The Double Standard of the American Riot
The nationwide protests against police killings have been called un-American by critics, but rebellion has always been used to defend liberty.
Since the beginning of this country, riots and violent rhetoric have been markers of patriotism. When our Founding Fathers fought for independence, violence was the clarion call. Phrases such as “Live free or die,” “Give me liberty or give me death,” and “Rebellion to tyrants is obedience to God” echoed throughout the nation, and continue today. Force and violence have always been used as weapons to defend liberty, because—as John Adams once said in reference to the colonists’ treatment by the British—“We won’t be their Negroes.”
Black rebellion and protest, though, have historically never been coupled with allegiance to American democracy. Today, peaceful demonstrations and violent riots alike have erupted across the country in response to police brutality and the killings of George Floyd, Breonna Taylor, and Ahmaud Arbery. Yet the language used to refer to protesters has included looters, thugs, and even claims that they are un-American. The philosophy of force and violence to obtain freedom has long been employed by white people and explicitly denied to black Americans.
Think back to March 5, 1770, when Crispus Attucks, a man of African and Native American descent, became the first casualty of the American Revolution. Attucks was one of a handful of protesters killed by British forces during the Boston Massacre. The lawyer tasked with defending the British soldiers in their American criminal trial was none other than Adams. When presenting his case, Adams described the men those soldiers killed as “a motley rabble of saucy boys, negroes and molattoes [sic], Irish teagues and outlandish jack tarrs.” He built his defense of the British soldiers on the charge that Attucks struck the first blow and led the “dreadful carnage.” Adams concluded that the “mad behavior” of Attucks provoked the soldiers’ response, saying that Attucks’s group was “under the command of a stout molatto fellow, whose very looks, was enough to terrify any person.” Some 250 years later, Adams’s words still underline a central truth in American disobedience: Freedom through violence is a privilege possessed only by whites. Seminal moments in U.S. history that historians have defined as patriotic were also moments that denied patriotism to black people.
If violence is a political language, white Americans are native speakers. But black people are also fluent in the act of resistance. Attucks stood up to British tyranny. The numerous slave rebellions led by Gabriel Prosser, Charles Deslondes, and Nat Turner were all attempts to gain freedom with force. Throughout the 20th century, black Americans armed themselves in the face of white mobs and organized protection for their freedom marches. Accordingly, when George Floyd, Breonna Taylor, and so many others were killed by police, black people and their allies chose to rise up.
Americans like to harken back to the civil-rights era as a moment of nonviolence and civil disobedience. But that movement was an orchestrated response to violence. Violence at the voting booth. Violence at the lunch counter. Violence that bombed a church with four little black girls inside. Violence that left a bloated black boy in an open casket. Violence that left a black husband and father murdered in his driveway. The movement ended with the violent death of Martin Luther King Jr. And his death ignited riots in more than 100 cities.
It is easy to dismiss the rock thrower; Attucks himself was accused of throwing sticks. But those who rebuke violent responses to injustice should ask themselves: How should the oppressed respond to their oppressors? How should the nation respond to political dissent? How do the oppressed procure power? Throughout history, black people have employed violence, nonviolence, marches, and boycotts. Only one thing is clear—there is no form of black protest that white supremacy will sanction. Still, black people understand the utility of riotous rebellion: Violence compels a response. Violence disrupts the status quo and the possibility of returning to business as usual. So often the watershed moments of historical record are stamped by violence—it is the engine that propels society along from funerals to fury and from moments to movements.
In December 1866, the famed abolitionist Frederick Douglass wrote an essay for The Atlantic in which he reflected on the benefits of rebellion: “There is cause to be thankful even for rebellion. It is an impressive teacher, though a stern and terrible one.” He then concluded, “The thing worse than rebellion is the thing that causes rebellion.” Many people are asking if violence is a valid means of producing social change. The hard and historical answer is yes. Riots have a way of magnifying not merely the flaws in the system, but also the strength of those in power. The American Revolution was won with violence. The French Revolution was won with violence. The Haitian Revolution was won with violence. The Civil War was won with violence. A revolution in today’s terms would mean that these nationwide rebellions lead to black people being able to access and exercise the fullness of their freedom and humanity.
The other night, I was watching the copious news coverage of the protests. I wanted to be out there. I felt helpless. But I’d just had a baby and had no business being out in the streets. I called my mother for encouragement. She said, “I was in college during all of the ’68 riots. Just keep on living; there’ll be another chance.” History has taught me she is likely right. A riot may be temporary violence, quick and dirty, but it could become a revolution. And though slow and long-lasting, when it is fully mature, a revolution is irrefutable change.