Hate the Rioting, but Love the Rioters

by Benjamin Studebaker

Riots have erupted in Baltimore, Maryland after Freddie Gray, a 25-year old arrested for possession of a switchblade, died in custody after his neck was nearly severed. According to Baltimore’s deputy police commissioner, Jerry Rodriguez, when Gray was arrested and placed in the police van, he could talk, but when he emerged from the van, he could not breathe. Mayor Stephanie Rawlings-Blake concedes that “it’s clear what happened inside the van”. So let’s talk about this.

There are really three angles to this:

  1. Do the rioters have a legitimate grievance?
  2. Is rioting a good strategy for addressing that grievance?
  3. In view of our answers to the first two questions, should we empathize with the rioters?

I’ll do these one at a time.

Do the Rioters Have a Legitimate Grievance?

In the United States, there are significant differences in how blacks and whites view the police. Blacks are much less likely to trust the police to treat them equally:

And blacks are much more likely to believe that the police will use excessive force:

This is because there are big disparities nationally in how blacks and whites are treated by police:

These statistics are often dismissed on the grounds that blacks commit more crimes than whites, but research shows that this does not account for the disparity. In Illinois and Chicago, blacks are searched more often even though they are not significantly more likely to be carrying contraband:

In New York, the racial composition of a neighborhood predicts the incidence of stop and search even when researchers controlled for differences in both poverty and crime rates.

In Baltimore in particular, the problems go even deeper than police disparities. Baltimore is a particularly unequal city–citizens at the 95th income percentile make more than 12 times as much as those at the 20th, making Baltimore one of the most unequal cities in the country:

To make matters worse, research has also shown that Baltimore has minimal social mobility–out of 800 children studied over a quarter century, only 33 managed to move from the lowest  income bracket to the highest, and 50% remained in exactly the same bracket their parents were in. Only 4% of the children from low income families were able to get a college degree. Among whites and blacks of identical educational attainment, whites were more likely to get better paying jobs and were paid more than twice as much as their black counterparts. The researchers hypothesized that these disparities in employment and wages were due to differences in access to social networks–whites tend to have more friends in the right places.

So do these people have legitimate grievances? You bet they do.

Is Rioting a Good Strategy?

As I’ve written before, protests need to be disruptive to impose costs on the state and force the state to respond to grievances. But protests can be disruptive without being violent. A peaceful sit-in or occupation is one thing–arson is another. Violence tends to deepen political and social divides. I’ve seen numerous people who would likely sympathize with the statistics I shared above call the rioters all kinds of dehumanizing names because they see the rioters as threats to themselves, their families, their property, their values, or their way of life more generally–“scum”, “animals”, etc. Riots scare people, and fearful people are much less likely to empathize with the legitimate grievances of the people who are scaring them. To make matters worse, the people the rioters are scaring are the people who own property in Baltimore–these are the people who have money and influence. The unfortunate truth in America is that it is much easier to accomplish political change with those people as allies than as enemies. Blacks outnumber whites in Baltimore by more than 2 to 1:

But because blacks don’t have the money, they don’t have the power. They are not going to succeed in seizing money, property, or power through violence. Baltimore’s police are going to win any confrontation, and if there is any serious danger that the rioters will overcome the police, the state and national guard will be deployed. The rioters do not have the strength to overcome these forces, and when they lose they will likely find themselves even more alienated and marginalized than they were to start with. In the meantime, many of them will have been arrested or hurt, and many police officers will be injured as well. If we’re unlucky, there might even be fatalities on one or both sides. None of this will accomplish anything positive for Baltimore’s poor and marginalized. Rioting is a terrible strategy, it will fail and it will inflict unnecessary suffering on an immense number of people along the way.

Should We Empathize?

But can we blame the rioters for rioting? These are people who have grown up in poverty with no way out. They think that society doesn’t care about them, that the lives of black people or poor people aren’t worth as much to the state or to wider society, and the statistical evidence suggests that they’re right. In the 2016 election, we hear all sorts of chatter about how the various candidates are going to cut spending, cut taxes, and shrink government. We hear nothing about how these candidates are going to help poor people in places like Baltimore find better lives, nothing about rectifying police disparities, nothing about creating new, innovative policies to help disaffected people integrate into society. Can we blame them for feeling marginalized, disaffected, unimportant? Can we blame people who are uneducated, who have been denied opportunities and resources for lashing out?

How does it help us heal our social rifts to call poor, marginalized people “animals”, “thugs”, or “scum”? This language of blame contributes to the popular and false narrative that if poor people only tried harder, if they only chose to act differently, their lives would be better. These are people whose parents (if they were lucky enough to have both in the home and neither was abusive) worked multiple jobs all day and sometimes into the night, who didn’t have the money to send them to fancy schools or give them life-changing experiences. These are people who were given up on from day one, who were never told they could do anything with their lives or given any of the tools necessary to make anything out of them. Even the worst rioters–the ones who are only in it for looting, who don’t even care about the political cause on a conscious level–these people are victims of a social system that advantages the children of the affluent, ignores them, and then demands that they end up in the same place. When we as a society put in nothing, we get nothing back. It takes more than a village to raise a child in this day and age–it takes a society, and we’re absentee. Treat people like they mean nothing, and they’ll treat you like you mean nothing.

It doesn’t make it right, but it does make it predictable. We are the ones who can stop it, we are the ones with the money and resources to change the equation. We can have a government that gives these people resources and opportunities so that they can participate and contribute to our society in positive ways. None of us are better off allowing millions of people’s lives to come to nothing. Each of these people is potential our society has lost and wasted. But when the time comes, what do we do? We vote in more politicians who promise to cut our taxes and reduce spending, who let the affluent keep more of what they make and send less of it to those in need. This is what results from our indifference. We reap what we sow.