Regarding Riots

On April 29th, 1992, I sat on the bluff on my campus as night fell and looked out over a sweeping panorama of the Los Angeles basin.  I was there for a couple of hours, watching the city.

In clear weather, you can see from Catalina Island to the Hollywood sign, past downtown Los Angeles to some parts of the foothills near Pasadena.

The post image, in full panorama, gives you an idea of the view (image from here, reproduced with permission)  You have to click on the pic below to embiggen to get a really good idea:

panorama-lmu

This picture isn’t current, nor is it period accurate from 1992, but you get the idea.

Anyway, on that night I could see scattered structure fires in Hollywood, central Los Angeles, up through Century City and as far west as Palms.  There was about $1 billion in property damage, 53 fatalities, and over 2,000 people injured over six days.  Thousands of arrests, with many taking place weeks after the event, as security camera footage led to folks getting picked up for things they did during those six days.

This event is commonly referred to “the Rodney King riots”

In 2000, I had the good fortune to be present at the Staples Center when the Lakers won their first championship with Shaq and Kobe.  I walked several blocks through downtown Los Angeles with giddy fans… and folks who were out and about engaging in minor mayhem, under the cover of “there being a lot of folks around and so we can get away with turning a car over or setting a car on fire or some other criminal blowing-off of repressed anger”, or whatever motivation was the root cause of any one individual’s actions that night.

This event was widely referred to as a “riot” in national media reporting.

If you Google search for images of “Los Angeles Lakers 2000 championship riot” you get this.  It looks scary.

It wasn’t.

If you Google search for images of “Rodney King Riots”, you get this.  It looks really scary.

It was.  Even from miles away, atop a bluff.

If you Google search “Ferguson Riots”, you get this.  That looks pretty damn scary, too.  It looks just like the Rodney King riots.

I don’t know what my point is, precisely, regarding this post, except that the terms “riot”, “looting”, and “civil unrest” seem woefully insufficient if they’re applied to all three of these cases.  I don’t know the extent of the unrest in Ferguson, and I’ve been trying to follow the story via Twitter and livestream as well as the national news (which has been terrible, by the way, in comparison to the things I’ve seen coming out of Twitter).

I do know that a lot of folks on social media have been reacting to this event like it’s the Rodney King riots, and whatever it is it isn’t that (not yet, anyway).

I do know that a lot of folks on social media have been reacting to this event like it’s a sports championship riot, and it’s not that, either.

I can’t help but think that the FAA no-fly zone over Ferguson has done more damage to getting a clear perspective on this event, for folks who aren’t there, than any other single government action in response to Ferguson.

Because I have to tell you, sitting on the bluff in 1992, the scale was starkly evident to anyone with eyes.

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97 thoughts on “Regarding Riots

  1. What stands out to me about the third set of images is the role of the police. If you showed those images to people with zero context, I think they’d be just as likely to label the police as an invading force terrorizing citizenry compared to a peacekeeping force responding to violent citizens. In the first two sets of images, no such dichotomy exists.

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    • It’s funny, Patrick, how far away we are from the Rodney King riots nowadays. Back in the day, it was a big deal. Even for white people! But only for about twenty minutes or so. Twenty years later it’s almost completely washed from our cultural history. Just the actions of a few bad apples, folks who didn’t wanna enact change by more respectable means. All that bullshit.

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  2. Maybe one bit of context about all these would be the ratio of violent to non-violent protest. In Ferguson there was violence, but as i remember, it was limited and mostly on one night. There was a lot of non-violent protesting which to the dreaded hands up sign which has tightened the undies of so many people apparently. I don’t remember the RK riots that well other then the fact that there was lot of rioting. I’m guessing the proportion of violence to non-violence was different there.

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    • This is kind of my complaint, really. CNN has reports of gunfire. Reports that one store was looted.

      Absent any more context, that’s hard to recognize as being substantively different from “a normal night in a reasonably large city in the U.S.”

      So there’s several hundred police carrying around automatic weapons and tear-gassing crowds of folks… that seems rather disproportionate given the actual very, very limited context we have from the news.

      Hey, maybe that’s warranted in some areas, and not others. We can’t tell based upon what we’re hearing.

      And that is a problem.

      I have people tut-tutting about rioters in Ferguson all over social media and it seems to me that “rioting over Wilson is counterproductive” is a complaint… absent context.

      Protesting about the police and their response in Ferguson is the story. Making it about rioting would make sense if there was widespread rioting. It doesn’t sound like there is.

      But it *looks* like it.

      Sometimes a picture is worth 1,000 words goes both ways. How much property damage has actually been done in Ferguson since the grand jury came down? Is that number even very remarkable given Ferguson’s history of property crime? We don’t know.

      What happened to news reporting? Has it really always been this bad?

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      • Patrick, to some degree that’s just a function of time elapsed. There’s always a lag between [event] and [available statistics about event].

        I guarantee that it was at least days, if not weeks/months/years, until we quantified how much $ in property damage the RK riots incurred. I mean, where do those figures come from anyway? Insurance claims probably?

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      • We knew quite a bit in real-time, though:

        How large the lawless area was.
        How many people had been taken to hospitals.
        How many fires were burning (generally out of control, since firemen were being shot at.)

        I haven’t been watching the Ferguson TV coverage because I just assume it’s useless. Does it tell us any of this? Like, is there a lawless area, or just scattered disturbances?

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      • We knew quite a bit in real-time

        There are a couple differences.

        1.) You two are in CA, where the RK riot was occurring; it was basically local news where you were. Thus they are going to report things like how large an area is no-go due to the riots. For the rest of the nation, they probably didn’t bother with that kind of granularity, just like they don’t give us L.A. freeway traffic reports. Saying “L.A. is totally messed up!” and showing the nation some pictures was probably deemed sufficient.

