In the wake of the riots in Ferguson, we’ve seen media coverage, tweets from outraged citizens, and Facebook posts galore, most of which include the words “thugs,” “hoodlums,” “uneducated,” “gang members,” “criminals,” “idiots,” and a slew of other racial slurs about the “looters” and the residents of Ferguson and the entire St. Louis area. Many people (most of whom are white) are conveniently using the aftermath of this entire tragic series of events as a convenient reason to point the finger at people of color (specifically black people) and say, “See… they are ruining their own community and promoting violence, which just goes to show that we are better than them.”
Let’s be honest here… that is the underlying message every time a white person posts a link to an article about the rioting in Missouri, or the Tea Party re-circulates a three month-old story about a white couple in Springfield being brutally attacked by young black males (which was completely unrelated to the events in Ferguson), or conservative media outlets write article after article about the fiscal amount of damage done in Missouri that (white) tax payers will now have to take upon themselves to repair. However, in a rush to point the finger at outraged black citizens, whose anger and frustration with the justice system has boiled over after a refusal by the grand jury to indict Darren Wilson (which, by the way, does not indicate guilt or innocence, only that a trial should occur), what many white people have forgotten is that we pretty much invented rioting.
Sure, we use clever names like “The Boston Tea Party” to refer to historical events, but lest we not forget—that was a riot. By white people. In the 1700’s. Over their outrage that they should be taxed by members of a party in which they had no representation. And what was their response to this feeling of outrage? Why, to riot, of course! And while this riot may not have been particularly violent against other human beings… that was just the beginning of our long and storied history in the United States of America of white people rioting. We have rioted over the ratification of constitutional documents, over a scarcity of jobs between off-duty soldiers and civilians, over land seizures, over objections to grave robbing, over the use of the Bible in public schools, over anti-black sentiments and actions, over the price of food, and even over our sports teams. The term “riot” itself has multiple meanings that can range anywhere from peaceful protests to brutal massacres. What is clear, however, is that rioting has played a central role in the history of this nation. In the wake of hurricane Katrina, the tragic death of Trayvon Martin, and now the tragic death of Michael Brown, race has become a central component in all of our discourse about these recent riots. Therefore, I believe it to be important that we examine and address why the discourse surrounding these most recent riots is vastly different than the discourse surrounding the thousands of riots conducted over the past two hundred-plus years by predominantly white rioters.
A staff writer for BuzzFeed posted an article on November 25th titled “17 reasons white people riot” and the comments section is FILLED with white commenters outraged over how racist this article is—how dare someone write an article specifically calling out white people for their rioting. Ummm… isn’t that what every post, tweet, article, comment, and the like have been doing for the past several days? Making broad generalizations about black people and shaming them for their outrage over systemic injustices? Let me answer that question… Yes. One does not need to use the term “black” or “white” to make an issue about race. Posting articles with pictures of only black rioters, using words like those I mentioned above (thugs, hoodlums, savages, etc.) to describe the people rioting, making comments about “them,” “they,” and “those people,” and proverbially shaking your head in disgust at “their” actions says it all.
Are these the same reactions people had just this past October when baseball fans in San Francisco rioted after their team had just won the World Series? Two people were injured by gunshots, one person was stabbed, police officers had glass bottles hurtled at them, cars were overturned, and fires were started. After discussing all of the damage that was done and the injuries that occurred throughout the downtown area, one Associated Press article simply stated, “The San Francisco Police Department maintained a heavy presence, but also a cool distance as marijuana smoke wafted over Civic Center Plaza and jubilant fans set off fireworks and popped open cans of Pabst Blue Ribbon that someone was selling out of a cooler.” Yes, you read that correctly—the would-be rioters were referred to as “jubilant fans.” Sounds pretty jubilant to me—until all that rioting happened.
How about in 2012 when the University of Kentucky Wildcats won the NCAA Championship? Their team won the national championship and to celebrate, fans and students set over 50 fires, overturned cars, one man was shot, and 20 people were transported to the hospital with injuries. In response to this, the Lexington Police warned fans and students that, “unruly behavior would not be tolerated,” according to ABC News. The President of the university encouraged students to celebrate respectfully and said that, “rowdy behavior detracts from the success of the players who worked tirelessly to represent UK at a national level.” Unruly and rowdy behavior. That’s how we refer to whites when they riot.
When looking through the online comments surrounding the coverage of these two riots, they look markedly different than the comments we have been seeing in response to Ferguson. Here are a few from the news stories about the San Francisco and Kentucky riots:
“Okay I'm a student at UK and all the news is making the students look like a bunch of idiots when in reality only a handful of them are. Most everybody was celebrating in a safe and non-violent way but the students that flipped the cars and stuff made everyone look stupid. I promise we're not just a bunch of classless rioters.”
“This riot was at least 10 times as bad as the riot after Joe Paterno was fired, yet these fans were "just celebrating" because they "deserved it." while every Penn State student is an idiot for standing up for what they believe is a wrong. Biased much?”
“I'm appalled at the way the media is making our town look and it puts a damper on what should be the happiest week of our college career. However, I would like to thank the Swat teams and city/campus police for making this championships one of the best nights of my life!”
“Here come the motorcycle cops. At least where I am there are no more hooligans. Maybe they went off to the restroom or charge their iPhones”
“It's the sign of the times. Badly behaved drivers on the road, badly behaved sports fans, selfish, self-centered people.”
“The human being just ain't what it used to be.”
Compare the comments above to just a few of the online comments from coverage of the Ferguson riots:
“Enough with trying to make Michael Brown into Gandhi. Protesters need to find a better poster boy for police brutality than a strong-arm robber who attacked a cop and paid for his stupidity with his life. If protesters or Ram player's want to accurately honor Michael Brown. They should be carrying a box of cigarellos instead of putting their hands up since the grand jury found that claim to be a lie.”
“Michael Brown was a thug/criminal has everyone forgotten that? He did not deserve to die, however he chose to disobey orders from a Police Officer, would the outcome have been the same if that officer had been black?”
“Protesting, looting, and burning property in honor of a violent thief who attacked the police: WHO ARE THE REAL TURKEYS' THIS THANKSGIVING!!!!”
“I love watching the rioters in Ferguson. Makes me feel secure in my knowledge about human nature. Thank you, Ferguson rioters, for being who I knew you to be.”
“An appropriate testimonial to the life and death of Michael Brown, himself a thug and looter. The cops should have been using live ammo on this rabble. They are not social protestors - they are criminals looking for an excuse.”
“Why are we letting a few hundred dirt bags run wild? Just another consequence of the new Democratic world where laws mean nothing. You can thank too the Democratic policies of the last fifty years which enabled this scum to breed and produce children they could not feed.”
The media coverage and comments above are but a few responses to recent rioting, yet they sound so very different from one another. I urge all of us to think long and hard about why the discourse that occurs when whites riot over sports teams, pumpkin festivals, and the taxation of tea is vastly different than the discourse that occurs when people of color riot over flaws in our criminal justice system, police brutality against men of color, and systemic racism. If rioting is rioting, then why don’t we regard all rioting in the same way? And if, as so many claim, race was not a factor in Katrina, the shooting of Trayvon Martin, and the shooting of Michael Brown, then why is it so ever-present in all of the discourse surrounding these events from the media, from Facebook posts, from Tweets and hastags, and from the blatant vitriol people continue to spew all over the internet? Short answer… all of this is most definitely about race and about the double standard that we constantly perpetuate when we refuse to hold whites to the same level of accountability that we are quick to hold people of color to in this nation. Whites riot, too… although it rarely has anything to do with oppression or injustices—it’s usually because our sports teams won/lost.