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How to end a riot

In 2009 in Oakland, 2014 in Ferguson, and now earlier this week in Baltimore, people have taken to the streets — or sat down to write — in an effort to make things better. And, so often, the time between a young man breathing his last breath, and the onslaught of our anger — a deserved anger; a mother’s anger; a country’s anger — we do not have a time to share in our sorrow at the loss of life. So, before I share my thoughts today, I want to acknowledge the sorrow I share with a family, and a nation, for Freddie Gray. It is the same sorrow felt for Oscar Grant, Michael Brown, Eric Garner, Tamir Rice, Walter Scott and many others — far too many others — we have lost in between (human beings who have names, and should be named. Please forgive me for being unable to name them all today).

Freddie Gray’s spine was snapped in the back of a police van, and he died of his injuries.  This week in Baltimore, riots broke out in in response.

I am like many of you. I am tired of riots. I am tired of the buildings burning and tear gas being lobbed. I am tired of the Americans being mobilized against other Americans, and I am tired of people being hurt.

But I am not going to call for the riots in Baltimore to end. I am not going to ask the protesters to go home, and I’m not going to tell them how to protest. I support their protest, and if they are to be called rioters, then I support these rioters.

Because when young people are standing up for themselves, and we tell them that rioting is deplorable, and looting is irreprehensible, or “counter-productive,” — when we call them thugs — we make the unforgivable mistake of pretending that they are different from us. We pretend that their decision to riot is one they made lightly — or worse, we pretend that they have a greater proclivity towards violence than we ourselves do. When we explain to them that protests must be nonviolent to be effective, we pretend that they do not know the things that we know: we pretend that they have not heard what Dr. Martin Luther King spoke of when he preached of nonviolence.

I refuse to believe any of that. I refuse to believe that the young people in Baltimore are not just as tired of the riots as rest of us. I refuse to believe that people standing up in defense of black men’s lives made the decision to riot as casually as the idiots who chose to riot pointlessly after a Giants game.

While this violence may not make sense to all of us, it is not senseless. Understand that the riot in Baltimore is more than a call for political action, or an act of defiance — it is an act of self-defense. In the wake of Freddie Gray’s death, and in the wake of three years that have come with more than 100 proven cases of police brutality, the young people of Baltimore have risen up to do what the law has thus far failed to do: They have risen up to defend one another.

Some may claim that Baltimore is defending against an imaginary attack; they may say that this anger is a fabricated, and the riot is perhaps an excuse to break and steal things. These people ignore the fact that Freddie Gray, an American and a human being, was killed in police custody, and, as of today, no one can tell us why. They ignore the fact that black men are being killed by police with shocking regularity, and they turn a blind eye to the videos that show Walter Scott, unarmed and fleeing, being shot in the back and Eric Garner, unarmed and prostrate, being strangled to death. But worse than ignoring these terrible truths, those who deny the justice of this protest deny the dignity of their fellow Americans. They disrespect them by insinuating that they choose to endanger their own lives for asinine reasons. And while it can be hard to understand how prevalent and lethal racism has remained as it slowly recedes out of the hearts of our countrymen, it is vital we understand that vicious racism survives in our institutions, and in the subtle forces that socialize our young people.

What worries me even more though — and, in 1963, worried Dr. King — is that even those who acknowledge that something is deeply wrong refuse to support Baltimoreans if they choose to riot. Even when people agree that Baltimoreans are being attacked, they argue that violence cannot be fought with violence. They demand that the protestors in Baltimore embrace nonviolence.

While I will not debate the merits of nonviolence, I believe it imperative we ask ourselves where our calls for nonviolence come from. Do they represent our commitment to Dr. King’s words, and our belief in the universal immorality of violence? Or do they originate from our hesitance (or refusal) to change, and our unwillingness to pay the price for our obstinacy?

I’m inclined to believe the latter. Because if Americans truly believe that violence is never acceptable — that nonviolence is always the right path — then no one would ever be shot by police, because police would not be allowed to carry guns. If we are to say to the people of Baltimore that violence is never acceptable, even in self-defense, then it should be unacceptable for police officers to fire their weapons — even if fired in their own defense.

Our country fought a bloody revolution to free itself from oppression, and, before that, our forefathers took to vandalism and destroyed British tea in defense of liberty. If we are to have integrity in our respect for nonviolence, then let us condemn those acts. But if we cannot condemn wars and violence undertaken in defense of the freedom or safety of our citizens, then let us accept nonviolence for what it truly is: an act of incredible mercy made by those who fight oppression. So while I have my own thoughts about the morality of nonviolence, I acknowledge that, in America, we view nonviolence as a powerful tactic for change — but not a moral imperative.

I cannot help but think that the protestors in Baltimore understand all of this. I know they understand the power of nonviolence, and I know that they, like all of us, understand the teachings of Dr. King.

So while the philosophy of nonviolence resonates with me, I refuse to condescend to my fellow Americans — people who are as smart as I am, who know their history as well as I do — and tell them that they do not understand how to protest, and demand that they embrace nonviolence. I understand the awful position they find themselves in, because I know that nonviolent protest is used to create change and bring attention to a cause. But despite more than a hundred years of protest, black men are still being killed, and their killers continue to escape with impunity. And while we know that the overwhelming number of people in Baltimore protested peacefully, today we only discuss the violence.

While perhaps some of the violence and looting in Baltimore was truly senseless, the overwhelming majority of us, and the majority of the people in Baltimore, want these riots to stop. But the riots will not end with us shouting at the protestors to go home. It will not end with us chastising them for being violent. It will end when we tell our fellow Americans what they have deserved to hear us say for so long:

We are listening. We must do better. And we will do better.

Contact Jack Herrera at herreraj ‘at’ stanford.edu. 

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