Rioting and Looting: The Effectiveness of Protests That Turn Violent and What We Should Focus On

Protests and uprisings have spread worldwide since the murder of George Floyd in Minneapolis, Minn. on May 25. A police precinct was taken over by protesters in Seattle and an “autonomous zone” was created, the Third Precinct in Minneapolis was burnt down on May 28 while protesters chanted “I can’t breathe,” the CNN headquarters, which has a police station in it, was also a site of confrontation between protesters and the police. 

Statues honoring white supremacists were torn down in a number of states in the South and one was ripped from its pedestal thrown into a harbor in Bristol, a city in southwest England. Widespread destruction in cities across the country has dominated media coverage, although many of the protests have been peaceful. Protesters stood in defiance of the curfews across the country and bail funds have been set up for protesters that have been arrested. 

Some may recoil at the sight of destruction and say that isn’t the way to affect change in your community, while others have posited the exact opposite. The destruction for some may be a cathartic release — an act of open defiance against a system that has oppressed them for too long.

In one video I came across on Twitter a woman explained how she views the protests. She said there are essentially three types of people in the streets: protesters, rioters and looters. She says that the protesters are there to make their voices heard; the rioters are out because they are upset with the system and want to “fuck shit up and that is what they are going to do regardless.” 

And then she elaborates on the looters. She says they are out to do just that: to loot. But stops short of condemning their actions. Instead she flips the narrative. She says we should not solely focus on what they are doing, rather we should focus on why they are doing it. 

“Let’s ask ourselves why in this country the financial gap between poor blacks and the rest of the world is at such a distance that people feel like their only hope and only opportunity to get some of the things that we flaunt and flash in front of them all the time is to walk through a broken glass window and get it,” she says. “We need to be questioning that why… why are people that broke…?”

She continues to break down the reasons on why Black people were brought to this country and uses the game of Monopoly to explain the current economic outcome for many Blacks in America. In sum, she says that after 400 rounds (or years) of the game, Black people had to turn over their wealth to white people and then for 50 rounds as they were acquiring and building wealth, it was stolen from them and the economic institutions were literally burnt to the ground in places like Tulsa, Okla. and Rosewood, Fla. And then one day, white institutions told Black people that they were then able to play the game, but they were continually shamed with negative connotations in the media when it came to affirmative action, welfare and other systems meant to economically lift people up. 

“So, when they say ‘why do you want to burn down the community, why do you burn down your own neighborhood?’ It’s not ours,” the woman in the video says. “We don’t own anything…. The social contract is broken. And if the social contract is broken, then why the fuck do I give a shit about burning the fucking Football Hall of Fame or about burning a fucking Target? You broke the contract when you killed us in the streets and didn’t give a fuck.”

It is this sentiment here that I would like to focus on: why one should care if everything around them burns.

I am going to come right out and say that I absolutely do not condemn the looting and destruction of property that has happened. When people are continually backed up against a wall and stripped of resources and the means to pay for those resources what exactly do those in power think will happen? 

I actually think that these massive protests that result in destruction of property do not happen enough. Look at the French. Pretty much every protest they have involves destruction of property and I don’t care what some may say about the efficacy of it affecting social change, IT WORKS. The destruction of property makes peaceful protests that much more efficient because if the demands of the group are not met, then those in power know what is awaiting them. 

People have been protesting police violence in its current form essentially since Rodney King was nearly beaten to death by the Los Angeles Police Department in the 90s. And what change has dramatically happened since that beating? 

No major policy changes came after the death of Michael Brown Jr. in Ferguson, Mo. No major changes after the death of Philando Castille in St. Anthony, Minn. No changes after the death of Stephon Clark in Sacramento, Calif. No changes after the police even shot and killed a Black child in Cleveland, Ohio — Tamir Rice. 

You pick the Black man that was unjustifiably murdered by police before George Floyd and you will see one thing that has routinely happened: Bullshit apologies from those in power. We only see change when the protests come with a threat of destruction and, in particular, the threat of destruction to wealthy, white-owned areas.

Looting, rioting and theft of property are literally hallmarks of this country, it is the defining and heralded act that set off the Revolutionary War. So, to condemn those who take to the streets and break shit because they themselves have been routinely screwed by a system is something, IMO, should not even cross your mind. These protests, and the destruction that has followed some of them, have been effective because they have been in predominantly wealthy areas. Those demanding justice have deliberately turned their ire towards the wealthy white suburbs to wake them up and make them feel uncomfortable. 

When it comes to looting we should not condemn the person stealing what they can essentially only carry in their hands. We should condemn the concerted efforts to loot areas of their wealth by raising the rent to near unpayable amounts, by paying starvation wages that force people to hold multiple jobs and the targeted decisions to displace communities of color. 

For this I will point to Cincinnati, Ohio. 

Back in the early 2000s public housing surrounded the University of Cincinnati campus as well as the Over the Rhine area. According to Cincinnati’s 2002 Comprehensive Plan, there were around 5,300 housing units available in the OTR area and around 3,200 of them were rent restricted. That number soon dropped to about 2,400 due to one realty company’s decision to no longer honor Section 8 housing vouchers. On top of that, many of the surrounding buildings were in need of repair. 

“There are many buildings in OTR that have been condemned by the City of Cincinnati…. The number of vacant buildings in OTR presents both a present challenge and a future housing opportunity,” the city report reads. Notice here how the vacant buildings do not pose a current housing opportunity, rather a future once the community currently inhabiting it is displaced.

