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Guest Post: “Riots” is Racist


This is a guest post from Meredith Heller (The Saucy Scholar)

The term “riots” is racist.  Yes, this is about Ferguson.

Last night, our fair-and-just judicial system decided that a White police officer shooting an unarmed Black teen in a town smothered in racism does not warrant a trial. In a community where the major perpetrator of racist violence and injustice are the police, in a community where the legal system doesn’t see this as a big enough issue to even have a trial, the community has little other option than to enact public protest. That protest can get violent, surely. But calling this form of public and sometimes violent disobedience a “riot” is racist. Riot is the term we use for Black protests and the aftermath of drunken sports victories or losses. When White people protest oppressive institutions, we call it revolution. The words we use matter.

I’m not condoning violence. Of course I’m not, that should (but can’t) go without saying. And if you think this is a rant about police, you don’t know me at all. I like the police. Why wouldn’t I? They generally treat me with deference and respect. Also, I’m a White, femme woman with the letters Ph.D. after her name. By the way, that Ph.D. cache didn’t work so well for Arizona State University Professor Ersula Ore. Lucky for me, I also White and femme. But the majority of the community in Ferguson can’t say the same. And when they go out and publicly protest this legal injustice, this is what they will encounter:


A heavily armed, militarized police force trying to suppress Black folk as they protest about police brutality against Black folk. Wait, didn’t I already see how this played out in The Hunger Games?

For Black people to do this, to leave their homes and to publically protest, is scary and brave, because they shoot unarmed Black people in Ferguson. And it doesn’t even warrant a trial. And we call this rioting.

I had the great fortune of working for Dr. Ingrid Banks. In Intro to Black Studies, Dr. Banks shows this picture:

Photo from Black California Dreamin’: The Crises of California’s African-American Communities, Ed. Clyde Woods

It’s a picture of the Southern California Library near Inglewood standing intact during the 1992 L.A. “riots.” Next to it, a liquor store has been burned to the ground. This picture is living proof that riots are not necessarily blindly destructive, that they are not just about hurting people and looting and malicious anarchy. In this particular case, many, many people made conscious choices about how to direct their public anger. What happened in L.A. and what’s happening in Ferguson is clear and directed public protest. Calling it a riot is cultural racism because it maintains sincere fictions that Black people are dangerous, irrational, and violent (they riot) rather than brave or just (they revolt). So lets call what’s happening a revolt against oppressive ruling systems, and a revolt that responds to violence and destruction with violence and destruction. We don’t have to condone it, but we don’t have to dismiss it as a riot either.

It’s important to accurately context this type of disobedience—use words that clearly and directly speak to what’s going down—because, to quote Battlestar Galactica, all this has happened before, and all this will happen again.  Know how I know?


Oh, also #BlackLivesMatter

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