The Ethics and Aesthetics of Fear Mongering for Riots after the Zimmerman Verdict

Trayvon Martin Protests

“I’m absolutely convinced that a riot merely intensifies the fears of the white community while relieving the guilt….  It is not enough for me to stand before you tonight and condemn riots. It would be morally irresponsible for me to do that without, at the same time, condemning the contingent, intolerable conditions that exist in our society. These conditions are the things that cause individuals to feel that they have no other alternative than to engage in violent rebellions to get attention. And I must say tonight that a riot is the language of the unheard.” [emphasis added]

That is a very famous quote from the imitable Martin Luther King said in March 1968 at Grosse Pointe High School from which many people use a platform to understand the very nature of rioting.  For many, I’ve seen a few  articles and Facebook statuses and blog posts that have shown disgust and disdain for the mainstream media commentating on the fact that there might be riots if George Zimmerman is acquitted.  Writer and blogger Marc W. Polite said

In some ways, the calls for order recapitulate what this case is all about—the assumption of violence on the part of the black community, and of black men. No one seems to be concerned about the possible violence of Zimmerman supporters if Zimmerman is convicted. To try to preemptively deter the black community from taking matters into their own hands should they feel justice has not been done is ironic considering that Zimmerman’s actions themselves were a kind of vigilanteeism—a violence above and beyond what many, including the prosecution and Martin’s family, feel was necessary.

And this pre-emptive PSA comes off as more creepy and corny than anything else.

While admittedly, I think there may be some validity to the claims of racial fear mongering, I believe its being done as a result of the inherent laziness of typical cultural discourse in this country.  As a whole, and especially on behalf of mainstream media, we really don’t tend to have nuanced discussions about most issues, particularly one as layered as this with Trayvon Martin and George Zimmerman.  Most news programs, and the viewers attention spans, are going to last for a 3 minute segment at best, and you’re going to get either a one-sided interview or your classic point-counterpoint back and forth that does more for raising blood pressures and stress levels than provoking critical thought.

That is to say, while perhaps the mainstream media and the lameness of the Broward County sheriff’s department might come off as racial fear mongering, I think they are aware that they are potentially sitting on the proverbial powder keg and a verdict can be the match that sets it of.  The ubiquitous and clandestine “they” I speak of is the “they” that are the collective and individual powers that be.  From sheriffs and mayors to news directors and political talking heads on these cable news shows.  I am making the argument that they are aware that blacks in this country very much view ourselves as that unheard populace that King spoke about decades ago.  I think what’s more interesting, and what I use to counter this charge of intentional and racial fear mongering, is that the dominant society is aware that they we have gone unheard from some time.

I think it’s akin to the question that I’ve seen books and movies pose in the setting of historical fiction, asking slaves on a plantation that vastly outnumbered their white masters as to why didn’t they just overtake the master and kill them and essentially free themselves.  For me, watching the cheesy commercial and hearing pundits bloviate back and forth about the possibility of riots is as if the white masters suddenly got paranoid wondering if today was the day the slaves had organized and decided to rise up and kill the master.

And “they” have good reason for being afraid.

The Zimmerman case and the circumstances surround Trayvon Martin’s death embody and symbolize the injustices and evils of racism and human rights violations that this country still has found the moral compunction to eradicate on ethical grounds alone.  This is a day when the Texas state troopers were more afraid of women using tampons and sanitary napkins as a means of protest than people carrying concealed and loaded firearms into the Texas state house on the day that the vote was to possibly be called to enact what would be the most conservative of all states’ abortion laws.  While clearly Trayvon’s death had nothing directly to do with women’s rights, what some see as racial profiling on behalf of Zimmerman balloons into a human rights violation against Trayvon and therefore the issue of women’s rights is subsumed into human rights and Voila! you have what amounts to this very same powder keg of disparate parts, but potentially explosive nonetheless.

Not to mention, in this country and worldwide, people have this tendency to revert to riotous behavior following incidents of perceived police brutality.  While yes, no one rioted or even came close to it following the very famous shooting deaths of Amadou Diallou in 1999 or Sean Bell in 2006 both in New York City–and the officers in both of these cases were found not guilty, the same isn’t always the case.

Some forgotten incidents include:

  • Cincinnati (Ohio) Riots in 2001 that resulted in four days of unrest following the shooting of an unarmed 19 year-old black man, Timothy Thomas, by a white police officer.  Racial tensions were high in the city already preceding Thomas’ death because of black males dying in police custody in the recent months leading up to April 2001.
  • The Benton Harbor (Michigan) Riots of 2003 resulted in two days of unrest following a mixed race cop chasing a black man, Terrance Shurn, on a motorcycle resulting in his death.
  • In Oakland, California the incident following Oscar Grant’s death and the conviction of Johanne Mehserle still resulted in some looting and violence.
LA Riots 1992
Los Angeles “Rodney King” Riots, 1992

And of course no one can forget the 1991 Crown Heights riots in Brooklyn nor the Los Angeles Riots of 1992.

Let’s be clear: at the focal point for all of these riots is race.

Historically, the mainstream media and the pundits are right, there have been flashpoints, usually ones we as a country don’t see coming, that result in this riots.  This is why race is one of those third-rail talking points that no one wants to discuss because it has the potential to be so volatile–on both sides.  To the point of those pointing out that this is racial fear mongering, what if George Zimmerman is convicted, has anyone thought to worry about those who may protest, dare I say riot?  No, they haven’t, and neither have I.  The reason isn’t because I think whites are inherently more peaceful and blacks are just prone to wanton violence.  No, in fact it’s because whites, generally, are heard people; they don’t have to speak a different language to get attention.

