“America must see that riots do not develop out of thin air. Certain conditions continue to exist in our society, which must be condemned as vigorously as we condemn riots. In the final analysis, a riot is the language of the unheard. What is it that America has failed to hear?”
“So long as America postpones justice, we stand in the position of having these recurrences of violence and riots over and over again. Social justice and progress are the absolute guarantors of riot prevention.”
I’ve long considered myself a pacifist. I don’t believe that we, as individuals or as a society, should make violence our first response to a problem.
I do, however, understand when violence feels necessary, when it feels like it is the only solution after all others have been attempted and rebuked. I understand why, when it seems that peaceful, nonviolent measures will not suffice, a frustrated populace may turn to expressions of violence. Sometimes, it seems, that is the only way for one’s voice to be heard.
On Sunday, August 23rd, a Black man named Jacob Blake was shot seven times in the back by a police officer in Kenosha, Wisconsin. Thankfully he survived, but the brutality of the video surrounding the event was shocking to behold. And he did not, of course, emerge unscathed — as a result of his injuries, Jacob Blake may never walk again.
When George Floyd was murdered by police on May 25th, it sparked a national outcry against police brutality and the inequities present in U.S. society. Before him, Breonna Taylor was also murdered by police — and her killers are still free. Jacob Blake is only one of the many Black people killed or brutalized by the police since the killing of George Floyd. Others include Tony McDade, David McAtee, Rayshard Brooks, and Joel Acevedo. This, tragically, is not an exhaustive list.
The shooting of Jacob Blake has reignited the calls for racial justice, and led to a resurgence of protests in Kenosha and around the country. In Kenosha, many of these protests have evolved into riots and resulted in burned, looted, and vandalized buildings, business, and vehicles. These demonstrations have, in turn, sparked violent retribution from vigilante groups in Kenosha, which has resulted in three demonstrators being shot.
As King said, though, “riots do not develop out of thin air.” These are not random acts of violence which are being perpetrated by mad criminals who just want to see the streets of Kenosha in flames. These riots are the result of centuries of people — predominantly Black people — going unheard in the face of injustice.
Just under a month after the killing of George Floyd, Governor Evers of Wisconsin submitted a series of police reform bills to the state legislature. Unfortunately, the GOP controlled Wisconsin Senate and Assembly, which haven’t had a regular session day since March, and have refused to return to vote on or even debate the bill. It has languished in this political limbo for two months, and they are not scheduled to return until 2021.
In those two months of inaction, the people of Wisconsin saw their cries for justice and equity go unanswered. They could only sit and grow angrier and more sorrowful as Speaker Vos sat on his hands and neglected his people.
Then, a police officer shot Jacob Blake, and that anger and sorrow boiled over into the violence that we see unfolding now in Kenosha.
The reforms in the bills that Governor Evers proposed included new regulations on use of force by police officers in Wisconsin. Had they been made law, would Jacob Blake still have been shot?
That, of course, is unlikely — the bills probably wouldn’t have gone into effect quickly enough to fundamentally change the tragic outcome of that afternoon in Kenosha. But, if the people had been heard and reforms were inbound, would their anger still have spilled over into riots and destruction?
I find myself using the word tragedy a lot, here, but it is the only word appropriate to describe the mounting and accumulating awfulness that is unfolding in Kenosha. After those first nights of demonstrations, a white vigilante shot 3 of the demonstrators, killing 2 of them. This was the culmination of a movement among white people in Kenosha to “protect” their city. By taking the law into their own hands, they made the unconscionable decision that private property was more valuable than two entire human lives.
I cannot understand that calculation. A building can be rebuilt, merchandise can be replaced. Those peoples’ lives cannot be given back.
“A riot is the language of the unheard.” The people of Wisconsin have not been heard, and have resorted to violence. Rather than condemn and assault and murder the demonstrators, though, it is our moral imperative to fight for equity, to hear the chorus that is shouting in the language of car fires and broken glass. We cannot sit, complacent, and hope that angry white men with guns will terrify enough people that the riots will cease. We cannot abide silence and dismissal from our elected officials. We cannot continue not to hear the Black voices that have been crying out for justice for centuries.
As King said, “Social justice and progress are the absolute guarantors of riot prevention.” If we want peace, if we want an end to the unrest, if we want to protect our buildings and our property and, most importantly, our people, then we must strive for justice. We must strive for equity.
We must hear the unheard, and we must answer their call. No justice, no peace. Black Lives Matter.
Note: Information about the shootings is still unfolding, and the supposed reason for the shootings of the three demonstrators is currently not truly known. I still stand with the demonstrators. Life is more important than property. No civilians with assault rifles should have been patrolling a U.S. city unfettered by police.
If you’d like to provide financial support to those in Wisconsin striving for peace through justice and equity, consider donating to the Milwaukee Freedom Fund, which helps to post bail for those arrested during protests and demonstrations, and to connect them with other necessary legal assistance.