When Is a Riot "Right?"

Updated: Jun 24, 2020

“Let me say as I’ve always said, and I will always continue to say, that riots are socially destructive and self-defeating. But in the final analysis, a riot is the language of the unheard. And what is it the America has failed to hear? It has failed to hear that the plight of the Negro poor has worsened over the last few 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, equality, and humanity. And so in a real sense our nation’s summer s of riots are caused by our nation’s winters of delay. And as long as America postpones justice, we stand in the position of having these reoccurrences of violence and riots over and over again.” – Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.

These words could have been written today and be just as true. American has continued to live in her winter of delay, and hence we continue to experience the summers of unrest. We cannot expect the unrest to end, until the delay has also met its end. I think we are finally beginning to understand this as a society. Our leaders are finally beginning to hear it. But what do we do now?

We’ve all seen what is going on, these riots have spread from coast to coast in a matter of days. We have international neighbors marching in the streets in solidarity with our protestors here at home. Our winter of delay, I think, will have no choice but to see its end soon. Hopefully, when it does, we can come back together and rebuild from our summer of riots.

In the meantime, what do we do? Do we judge the riots as only a group of miscreants bent on chaos? Do we wag our finger at them and say that they’ve shamed the memory of the man they wanted to honor? Do we cheer them on and tell the world it deserves to burn for all its wrongs? None of these options feel “right.” So we are faced with the dilemma of what to do. We like to have a clear right and wrong, we like to have a good guy and a bad guy.

We’ve seen the photos of the burning buildings, the looting, we’ve heard the stories of bricks being dropped off interstates.

We’ve seen the video George Floyd being callously murdered in broad daylight. We’ve seen the pictures of children pepper sprayed in the face and young women shot with rubber bullets while they carry their groceries home. We’ve seen the videos of journalists being arrested while covering the events live. We’ve seen the photos of police officers joining the protests and we’ve seen the photos of people lining up to create a barrier between the police officers and their fellow protestors.

So, who is right, and hence, who is wrong? We, as a society, seem to need to establish that. How do we judge who is right, who is wrong, where is this line that should be drawn? I have to ask myself, as a white woman, do I even have any right to determine where that line should be? I don’t have any idea what it’s like to live in this country as a person of color.

I can stand with my neighbor, but I can never completely understand. I can try to imagine the rage and frustration of a system that continually targets and ignores you. I can look at my young sons and try to imagine the desperation that would come about from having to fear for their lives simply because of their skin tone. But I can never completely understand it.

Can a riot ever be right? The question makes me consider another riot that occurred some time ago. Where a group of men, angry at being treated unfairly by those who were supposed to protect them, banded together. They attempted to write letters, to reach out to the people in power by peaceful means. But those attempts were ignored, repeatedly, until they had finally had enough.

They went out in the night and destroyed merchant property to send a message to the people in power, but also to their neighbor, that this cannot continue. If they wouldn’t listen to peaceful means, maybe they would listen when the economy was hit. Maybe that would finally reach them, when nothing else had.

It could have been considered an act of terrorism, as I’ve heard these current riots being referred to. Today, we look back on that event as one of American patriotism, bravery, and free will. Today, we look back on it as the Boston Tea Party. So, it does make me wonder, wherever we draw the line today, how will history record these events? Who will our children’s children view as being in the “right”?

Some things that have occurred over this past week, I believe that we can all agree are either right or wrong. Murdering George Floyd was clearly wrong, shooting children in the face with rubber bullets is wrong, dropping bricks on innocent people as they drive down the road, and plowing into a group of peaceful protestors are clearly wrong. But maybe, just maybe, in order for us to move past our summer of riots, we need to suspend our need for right and wrong.

Maybe, we simply need to stop and hear each other out. Maybe we need to recognize that we cannot know what it’s like to walk in the shoes of our neighbor, we can only ask them for their experiences. Maybe we can decide to stand together, no right, no wrong, just humanity, and take a step forward. Maybe, if we can suspend this need to have a bad guy and good guy, we can understand that the way one guy is treated effects each of us. If one of us cease to matter, no one will matter.

Maybe when we stop trying to defend ourselves, so we’re not viewed as the “bad guy,” we won’t be so eager to cast our neighbor as the bad guy. Maybe, then we’ll see that we all share the same “bad guy.”

Maybe, when a riot can lead us into that new future and teaches us to finally hear one another, that riot ends up being right. Maybe then we can leave both the winter of delay and summer of riots behind us. Then we can step into the spring and name it together.

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©2020 Shawna Marshall for MN State Senate.