What I think is interesting is that in some of these cases, particularly in the L.A. riots of 1992, the federal prosecutors took up the case again on the cops acquitted in the Rodney King case and the question I’ll always have is what if people had simply protested peacefully or even not protested at all?  Now this doesn’t ameliorate the violence and the 53 deaths that occurred as a result of the riots, but again, as King said it would be “morally irresponsible” to ignore the context of which these riots are birthed.  Internationally, it brings to mind to the  recent in the case of Mark Duggan who was shot by London police in Tottenham, and he was unarmed at the time of the shooting and his death.  It resulted in rioting in London and spontaneous riots in other cities in England.

To tell the blatant truth, there is some shred of possibility to riots happening.  I think in general, the black writers and bloggers and pundits who are pushing back this notion are doing so simply because their pride was a bit wounded.  Also, the people that have access to blogs, and who warm the chairs at MSNBC or CNN aren’t even remotely going to be the one out rioting anyway, and they we sit in our climate-controlled offices and living room, typing away furiously on our MacBooks and laptops, checking our tweets on our iPhones and Samsung Galaxy phones and speak far removed from those who would be the victim and purveyors of the violence that occurs when rioting happens.  Flat out, some of us were mad that our card got pulled.

A gang of whites in Chicago searching for blacks during the Chicago race riots, summer 1919.
A gang of whites in Chicago searching for blacks during the Chicago race riots, summer 1919.

don’t think any rioting is going to occur simply because this is Sanford, Florida.  Sanford is far from the megalopolis urban centers where civil rights and civil disobedience are embedded into the fabric and core of the cities like Chicago, Philadelphia, New York, Los Angeles or Detroit.  Sanford sits just northeast of Orlando in the metropolitan area, and not say that its residents are somehow devoid of experiencing racial anguish, but the citizens of Sanford aren’t the descendants of grandparents and great grandparents who moved north in the Great Migration and experienced the Red Summer of 1919 when the aggression was on the other foot–when whites routinely set off into black communities and neighborhoods terrorizing the black citizens, burning and looting black businesses and homes for some social interaction that crossed racial boundaries a determined by the whites themselves.  Nor can one drive down streets in Sanford where you can still see the evidence of the 1968 King Riots as you can on the West Side of Chicago.

I think the offerings that “blacks don’t do that anymore” as if rioting were a fad that has now become passe is a bit disingenuous and reeks of elitism.  What I think is an interesting juxtaposition of the sitz in leben of post-2010 is that much of the London riots were actually “organized” by the aid of Twitter and allegedly Facebook posts with pictures incited more violence.  But I believe the use of it debunks this air of “riot elitism” that this isn’t something that “our kind of people” do.

We, the People of the United States, have the potential to riot at any given time if the right catalyst sets it into motion.  It’s not a white thing, nor a black thing, but a people thing.  From protests in Tahir Square in Cairo having called for the ouster of their democratically elected president, to the protests in Taksim Square in Ankarra, Turkey, its clear we as humans have the potential for violent protests that can easily turn into a riot.  No we shouldn’t be race baiting or promoting racial fear mongering, but let us all be vigilant for what we believe in and to protest appropriately.

I preached a sermon based on Mark 11 in 2009 and I feel that it’s sentiments are appropriate to be reverberated yet again some four years later.  When we think of protests, we are revolting against the injustices and the disparities, using the language of the unheard: rioting.  But rather than revolt, plan a revolution, and make your revolution relevant.

I leave you with the rest of the words spoken by Martin Luther King in his speech:

And what is it America has failed to hear? It has failed to hear that the plight of the negro poor has worsened over the last twelve or fifteen years. It has failed to hear that the promises of freedom and justice have not been met. And it has failed to hear that large segments of white society are more concerned about tranquility and the status quo than about justice and humanity.”

Keep it uppity and keep it truthfully radical, JLL

3 thoughts on “The Ethics and Aesthetics of Fear Mongering for Riots after the Zimmerman Verdict

  1. Thank you Uppity, absolutely spot on for such a time as this.

    Keep on keeping it uppity–relevant revolution involves critical thinking while operating in the gray areas between opposing choices in the real world; when most (or at least, IMO, too many of us) prefer either good OR evil, right OR wrong, and black OR white. It is most often (always) this AND that; both/and rather than this OR that. It is generally quite complicated but doable with learned lessons from history, education, and integrity. And it matters.

    Thanks for this post.

  2. Good morning Uppity. Marc Polite here. Thank you for adding to this conversation on the question of violence in response to injustice. Great post, and you make some salient points here. One thing I will say briefly, is that in my piece in particular, it wasn’t about attempting to say that “Blacks don’t do that anymore”. What I was getting at is that rioting is not the default response for every single incident of injustice. For people to pre-emptively suggest that there will be riots says more about their worldview than it does to the situation.

    1. @Marc

      Forgive me if I came off as trying to single you out or something; not my intent. I guess I was rolling all of the random segments I saw on the cable news networks that were discussing it, the couple of articles that I saw not to mention Rev. Sekou’s article that HuffPo covered (even though I didn’t reference it for the sake of article length), and moreso, the Twitter and Facebook statuses that I have read ad infinitum.

      While yes I believe it says a lot about people’s worldview, I guess I don’t want to pigeonhole that worldview into one that is rooted in inherent racism. I think there are some historical data that point to that being a real possibility, but more importantly for me, I think it could possibly point to the fact that an acquittal yet again turns a deaf ear to the millions of black men in this country who have pleaded for justice from a criminal justice system that says “trust me” only to be denied that justice.

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