Riots are a symptom of oppression

Riots are a symptom of oppression
Comment: Riots are not about the breakdown of law and order, they are about the frustration of the marginalised and oppressed and their attempt to get heard, says Pam Bailey.
4 min read
05 May, 2015
Rioting in Baltimore has drawn attention to the issue of race the US [Andrew Burton]
Martin Luther King once said "a riot is the language of the unheard".

Most rioters are not inherently violent; they are merely human beings whose alienation from the governing power structure and perceived inability to effect change finds expression in rocks, bats and rockets.

To observers who have not taken the time to truly listen, these actions appear irrational and self-defeating.

However, if you ask Palestinians in the occupied territories, they will tell you that when they peacefully demonstrate to protest against more than 60 years of occupation by Israel, the international media, the UN, etc rarely notice.

And when they seek to file charges with the International Criminal Court, they are threatened with a cut-off of foreign aid. But when they are killed or fight back, with stones or rockets, they attract the cameras of the international media and, sometimes, real concessions.

Likewise in Baltimore, one Twitter commentator observed: "Media/national attention wouldn't be on Baltimore and Freddie Gray were it not for riots."

Another said: "If not for protests and leaders on the ground in Baltimore, the officers would not have been charged. Protests matter."

Perceptions matter, and it is clear that black people in Baltimore share the feelings of the Palestinians that the elites who control the levers of power must be forced to protect the struggling "underclass".

Riots versus protests

Of course, there is a qualitative difference between protests and riots. The latter are far more destructive. But as Michelle Alexander observes in her book The New Jim Crow: "The easy answer (to "criminal acts") is to wag a finger at those who are behaving badly. However, the more difficult answer - the more courageous one - is to recognise the deep failure of morality as our own...

"Are we willing to demonize a population by trapping them in ghetto communities, then stand back and heap shame and contempt upon them for failing to behave like model citizens?"

Likewise, this comment by Wendell Pierce, an American actor, could very well be said about youth in Gaza and the West Bank: "I'm outraged that in a moment when young people in Baltimore have reacted to this tragedy... that they don't have better avenues to respond - and that the society around them seemingly can't, or won't, understand why they've responded as they have, even though we surely know why."

In Baltimore, the riots transformed into celebrations when the chief prosecutor filed charges against the policemen implicated in Gray's death.
There are many differences between the plight of American blacks and Palestinians in the occupied territories.

However, there also are parallels. For example, all three groups suffer from extremely high rates of arrest and imprisonment.

Blacks account for approximately 13 percent of the US population, yet they make up 40 percent of the almost 2.1 million men in custody.

In the occupied Palestinian territories, it's estimated that 40 percent of the male population can expect to be imprisoned, and 70 percent of Palestinian families will have at least one relative held in custody.

Those similarities are not yet widely recognised among black Americans, but Palestinians are aware.

Eight organisations from the West Bank and Gaza came together to issue this statement on 1 May: "We, Palestinians struggling against Israeli apartheid, stand in solidarity with the residents of Baltimore. We send our condolences to the family of Freddie Gray and all those murdered in police custody.

"We add our voices to the demand that the killers be held accountable. We send our solidarity to the families of the prisoners, and to those arrested for demanding justice, for being black, brown or poor. We stand in solidarity with those whose homes have been foreclosed, with those who live under the constant watch of surveillance cameras and under the constant threat of being stopped, harassed, arrested and assaulted by a militarised police force in their own streets.

"Your struggle for justice, equality and freedom is our struggle."

In Baltimore, the riots transformed into celebrations at the news that the city's chief prosecutor has filed criminal charges against the policemen implicated in the death of Gray. Palestinians however still await some semblance of justice - which means violent protests are sure to keep breaking out.

David Cay Johnston, an investigative reporter who won a Pulitzer Prize while at the New York Times, said: "Riots are a way for the oppressed to make their frustration known... they are a warning sign to societies that they are not addressing the problems, opening cracks that widen until they consume the established order. The message of rioters is change or be changed."