and frequently about capital and space — maintaining the containment of Black people to certain spaces and ensuring their prohibition from others — which is why property destruction is such an efficient way to undermine it. Riots and looting can be part of a profound strategic framework which rejects the containment, exclusion, and surveillance of a police state by demanding retribution for all three.

Not to mention many rebukes of riots are self-righteous. They are not a condemnation of the individual act of “theft” or destruction, but a condemnation of the masses’ refusal to be subjugated, often violently. It is an expression of the broader fear of a status quo reordered by the people’s collective power. It agrees that what occurred was wrong, and that people are entitled to anger but wants to control, or police, how that anger is expressed for their own comfort, which they conflate to safety. Brazilian sociologist Ignacio Cano says it best: the simple threat of riot “is the ultimate nightmare for the higher classes…it’s the deep-rooted fear that social exclusion will explode into political violence.”

This fear is apparent in the response to protest actions and demonstrations — curfews, militarization, proactive boardings. Having heard the plights of others, luxury stores, restaurants, banks, retail stores responded by boarding up their doors and windows. In the most egregious of cases, they hastily scribbled “Black Lives Matter” on the panels, while everything else about their operations, their behaviors, their hiring processes would beg to differ. Other stores — McDonald’s, the local bodega, a barber shop — do not take such a precaution, because they don’t have such fear. Perhaps what many hate most about the threat of looting and riots is its reflexive property. Under fear of consequence, many who never have are forced to consider: what have I done, or allowed, that contributed to why they’re so mad?

It is baffling — boring, even — that someone can see what has been done and wring their hands about the destruction of some building or store or store window. People have died in the streets. Girls have been thrown in dumpsters and men are hanging from trees. Some days my breath catches in my throat when I am walking alone and I remember there are girls growing up without fathers, whose last words were I can’t breathe. So I don’t care how many more precincts or Targets or Wendys’ go up in flames, the smell of cinder wafting up to their noses and God’s as a sweet savor. I don’t care how many more Walmarts, how many more grocery stores are looted clean, bone-dried and picked for parts.

I just hope in Seattle they took cheesecakes home to family and friends and they ate the whole thing that night and relished in it, feeling decadent and rich with every bite. I hope in Chicago they remember the smell of that untouched leather, the gentle purr of the engine, the thrill of being behind the wheel when it crashed through the window which shattered, crystalline and like ice. I hope whoever stole that cop’s horse felt like a god, riding ten hands above the city, the horse strong and wily beneath them, the wind in their face, the sirens, the roaring crowd, muffled by the thundering gallops —

I hope, that for so long as it lasted, they all felt full, rich, free.

Written by

NY-born, LA-based writer. Allegedly writing an essay collection called Black Cowgirl. Allegedly. Twitter:@jazzyhuncho.

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