The Uncomfortable Truth of a Riot

Part of me says that I shouldn’t write about this.

Somehow, I missed the news that there were riots ongoing in an impoverished neighborhood in Baltimore. I missed the news that yet another young black man had died after an encounter with police. I missed the news that what started as a reasonably non-violent arrest of a young man – even if the arrest was for reasons that seem less than legitimate – ended with his spinal column being mostly severed, sometime between him being put into a police van and arriving at the police station.

I missed the interviews with the police commissioner and mayor, where the former said that there was no evidence of trauma beyond the spinal cord injury and the latter could only admit that Mr. Gray hadn’t received timely medical attention for an asthma attack.

I’m not surprised that I missed this event, or overlooked it, because the news has been filled recently with these kinds of stories: stories of young men (mostly black) who have encounters with police and end up dead under suspicious circumstances. I’ve read and watched so many police chiefs and politicians explain it away, or shrug their shoulders in either ignorance or apathy.

I have watched friends that I consider to be conscientious and well-meaning people use language to describe both the arrested young men and the inevitable protesters that makes me wince. While very few have ever used the forbidden “N-Word”, I have heard “animals”, “savages” and “thugs” far more often than I’m comfortable with.

I have watched other friends – and I include myself in this group – wrestle with the socioeconomic and racial issues that surround these kinds of incidents, these kinds of neighborhoods, and the protests that spring up. Yet, they all get backed into a corner when protests turn violent, when they are suddenly asked to explain how people who burn businesses and destroy cars can possibly be victims.

I have moved beyond disappointment where police killings are concerned. I have moved into a place that can most accurately be described as despair – that place where you want to care, but it feels so useless, so futile.

I want to mouth empty words about the importance of non-violence, how I condemn the riots (as if my condemnation or support matters at all). I want to quote MLK Jr. and Ghandi and Jesus. I want to just say that I’m praying for peace in cities like Baltimore, New York, Ferguson. But, I just can’t.

There’s an uncomfortable truth in a riot that a peaceful protest can never convey.

A peaceful protest says, “Please listen to us. We’re hurting, we want justice, we want reconciliation.”

A riot screams, “Enough is enough! We’re tired, we’re angry, and YOU’RE NOT LISTENING TO US!

Riots are typically not carried out by well-meaning, conscientious people. The videos and pictures you see from riots are generally of young, angry men, who have neither the experience or wisdom of years to take well-considered, patient action. The justice that their actions demand is immediate. They’re not asking to be listened to.

They’re demanding to be heard.

The entire nation does a lot of hand-wringing when protests are voiced with thrown rocks and burned buildings. The Internet community falls into two categories: those who are simply shocked that violence has erupted, and those who recognize the root causes but don’t ever want to be backed into a corner, with anyone thinking that they condone the violence.

I don’t condone it either. Actually, I don’t feel that I have the right or the context to either condone or condemn the violence in Baltimore.

I hear a cry for help in every rock thrown. I hear a desperate plea in every business and community center put to the flame. And while I weep for the residents and business owners of the community in turmoil, I can’t help but also weep for the crowds of young people who feel that they have no other redress than destruction, no other means of negotiation than to strike back against a police force that they feel has brutalized and oppressed them.

A documented history of years of abuses by the police against residents in this community was not enough to be heard.

Peaceful marches by the black community (and others on behalf of the community) going back to Selma in 1965 have not been enough to be heard.

The cries of mothers and grandmothers and men of all ages have not been enough to be heard.

Now, a community is in flames, a state of emergency has been declared, a curfew has been imposed, the National Guard has been called in to restore order, and we wring our hands and wish that “they” could find more peaceful forms of protest.

The uncomfortable truth of a riot is that it surely is, as MLK Jr. so eloquently stated, the “voice of the unheard.” It is a form of protest that is turned to when all other forms of protest have been ignored. It is the citizens of Jerusalem standing up against a vastly superior Roman empire after living under its brutal yoke. It is the American colonists firing on British troops after years of attempts at negotiation. It is the homegrown insurgency of Iraq firing AK-47s at an army that had tanks and low-altitude bombers.

Maybe that’s why I’m so sensitive about this. I was part of a policing force that was, at times, brutal to a small neighborhood in Ramadi. We felt it was necessary to protect those citizens that weren’t shooting at us. But, we never stopped to consider that we – the vastly superior force – had helped create the conditions from which the residents needed protecting. All we saw were “military aged males” out in the streets with AKs, not people who chafed under decades of rule from a dictator and years of rule by men with guns. Every bullet fired at us was an act of protest.

I lost friends and comrades in that city, and I am hesitant to show empathy to the men who killed them. But I can’t help but see the parallels between what I saw and experienced in Ramadi, and what I see happening on the streets of our cities almost a decade later. A group of angry young people rising up against a vastly superior and better armed force, because they need to be heard. I can’t imagine that any of them entertain the thought of overthrowing the entire Baltimore Police Department or the Maryland National Guard, and yet the desperation is so great that they’re willing to risk the crushing violence that could be visited on them at any time by the arrayed forces of the local, state and national governments.

I do pray that the violence will stop. But, my more earnest prayer is that we will stop and listen. It is an uncomfortable truth that we’re hearing, and it’s far easier to dismiss it as “outside agitators” or “thugs” or “animals” or “savages” instead of desperate young people who see no hope beyond a small gesture of retaliation.

I pray for the faith leaders – of many different faiths – who are actively working for peace and reconciliation in this community. I also pray that they will remember that Jesus preached non-violent action for years, but it was only the cleansing of the Temple that got him noticed by the authorities.

And I pray for all the people, young and old, who are beyond hope, who are beyond reason, who are beyond non-violent protest. I pray that we, as a nation, could finally stop reacting to these events and start creating better outcomes, better communities, better conditions for the people whose only hope is in a bullet fired, a rock thrown, a building burned. Because the violence against these communities goes far beyond deaths at the hands of police. There is the sustained violence of desperate poverty, hunger, unemployment, and that violence has been ignored for far longer.

I pray that our community leaders, politicians, and police officers – our entire government – can find a better way to live than violent responses to perceived threats. Because, if we keep living by the sword, we’re going to keep watching our communities die by it.

Grace and peace to the citizens of Baltimore. Lord, let it be so.