“The presence of so many vacant buildings in the neighborhood has a measurable negative impact on quality of life issues,” the report continues. “Vacant buildings can be used for various criminal activities including drug trafficking and prostitution. Rows of boarded up buildings rob streets of vitality and create the impression of deterioration and neglect. The investment required to stabilize and rehabilitate a vacant building in OTR is substantial. Renovation of an abandoned building often requires the abatement of hazardous materials and extensive upgrades, including new plumbing, new electrical wiring and the installation of sprinkler/fire suppression systems.”

So the solution to filling the vacant buildings is not for the City to invest in them and to revitalize the area by allocating tax dollars to fund public projects. Instead city official point to how expensive it would be to rehab these buildings and eventually go on to rely on the private sector — which is only concerned with its bottom line. 

The city report goes on to mention that OTR was a place where the homeless could easily access services such as food and housing services, medical services, job placement services, among others. But the City would not let that stand in its way. 

“Some stakeholders had concern that there are too many social service organizations in OTR, thereby perpetuating the culture of poverty in the neighborhood,” the report reads, never thoroughly identifying who the “stakeholders” but making it clear that it is not the people actually living there. “Others saw that social service organizations work very hard to improve the lives of people in the neighborhood, but do so with limited resources and do not receive enough support. Some reported that some individuals or groups seem to simply want to ‘sweep poor people under the rug.’”

The intentions of the City Council at that time could not be more blatant: Displace the poor, move investors in, fill the area with shops and services that cater to a different audience. 

There was pushback from the people who lived in OTR at the time. The residents there had a sense of pride in the work they were doing and wanted to continue with their mission of improving the area in which they lived. 

“OTR residents have explained and are proud of the notion that the neighborhood is a place where things are done differently, where there is a network of community support and where there is a grassroots movement for the rights of the poor. Together, all of these factors attract people who are looking for a second chance,” the report reads. “On the other hand, many feel that by making the neighborhood so convenient for people who are homeless and people with addictions, it makes it less attractive for visitors and future development.” (Emphasis added).

So not only did they sweep the poor under the rug, Cincinnati city officials swept a vibrant community under the rug. Instead of reinvesting in this area, city officials instead decided to cater to white outsiders who they thought would want “to buy a newspaper, an ice cream cone or lunch.”

The city report also notes the rise of the Black population within OTR and the subsequent disinvestment of the area. The report says that disinvestment in the OTR area was largely due to population loss after a peak in 1900. It, ignorantly, notes that the population loss was “due to modern transportation, social and economic patterns.”

I say the report ignorantly notes that loss of population because missing from the report was any mention of white flight from the inner city or redlining that kept Black populations corralled in certain areas. The report continues to note that although disinvestment in OTR continued, the Black population started to grow in OTR.

“During the 1960s and 1970s, although OTR’s population declined, the African American population began to increase,” the report reads. “This increase is perceived by many as a result of African Americans being displaced from the West End and Queensgate communities.”

And the economic revitalization of a “run down” area did little to integrate the city. This 2015 City Beat article quotes a study that found Cincinnati was the eighth most-segregated city in the country and also points to another study that “ranked Cincinnati 50 out of 52 cities when it came to the economic prospects of black residents.”

The OTR area was, and still is, a predominantly Black area. However, times continue to skew this outlook. The sense of community is lost, and OTR can now be described as a place “where development and gentrification have transformed the neighborhood from a primarily black community to an entertainment district and tourist destination.

One long-time resident described the changes this way. 

“It feels like someone has walked into your home, hung up their coat, made dinner, kissed your husband and started playing cards with your kids without you,” she told a Cincinnati Enquirer reporter.

Now I would like to bring it back to what the woman was saying earlier about why should people who live in an area that has been routinely and purposefully gutted by those in power give a shit when it comes to their city burning. It seems as if those in power want to call the actions of those who react to economic strangulation “looters,” but stop short when the concerted efforts by a city council and private investors do the same thing. 

Those in power, and this extends to the media, will call people burning and stealing from the shops in their area “looters” and “criminals,” but will heap praise upon the capitalists that come into an area and profit off of the people in the form of high rent, low wages and targeted policing due to political influence.

I will never condemn the actions of those taking to the streets and revolting against a system that has sought to oppress them, how could you? When it comes to people fighting for equality, when it comes to a group of people that have told white society for centuries to stop killing them, how can we cast a single source of blame? 

And what about the notion of “outside agitators.”

Were there some looters that were white and from a more affluent background, yes. 

Were there Black and minority owned businesses smashed and looted, yes. 

However, these places of business are still, more than not, covered by insurance policies and owners will, in the most part, be paid out. Benjamin Dixon, a journalist and podcaster out of the Atlanta area, flips the narrative much like the women in the Twitter video. Instead of focusing on if protesters should be burning down buildings, he asks if they have a reason to burn them down.

“Whether or not I condemn or condone it is immaterial right now at this present moment,” he says. “Do we have a reason and if you saw that video, what else are we supposed to do?” 

He goes on to point to the case of Breonna Taylor in Louisville, Ky. who was shot and killed in her own home by police serving a no-knock warrant on the wrong house. 

“And so what I am saying is that we have a valid reason to be in the streets,” Dixon says. “When tens of thousands of people take to the streets, something is going to happen… and the chaos that ensues has been started by the police on so many occasions.”

And so to sum things up, I would say that instead of focusing on the destruction done by protesters — that will be cleaned up in a matter of weeks or months, tops — we should instead look at the destruction wreaked upon Black communities since they have been brought here. We should look at the reasons why people are in the streets and doing what they are doing and instead of what they are doing. I will finish with this quote from Dixon during an interview on June 4.

“If we take the sum total of everything that was lost this weekend, we still wouldn’t be able to compare it to the damage that the police-state has done across this country particularly to the Black community,” he said. “We definitely can’t compare it to the damage done by Wall Street and we most certainly can’t compare it to the damage done by this country domestically as well as internationally.”

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