Thursday, May 7, 2015

Why the Ferguson and Baltimore riots are different than every other riot in history

Have you noticed that the recent riots in Baltimore and Ferguson seem different than every other riot we learned about in school or see in the movies? Have you taken a moment to wonder why this is? Well, try this: find an uprising by the poor against an establishment that’s either over 150 years old or in a fictional narrative (Hunger Games, Star Wars, The Matrix, etc?) and take notice of who you identify with. Take notice of who you cheer for and who you empathize with. Take notice of where your sense of respect lands for the bravery and sacrifice of the oppressed. Is there one single populist uprising, historical or fictional, that you honestly side with the establishment?

Our nationalistic narrative teaches us from an early age that our freedom came from rising up against establishment powers. Our country was built on it. It’s ingrained in us to view history through the lens of the underdog, the oppressed, the poor, and the marginalized on a truly consistent basis. It is so natural that we don’t even notice it. But as we watch what is happening in our own country--in Ferguson and Baltimore--we have a completely different and visceral reaction: these riots are different. These riots are not the same as every other riot we’ve ever learned about. These riots are perpetrated by thugs who have no justified reason for violence and destruction. All the other riots had a purpose, but not these, no way.

So here’s the big question: if this turns into a flashpoint of American history, and the riots continue and alter our society in a historically noticeable way, how will the people view them in 200 years? Will they see them with our perspective? Or will they view them the exact same way we view the uprisings of 200, 300, 400 years ago?

The uncomfortable truth that we all need to face is the only thing different here is our perspective. These are the only riots out of the historical thousands that are different because they are against us. The truth is that we are the establishment here. We work in the establishment, we vacation in it, and we buy houses, cars, trucks, boats and motorcycles in it. We put our kids into it and trust it to take care of our elders. We tell ourselves that we are individual and unique and that this very individualism and uniqueness will allow us to thrive inside this establishment. We all want to be special, but how can we be special if we don’t have an establishment to recognize it?

As we see good, honest people invoke the words of Dr. King over a CVS store being burned but not for the constant reports of unarmed black kids being killed, we have to recognize and admit that we identify more with the CVS store than the dead kids. That attack on the CVS store, which played in endless loops on cable news, is us! We are that CVS store. These riots are different because they are attacking us. Our invocation of the words of Dr. King and Ghandi over a CVS store, but not kids being killed, shows us everything we need to know about how history will view this.  

As we live in, invest in, and build our establishment that has a consistent historical record of standardized violence against poor minorities, we can’t stand back and be shocked, with any type of intellectual honesty, that we receive it back. We, at the very least, have to admit that we hold a strong double standard when it comes to violence. We celebrate and make a hero out of the black mom who beats the shit out of her kid on national TV, but we would be appalled if it happened in a rich, white suburb.

“Over the past four years, more than 100 people [in Baltimore] have won court judgments or settlements related to allegations of brutality and civil rights violations. Victims include a 15-year-old boy riding a dirt bike, a 26-year-old pregnant accountant who had witnessed a beating, a 50-year-old woman selling church raffle tickets, a 65-year-old church deacon rolling a cigarette, and an 87-year-old grandmother aiding her wounded grandson.

“The money paid out ($5.7 Million) by the city to cover for the brutal acts of its police department would be enough to build a state-of-the-art rec center or renovations at more than 30 playgrounds. Instead, the money was used to cover for the brutal acts of the city's police department and ensure they remained well beyond any semblance of justice.”  -- Ta-Nehisi Coates quoting the Baltimore Sun report: Undue Force

I get the sense that a lot of us just don’t understand what true marginalization means (or the difference between “understanding” and “condoning” events, for that matter). We just can’t understand why these people don’t work, don’t get an education, don’t....just be rich. We can understand marginalization within the historical sense, or in the Hunger Games, but not in today’s world. Because understanding it in today’s world means that something might be wrong. And admitting something could be wrong might, just might, alter the social power structure that deep down we all worship and obey. Who among us wants that?

John Oliver on the realities of marginalization in Ferguson

--Brian Paul Swenk

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