Ferguson, MO: Rioting and Rhetoric

This post deals with the events in Ferguson, MO, in the aftermath of the shooting of unarmed black teenager Michael Brown by a white Ferguson police officer. I have no interest in rehearsing the known facts or the evident malfeasance of Ferguson city and police officials.

I am writing to explore the rhetorical duplicity that is exposed in the coverage and discussion of the violent actions of some protestors in Ferguson. Everyone with media access has bent over backward to condemn the violence on the part of some of those protesting the killing and the highly militarized police response to the initial public reaction. While defending the right to peaceful protest, politicians and pundits have roundly condemned the looting, destruction of property, the throwing of Molotov cocktails and rocks at law enforcement personnel, and the alleged firing of guns at the police.

I won’t advocate violent protest. I find it more interesting to follow the rhetoric that has accompanied the violence and its gradual decline. The decrease in violence has been variously explained. It may be due in part to the presence of State Police Captain Ron Johnson, who is black and has expressed understanding of the feelings of the black community. It has also been attributed to the departure of outsiders who were the alleged perpetrators of violence. (This explanation echoes the claims by southern defenders of segregation that the “troubles” associated with black demands for change were caused by “outside agitators?”) I will also point out that members of the community have participated in clean up and repair projects organized to help victims of riot damage.

The condemnation of violent resistance seems to follow the two traditional arguments: that violence discredits the cause for which “legitimate” protesters are engaged; and that rioters are destroying their own community. The first argument can be easily dismissed as a logical fallacy. If rioting is morally wrong, it does not confer moral rightness on the shooting to death of an unarmed youth by a policeman. Furthermore, in the minds of those who opposed any assertive response on the part of the community, peaceful protest is itself a provocation and an act of disrespect of the lawful authorities.

The argument that the rioters are only hurting their community is rooted in the false assertion that the targets of violence belong to the community. As is so often the case, the businesses destroyed and looted are not owned by persons in the community and do little to increase the community’s prosperity. Most of the damaged businesses, like Walmart, Dollar General, and Quik Trip, are corporately owned chains. These companies are in the business of extracting money from the community. The argument that these businesses also provide jobs must be seen in the context of where the workers spend their (generally low) wages: in these same local stores where the bulk of the profits are taken out of the community.

Many of the other, smaller, truly local businesses are the Asian and Arab owned stores that commonly operate in black neighborhoods throughout the US. Some of these businesses were, tragically, victims of violence. These business owners cannot be faulted for their pursuit of the American dream and they deserve credit for their entrepreneurial drive. But their journey to economic success follows a familiar path that is strewn with alienation, misunderstanding, and contempt.

I am not justifying the attacks on any of these businesses. I am describing a process that has taken place in urban uprisings since the 1960s. The looters then were not altogether indiscriminate in their choice of targets.  You can look at news photos and film from that era that feature businesses with signs that read “Soul Brother,” indicating that the owner is a member of the community and shares the conditions of the rioters. The same applies to the Ferguson looters; they appear to have spared businesses known to be owned by members of the black community.

As expected, the Rhetorician in Chief, President Obama, followed the established script, praising the peaceful demonstrators and condemning the rioters. However, I would call your attention to his second inaugural address, in which he said, “… We the people declare today that the most evident of truths that all of us are created equal — is the star that guides us still; just as it guided our forebears through Seneca Falls and Selma and Stonewall…” Note the juxtaposition (as well as the alliteration): Selma and Stonewall. The clear implication is that black protest is legitimate only when protesters nonviolently subject themselves to the superior force of the oppressor, their heads bloody but unbowed. On the other hand Stonewall represents an altogether different approach to protest.  The full title by which we know the Stonewall event is the “Stonewall Riots.” Not the “Stonewall Pride Parade” or the “Stonewall Freedom March.” The Stonewall Riots! This term refers to events in 1969 in which members of the gay community fought the police in the streets of New York. Ergo, rioting is an acceptable response to police oppression in one circumstance but not in another.

What we are seeing in Ferguson is the replay in the US of scenes we have seen in Tahir Square in Cairo, in Kiev in Ukraine, and in Taksin Gezi Park in Istanbul. Our officials and pundits have praised the resistance to armed oppression in these countries, but condemned it in our own.


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2 Comments on “Ferguson, MO: Rioting and Rhetoric”

  1. Ana King says:

    Thank you.


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