If you don’t understand a riot, you’ve never felt powerless

“Why did one straw break the camel’s back? Here’s the secret: the million other straws beneath it.” — Mos Def

It’s exhausting, isn’t it? You see the cars engulfed in flames and the buildings burning to the ground and people pouring through broken storefront windows with bottles of liquor and no receipt, and then you see the folks on television suggesting that the system is somehow to blame, and the more you entertain the steady stream of insistences that what you are witnessing is something other than a collapse of personal responsibility, the more tired you get. You consider yourself a good person, open-minded even, willing to extend the benefit of the doubt to most who request it. But this? The wanton disregard for private property and human life? You are supposed to accept that these are the actions of crusaders? That guy carrying a handle of vodka and a bottle of orange soda just wants to mix himself up some social justice?

Now, here’s another question to consider? Have you ever felt powerless? I mean, truly powerless. Not that fleeting feeling when you are stuck in traffic while already running late. I am talking about a state of powerlessness. I once had a coworker who had spent years watching his department make mistakes that he was sure he could solve. Early on, well before my arrival with the company, he would offer his solutions to the folks in charge. He did this the way dutiful workers are taught to do things, repeatedly attempting to engage his immediate supervisor in discussions about a better way to perform certain tasks. Yet the status quo remained. He then went to his supervisor’s supervisor. And yet the status quo remained. As the years wore, so did his quest. Eventually, he requested a sit-down with the boss of the whole company. They never sat down. The status quo remained.

Around the time of my arrival in the department, my coworker composed a scathing manifesto and delivered it via all-company email to everybody with an inbox. It was inflammatory. It was self-destructive. But, he felt, it was the only remaining course of action that might convince somebody, anybody, to pay attention to his frustrations.

“What were you thinking?”

“I was thinking I might finally convince somebody to pay attention to me.”

This is what happens when the disenfranchised reach a point where they feel that they have exhausted their options at changing the power structures that govern their lives. They either submit, or they lash out. They accept what they feel to be their lot in life, or they douse themselves in kerosene and self-immolate.

The truth is, the vast majority of us cannot comprehend what went down in Ferguson on Monday night because the vast majority of us cannot comprehend what true powerlessness feels like. The vast majority of us grew up in stable communities where we rarely felt as if our power structures were working against us. We grew up in places where there was a mutual respect between local government and the community. We felt as if our schools, our police officers, our civil servants were working for us. We felt as if our institutions represented us.

Judging by everything we have seen and heard in recent months, that is not the way the majority of the black lower class feels in Ferguson. And in my experiences as a writer and a reporter, that is not the way the black lower class feels in most places in America. And while you can argue that this segment of our population should feel differently, you can’t change their reality. Because their reality is their perception of their situation, just like your reality is your perception of your situation. They can argue that you shouldn’t storm out of your office and quit your job, or that you shouldn’t send inflammatory all-company emails, or that you shouldn’t lean on your horn when traffic is at a standstill. They can argue that none of those actions are likely to better your situation, that it is your personal responsibility to find constructive solutions within the bounds set forth by the power structure you wish to confront. They can argue that you should not lash out.

None of this should be interpreted as an endorsement of irrational, destructive behavior, nor a suggestion that some behaviors aren’t less rational or more destructive than others. Instead, it is an argument that, when attempting to comprehend the unrest in Ferguson, we can pick from only two conclusions. Either there is a fundamental difference between the human behavioral process of people from Ferguson and the human behavioral differences of the people of your community, or the fundamental difference exists in the variables to which those communities are exposed. And if we accept that human behavior is the constant, which the long list of riots covering the course of human history, along with the scaled-down instances from your own life presented above, seems to suggest, then we are wasting our time focusing on that behavior. Just like we are wasting our time focusing on the behavior of Mike Brown. Just like we are wasting our time focusing on the behavior of Darren Wilson. Rather, the focus should be on the variables that led to the choices and reactions that both men made on that fateful August day, which are, in large part, the same as the variables that led to the rioting we witnessed on Monday night.

The easy thing to do is to pick a man to condemn and move on with our lives, to tell ourselves that a man is dead and a community is torched because of the personal failings of either the victim or the shooter or the citizens or some combination of all of the above. But when we consider that the natural human feelings that led to the behaviors of Brown and Wilson and the rioters (feelings of disrespect, anger, fear for safety, helplessness, reprisal) really weren’t all that different when isolated from their physical stimuli (confronting, unholstering, grabbing, punching, acquitting, all against a backdrop of mutual distrust and disrespect), we are left with the realization that the more complicated solution is the legitimate one. How do we change a system so that a citizen does not feel compelled to confront a cop, and a cop does not feel compelled to kill a citizen, and a community does not feel compelled to draw attention to its perceived plight by setting itself on fire as the television cameras roll?

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