Anatomy of an insurrection

Riots, or insurrections, are rational responses to systemic subjugation, argues Robert Stephens II. The insurrection in Ferguson, Missouri, following the murder of Michael Brown, is clear proof of the sophisticated political agitation that often precipitates spontaneous uprisings by marginalized groups.

August 26, 2014
13 min read

fergMichael Brown, a Black teenager in Ferguson, was murdered by the police on Saturday 9 August. Witnesses say Brown was running away from the policeman and had his hands in the air just before the officer shot him. Demonstrations erupted in the streets where the people went from holding candlelight vigils to full scale rioting. In the following days, the uprisings in Ferguson captured global attention, and despite the tear gas, raids, arrests, and overall belligerence of a heavily armed police force, the people’s rebellion has continued for nearly two weeks.

Riots in London in 2011 and Anaheim in 2012, saw numerous media outlets consistently paint those uprisings as irrational and criminal outbursts with no meaningful connection to politics. The scholarship is clear, however: Riots/spontaneous insurrections are rational expressions of group solidarity. The political nature of riots is, nonetheless, often elusive. The outrage in Ferguson quickly attracted marginalized people throughout the region to come and join the demonstrations. Rather than evidence of illegitimacy, the presence of these so-called outsiders, and their desire to identify with and join the rioters, reflected the magnetic power of the political moment.

The first thing to understand about Ferguson is that it’s a city with a large concentration of poor and Brown people living under the control of overwhelmingly White institutions. Hours before the anti-police uprising would sweep the community, a crowd gathered at the site of Brown’s murder. A video taken at the scene shows a number of political agitators talking with the crowd, converting momentary outrage into political unity. One speaker in particular, a young black male, offers a cogent political analysis that frames the injustice of police brutality as a byproduct of the community’s economic dislocation. He tells the crowd:

‘We keep giving these crackers our money, staying in they complexes, and we can’t get no justice. No respect. They ready to put you out [if you] miss a bill… We need to own our own, ladies and gentlemen… You got to be fed up.

Contrary to the belief – expressed every hour, on the hour by mainstream US news broadcasters – that the Ferguson rioters are merely mindless mobs predisposed to violence, the people of Ferguson were engaged in concerted political consciousness-raising leading up to the insurrection.

Riots create strong feelings of common identity and solidarity, usually in opposition to another group or force; an ‘us vs. them’ mentality. At one point during the rally shown in the video above, the woman holding the camera says, ‘Where the thugs at? Where the street tribes when we need y’all?’ The crowd then begins to call on various street gangs to abandon Black on Black violence and unite in struggle against oppression. Their words explode any notion that their uprising is irrational and apolitical.

The gathered crowd was attempting to use this opportunity to address their broader political needs. They knew that intraracial violence within the community was also an issue they needed to address. In anti-police uprisings, an opponent is easy to create and identify. However, in the case of gang and intraracial violence, ‘them’ is also ‘us’ — the perpetrators of these crimes are the communities’ children, cousins, friends, neighbors. As a result, it’s sometimes difficult to confront these more intimate forms of violence. Though many commentators claim that Black people don’t care about violence within our communities, the crowd’s calls for gang unity demonstrate that anti-police uprisings provide unique opportunities to unite people in ways that seek to resolve long-standing community concerns.

Following the first nights of the riots, participants continued to discuss the uprising in political terms. DeAndre Smith, who was present at the burned down QuikTrip, told the local news, ‘I believe that they’re too much worried about what’s going on to their stores and their commerce and everything. They’re not worried about the murder.’ A second man added, ‘I just think what happened was necessary, to show the police that they don’t run everything.’ Smith then concludes, ‘I don’t think they [the rioters] did enough.

In a second interview, this time with Kim Bell of the St. Louis Post-Dispatch, Smith expanded on his faith in the riot as a viable political strategy. He explains:

‘This is exactly what’s supposed to happen when an injustice is happening in your community… I was out here with the community, that’s all I can say… I don’t think it’s over, honestly. I think they just got a case of what fighting back means, in St. Louis, the last state to abolish slavery. Do they think they still have power over certain things? I believe so. This is how they receive money: businesses and taxes, police stopping people and giving them tickets, taking them to court, locking them up; this is how they make money in St. Louis. Everything is all about money in St. Louis. So when you stop their flow of income.. they have things organized in a certain way, “we’re gonna eat, you’re gonna starve”, gentrification – put you in a certain neighbourhood by yourself and see if you can starve… It’s not going to happen, not in St. Louis.’

Smith identifies what so many self-proclaimed anti-racists and leftists fail to understand; that racism is not an issue of moral character. He recognizes that the broader economic order facilitates, and benefits from racial subjugation, and so, he’s looking for ways to intervene and disrupt that process. Not only is this a more substantive form of political analysis than what is often offered on the left, but it’s perhaps the only way to successfully address socially and politically entrenched racial hierarchy.

The futility of respectability politics, From London to Ferguson

Typically, when events like the Ferguson rebellion occur, well-meaning people rush to condemn the participants. At a minimum, they dismiss rioting as unproductive and opportunistic; a few bad apples spoiling the bunch. This is precisely the attitude that Smith pointed out in his first interview, together with other, similar efforts to dismiss the rioters’ political aspirations.

