Why Protestors Turn Violent

May 5th 2015

When you saw "The Hunger Games," who did you root for? Katniss and her beleaguered community? Or people in the Capitol wearing pink eyelashes and obliviously eating until they vomited, while the people in other districts starved? I'm going to assume the former, because the movie makes it clear. The government is oppressing the people in District Twelve, and we are supposed to cheer for them as they attempt to overthrow an unfair structure. 

OK, next question: When you saw the protests in Baltimore, who did you feel for? Because if you looked down on the protestors for disturbing the peace, break out the rainbow wigs and sparkle mascara because you might be from the Capitol. 

In this case, many people are most willing to identify with people whose faces and life experiences look most like their own. It was probably easy to imagine the life of the CVS employee who will have to sweep up broken window-glass because we've all had terrible retail jobs before, and we already know what that feels like. It can be much harder to imagine what it feels like to have the kind of life that leads you to throw the brick through the window.

And yes, it is a life. This is not an isolated incident, this protest is not about one Black man whose spine was severed while in police custody (which Baltimore State's Attorney Marilyn Mosby called an illegal arrest). It isn't even just about the several Black men whose killings at the hands of law enforcement have been plastered across news screens in the past year-and-a-half. It is about lifetimes. It is about entire family lines. It is about the whole history of what it means -- and has always meant -- to be Black in America. This is just one of the straws that broke the camel's repeatedly broken, and never fully healed back. 

So, before you go back to your Facebook page to opine on how you aren't racist, but think the uprising in Baltimore justifies the beliefs of those who are racist, I thought that maybe it would help if you spent two minutes imaging a life that would lead someone to pick up a brick, to see if maybe you can understand why someone would throw it. The travesty in Baltimore right now isn't the bricks thrown, it's all of the institutional disparities that lead to bricks being the form of expression for an entire community. 

I could ask you to imagine that when you are born, your mother has an increased chance of dying during childbirth, because of the increased stress of the racism she deals with on a day-to-day basis. Then imagine you're a baby and your very existence is used as fodder for the myth of Black women as "welfare queens," regardless of whether or not your mother is on welfare and regardless of the fact that the majority of people on welfare are whiteThen you got to preschool -- except, you don't, because there are no high-quality preschools in your neighborhood. And your parents can't move because housing discrimination made it so there were only a few neighborhoods for them to choose from. So then your neighborhood determines what public school you go to, and your school has little-to-no resources, the worst teachers, and zero-tolerance policies that lead to you getting suspended for behavior that would normally warrant a detention. And there are police officers in the school to arrest you for breaking school rules. That environment makes it incredibly difficult to learn, and it is an environment that is almost completely segregated. It is very difficult to actually graduate from a school with no books, but plenty of cops, but you do.

Then I would ask you to imagine trying to get in to college after 12 years of public education that left you years behind your white peers who got decent public school educations. The same state graduated them at a 12th grade reading level, and you at a 4th, and now you are competing for college slots. And when you graduate with all those student loans, you can't get a job, because employers routinely reject job applications with "Black" names on them, and you don't have connections because you didn't grow up in a connected neighborhood. So you're underemployed, probably routinely experiencing racism at work, can't pay off those student loans, and you can't even take a walk in your neighborhood to blow off some steam without a police officer stopping you just because they often stop people who look like you, even when you have done nothing wrong. And then you could imagine that every single night, when you turn on the news, there is a story of someone who looks like you being killed by the state. Your country, the one you pay taxes to, kills someone who looks like a member of your family every 28 hours -- and you are being asked to react calmly.

I could ask you to imagine that life and have empathy for it, but the fact is, if you have not already, you're probably not going to. If the increased media attention of the past two years hasn't lead you to do a quick Google search and learn about discrimination in this country, its probably because you just don't want to know. To face the reality of life in District Twelve, you have to give up the fun party life of the Capitol, and some people love living in the Capitol, so they go looking for any excuse not to empathize. This week's most popular excuses are:

  • I would be on their side if they would protest peacefully. There hasn't been a single year since it started that the NAACP hasn't staged a peaceful protest. Apparently, protests haven't been working. Not only have things not gotten better since the Civil Rights movement, some of the hard-won victories of that movement have actually been undone. 
  • Wait to protest when its the "right" victim.

So many people who "aren't racist" are pointing at a Black victim's past to explain why their death shouldn't matter, and they've already missed the chance at a perfect victim. John Crawford was shopping for a toy gun in a Walmart in an open carry state, on the phone with his fiancée when police officers murdered him without asking any questions. He had his back to them, so he couldn't have made any threatening movements. Did I see you protesting for him? What about Aiyana Jones, a seven-year-old girl killed in her sleep when police entered her home on a no-knock raid? A sleeping seven-year-old child isn't a perfect enough victim for you? You're still waiting? Maybe we're tired of waiting and consider all lives valuable.

More excuses include:

  • They should vote for change. (They already did. There is a Black president, and things have only gotten worse, because for the first time in history an entire political party has devoted itself to nothing but obstructionism for two whole terms. So much for voting.)
  • The destruction of property is a step too far.

The uprising in Baltimore is ultimately a response to racism. To suggest otherwise is victim blaming. And just like we have learned not to blame the woman in the cute outfit for her rape or the wife for her husband's choice to beat her, eventually we will learn to stop blaming Black people for the decades of systemic oppression they have suffered at the hands of the American government. Black people did not enslave themselves, make themselves sharecroppers, redline themselves into poor neighborhoods and then systematically pull funding, investment, and services from those neighborhoods. Black people did not segregate themselves into bad schools and then pull funding from those schools, and they did not create legal loopholes like stand your ground laws to make it easy for law enforcement officers and citizens alike to escape punishment for murder. Black people did not create racism. And Black people's response to that abuse will never be an adequate reason for why it happened. The reason is white supremacy, and until we have eradicated it from our country there will continue to be uprisings like this one. Because whether or not you have found empathy for Black people, we are human. And you can only push a human being so far before something breaks. And I think we have proven, that what breaks will not be our spirit. 

Ignorance is no longer an excuse. The Internet is full of articles about wealth and opportunity disparities found in the United States. The only question left to ask yourself is, are you so invested in the status quo that you will look down on the people who are suffering the most? Or will you have at least as much empathy for them as you would a character in a movie?

Share your opinion

Do you think the media is unfairly criticizing protesters in Baltimore?

No 16%Yes 84%