On the night the grand jury’s decision was announced in the Michael Brown shooting case, though Brown’s parents for weeks had called on demonstrators to protest peacefully, riots broke out during protests against the jury’s decision. Several police cars were overturned, their windows broken and their frames torched. Bricks and bottles were thrown at police. A number of stores were looted and vandalized. And at least a dozen buildings were set on fire, including several small businesses, some of which burned completely to the ground, including a Walgreens and a hair salon. While most protesters, indeed, demonstrated peacefully, the property damage done by the few was significant. Many, from the governor of Missouri and the mayor of Ferguson, to leadership in a number of civil rights organizations, to clergy, to the President himself, denounced the riots as unacceptable and counterproductive. President Obama said he had “no sympathy” for rioters and that “… the bottom line is, nothing of significance, nothing of benefit, results from destructive acts. I’ve never seen a civil rights law, or a health care bill, or an immigration bill result because a car got burnt.” While I, myself, was a participant in a number of peaceful demonstrations in Washington, D.C. following the decision, I wholeheartedly empathize with the demonstrators who have chosen to express their indignation alternatively.
Reverend Jesse Jackson said in an interview following the riot with CNN news anchor Don Lemon that “Injustice leads to anarchy. Justice leads to peace.” We have seen in recent years, and historically, in Egypt and Libya, in Crimea and presently in Hong Kong, that Rev. Jackson’s words hold true. Peoples that have felt persecuted and oppressed all across the globe have risen up against their governments and retaliated with violence, toppling regimes in many cases. Granted, the rioters in Ferguson did not target government buildings or entities, but they did choose to retaliate against the state system by lashing out against its most immediate manifestation – the police that occupied their community – by defying officers in the most immediately destructive and convenient way possible – through the destruction of police property, and destruction of that which the police (supposedly) came to protect – private property.
The Reverend Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. said (providing greater context for his comments than I have here) in response to the race riots of the 1960s, that “riots are the language of the unheard.” People lash out physically when they feel they are not heard when they lash out verbally, and I completely understand that anger and that frustration and that desire to be heard, because I feel the same way. I also recognize that some in Ferguson see no need to respond to the decision non-violently, because the system has not been non-violent with them. They are, after all, responding to a state-sanctioned murder of an unarmed teenager. Too, in the August weeks following the initial shooting, Ferguson police and Missouri National Guardsmen responded to peaceful protesters with teargas, wooden and rubber bullets, harassment, abuse, and unjust arrests. So I don’t think it’s quite so unreasonable for some residents to react to the decision the way they did. It is unfortunate that the destruction took place in their own community, nonetheless, it follows logically given the physical presence of the state (police and guardsmen) in their community, and the burning desire to lash out against it. Even if you don’t agree that these words justify the riots, you must concede, at least, that they explain them.
I saw a young man on Twitter the other day express how silly he thought it was for someone to compare the destruction of property during the Ferguson riots to the Boston Tea Party of 1773. But they aren’t so different: both were physical manifestations of the anger and indignation of a people who felt they were targeted and oppressed by an unjust system. The difference is, the Boston Tea Party has come to be embraced as a riot that birthed a movement that birthed a nation, so history has justified its perpetrators. But resistance to oppression works no differently today than it did 240 years ago during the colonial era, or 50 years ago during the riots of the 1960s, or 20 years ago after Rodney King, or than it does in other parts of the world in present day just because “violence” has been deemed socially unacceptable in today’s American society. People can only bear so many compounded injustices before they explode. And some in Ferguson have exploded.
Brandon Ellington Patterson is a senior Sociology major at Howard University in Washington, D.C. He was formerly Chairman of the Political Action Committee for the NAACP Howard Chapter and is an aspiring journalist.