The Language of Rioting

Overnight rioting “erupted” in Baltimore on Monday after the funeral of 25-year-old Freddie Gray. Gray passed a week after a “mysterious” encounter with the Baltimore Police Department (the ones infamously noted here for their impeccably “Happy” service towards their citizens) that resulted in a fatal spinal cord injury. Except, here’s the thing… Gray’s death was anything but mysterious. There is absolutely nothing mysterious about it, except for the reason Gray was stopped by police in the first place and why police seem so baffled with their explanations. Without knowing exactly what happened, we know exactly what happened insofar as we can say that an “arrest” even after a chase should not result in a severed spine.

Similarly, news outlets such as The Baltimore Sun, NBC,  and the Wall Street Journal reported the “erupting” violence, but “erupt” and all of its attendant derivatives are also inadequate to describe the events in Baltimore. According to the Oxford English Dictionary, some definitions of “erupt” are as follows:

1.3 break out or burst forth suddenly and dramatically; 1.4 give vent to anger, enthusiasm, amusement, or other feelings in a sudden and noisy way

Embedded within these definitions are the implication of randomness and spontaneity, a complete disconnect from the underlying structural and historical context of the city. The rioting in Baltimore last night was neither random nor spontaneous. In fact, one can argue that quite the opposite is true. After decades of marginalization and oppression through divestment and economic neglect, disenfranchisement through mass incarceration, police brutality, and just generally being failed by policy choices at the city and state level, it is completely predictable that riots result.

Even if we were to think about “erupt” in its volcanic context – “1.2 explode with with and noise resembling an active volcano –  riots are not volcanoes. Especially not riots in response to injustice and oppression. A volcanic eruption is unpreventable. Systematic oppression, racism, and police brutality are, arguably, completely preventable.

Justice for Freddie Gray is an example of one issue (read: police brutality) in a system full of conflated issues. Focusing on the rioting, which is a symptom and not the cause, is a distraction from the diseased system that is systemic and institutionalized oppression of minorities, the poor, and youth in the United States.

I have said it before and will say it again. Rioting is the language of an unheard people. You may not speak it, but you will understand.

by Portia Allen-Kyle


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