In 2011, rioting broke out in London after police murdered another unarmed Black man, Mark Duggan. In response, various media outlets took the position that the riots were thoughtless. As filmmaker John Akmfrah, whose film Handsworth Songs documented the aftermath of the 1985 London riots, told Red Pepper in 2012:

‘A lot of people asked me my thoughts on the [2011] riots, and a lot of their questions were framed in this way of “How are they different?”’ People were very fast to say: “This wasn’t political; this was about rampant consumerism and greed, for TVs and trainers”… [But ] of course it is political! When a family goes to a police station and says, “I want to know why my son was killed” and are refused answers, they are being treated with the same kind of contempt that all of the young people in the area experience every day, and identify with.’

Most detractors of rioters in London, as in Ferguson, and many of whom are Black themselves, seek to police these communities with respectability politics’ – an attempt to make subjugated people present themselves in ways that are acceptable to the dominant class in a futile effort to make political gains. Frederick Harris, in his essay ‘The Rise of Respectability Politics’ argues:

‘What started as a philosophy promulgated by Black elites to “uplift the race” by correcting the “bad” traits of the black poor has now evolved into one of the hallmarks of Black politics in the age of Obama; a governing philosophy that centers on managing the behavior of Black people left behind in a society touted as being full of opportunity… But the politics of respectability has been portrayed as an emancipatory strategy to the neglect of discussions about structural forces that hinder the mobility of the black poor and working class.’

Predictably, respectability politics was a major media narrative used to condemn the London insurrection. Now, three years later, people realize the insistence that grievances be ‘respectably’ framed didn’t actually work. After speaking out against the London riots in 2011, Hackney resident Pauline Pierce now says ‘I have sometimes wished I’d just kept my mouth shut altogether.’ In her interview with The Daily Telegraph, Pierce, explained:

‘Three years ago, I shouted down young men as they burnt cars on the streets of Hackney, where I live. Now they come in beards and bobble hats instead. Places such as Kingsland Road and Mare Street have become the trendiest places to be, but that has brought unrest of a different sort. The people who live here are not happy. There are a lot of issues with the social cleansing that is becoming increasingly evident around here… Money has come in since the riots, and that is all well and good, but it is not benefiting the poor people. The regeneration funds given to the council have been spent, in part, on a fashion hub. How is that helping the youngsters in the borough?

‘For me, since I made that speech that evening, it has been a three-year journey and one that has been very difficult at times. I have sometimes wished I’d just kept my mouth shut altogether and continued on my way home.’

Despite her doubts about the political viability of rioting, Pierce now says that White gentrification is destroying the neighborhood. Unlike riots, gentrification and displacement aren’t temporary, but are permanently embedded in our capitalist reality. In fact, the rhetorical foundation for this new wave of displacement was actually laid in the days following the riots.

In the three years since the London riots, Pierce has seen her Black and Brown neighbors displaced by trend-seeking White people eager to discover and develop the neighborhood. In the time spent calmly discussing the issues, only 16% of the money set aside for neighborhood recovery has been spent, and many of the reforms proposed by moderates have yet to begin, let alone be achieved. Whereas riots are often galvanizing community events with the potential to unleash concerted political energy in dynamic and unpredictable directions, the stale politics of respectability only leads to further marginalization and dislocation.

Of course, it is possible to disagree with the utility of insurrection. But these communities’ responses to subjugation demand to be discussed in political terms, and not simply dismissed out of hand. We live in a political context of neoliberal racism, where ‘race-neutral’ policies are used to deepen economic exploitation and racial hierarchy, and any overt attempts to address racism are dismantled, or disregarded. According to author and professor Henry Giroux, these policies only intensify the economic marginalization and poverty experienced by those at the margins.

‘Neoliberal racism provides the ideological and legal framework for asserting that since American society is now a meritocracy, government should be race neutral, affirmative action programs dismantled, civil rights laws discarded, and the welfare state eliminated… [It] both ignore[s] and perpetuate[s] the stereotypes, structured violence, and massive inequalities produced by the racial state, the race-based attack on welfare, the destruction of social goods such as schools and healthcare, and the rise of the prison-industrial complex.’

Perhaps so many of us rush to condemn these types of disruptions because we’re actually content with neoliberalism’s post-racial illusion. At the burned down QuikTrip convenience store in Ferguson, someone left a note addressed to their ‘corporate neighbor,’ seemingly in the hope that the business would return: quicktripBy framing themselves as a customer in need of their ‘corporate neighbor,’ it’s possible that the author is acting not out of concern for the working people that lost their jobs — their actual neighbors — but from the fear that their shopping routine will be disturbed.

As Smith observed, we identify more strongly with broken windows than broken people. This mindset is intentionally cultivated by media and law enforcement as a way to prevent solidarity among marginalized people, which Lauren Friedman, for one, believes is a key strategy for maintaining order.

Such insight should not seem new to Black insurgents, or to anyone attempting to explain their actions. In 1964, Malcolm X gave a speech at the Oxford Union in which he borrowed the words of conservative lightning rod Barry Goldwater to announce: ‘Extremism in the defense of liberty is no vice; moderation in the pursuit of justice is no virtue.’ He understood that disruption, even extremism, was required in the face of subjugation.

His speech also reminds us that mainstream media is a key instrument of subjugation. Politicians, commentators, producers and editors determine which acts are respectable, and which are extreme and thus illegitimate. Instead of following that familiar script, we can use media – be it Twitter, YouTube, or even more ‘respectable’ outlets – to push back against narratives about this Ferguson community being irrational and criminal. The first step is to honestly observe and discuss their political needs, rather than simply dismissing their responses to subjugation.