        2.) L.A. is not only a much, much bigger city than Ferguson, it’s also a, if not the, media capital of the U.S. Therefore I would expect there to be more cameras, more reporters, better reporters, etc. etc. in L.A. than in Ferguson.

        I had never even HEARD of Ferguson, before this mess.

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      • I was following national news, I think. (I’d given up on local news years before that.) Your second point makes sense, but, really, in the old days if there was a gynormous story happening somewhere in the country, they’d actually send a bunch of news crews to report on it, even if no celebrities were involves.

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      • Glyph,
        not at all. We have facebook these days, and getting statistics is never easier.
        Of course, there’s no money in Ferguson, and there’s no money in news, so who the hell cares that we have policemen firing chemical weapons on large groups of civilian protesters? Sometimes, we even have statistics before the event is even over (see Scottish independence voting)

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  3. On that same night, I need to start out on my balcony, just to the south of Dodger Stadium, and put down my first year torts book to watch my city burn. Exams were delayed until peace and order were restored. The furniture store across the street from my law school was featured on the national news, burning to the ground. The shopping center down the street where we would get Korean barbecue for lunch, was being patrolled by men on the rooftop bearing what looked like Uzis, and LAPD decided it had better things to do then check to see if they were licensed. One of my classmates was in the National Guard, and he was called up to active duty and sent into the neighborhood south of USC where that poor trucker got bashed in the head with a cinderblock.

    Memories.

    For those of you unfamiliar with Los Angeles, the panorama of violence Patrick describes observing is a sweep of the city, a gigantic swath of dense urban land, reaching across a variety of ethnic neighborhoods, economic strata, and varying crime rates during normal periods of time. April 1992 was not a normal period of time.

    Ferguson, Missouri is a much, much smaller city than Los Angeles. Whatever writing is happening there may well be affecting a proportionally similar amount of the city, but we are necessarily talking about a much smaller amount of destruction and a much lower number of people affected.

    That said, people rising and filed a protest against their own Police Department is something to be taken seriously anywhere it happens. And I think the precipitating events unleashing all of the social tension are substantially similar in nature: recall that the riots in Los Angeles began not one footage of the police beating Rodney King came to light, but rather when the police were acquitted by a jury of any criminal wrongdoing, graphically demonstrating that white police officers can seemingly engage in violence against young black men with both malice and impunity. Is it that great a leap to understand why people of color would become so enraged?

    So while I agree that the scale of the violence in 1992 was much, much greater than what we are seeing today, it does seem like the important issues have witnessed no progress whatsoever.

    Depressing.

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    • Is it that great a leap to understand why people of color would become so enraged?

      Seems like lots of people are willing to concede that point but with the stipulation that acting on that rage is decisive evidence of intellectual or moral depravity.

      Doubly depressing.

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      • … acting on that rage is decisive evidence of intellectual or moral depravity.

        Because it is. Looting, vandalizing, burning down other people’s property, people who have done nothing but be in the wrong place at the wrong time, is an act of moral depravity. Full stop. And defending those actions is an act of intellectual depravity. Full stop.

        The fact that someone has a legitimate grievance does not absolve them of all moral responsibility.

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      • Those individuals may — MAY — be morally depraved. But the narrative paints with broad strokes and says all such individuals who may look like the individuals involved in the demonstrations are inherently morally depraved… are flawed human beings from the get go.

        If you want to say that looting, vandalizing, and burning down other people’s property is evidence of moral depravity, so be it. But that standard needs to then be applied universally. I’m not so concerned about you failing to do so, but the broader society? Yea, they’re piss poor when it comes to objectively assessing actions independent of the identity of the perpetrators of those actions.

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      • This is one of those places where absolute terms really poison the whole affair. I don’t like to haul the moral judgment question in here because I find it just muddies the policy question instead of clarifying it.

        Yes, looting or burning someone’s car, those are immoral acts. As Kazzy points out, that doesn’t make you an immoral actor. The laundry list of immoral acts that most folks have made in their lifetime is usually got more than a couple of things on it… some of them are worse than others, but they’re all supposed to be forgivable.

        Six drunk teenagers, who have never felt powerful in their lives, high on their own invincibility, deciding to throw a brick through a liquor store to nab a few bottles of booze and throw a party, that’s an immoral act.

        I find it a lot easier to forgive that one than some others, even though lots of folks find that particular immoral act particularly terrifying (especially if those six teenagers are all non-Caucasian). Robbing someone at gunpoint would be worse. I agree that although I find it morally less reprehensible than robbing somebody, it still should be illegal and prosecuted appropriately.

        But the moral depravity question kind of only comes up when it comes to people acting badly, not the response to it. Tear-gassing a crowd of folks carrying an injured woman would be morally worse, for example. Both in potential outcomes and in the act itself.

        Maybe that’s just me.

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      • There is quite a bit of contradiction in what you are saying. On the one hand you are expressing concern about a narrative that paints with “broad strokes” and on the other you are talking about what the “broader society” might do. In other words, you want to selectively make blanket judgments about one group of people, but not another.

        The way to deconstruct the broad narrative of one big rioting mass is to stop talking about one big mass and start talking about individual behavior. Some people protested or engaged in acts of civil disobedience against the police. Some people broke windows and stole sneakers. What do you get by pretending those people are the same?

        I get where you are going, but I think that ultimately your ideas are working at cross purposes. This is not so much about absolutes as it is about objective definitions of right and wrong. Once you start excusing objectively immoral behavior, because of sympathy for the perpetrators, you are invariably moving towards a direction where we stop judging people by their actions and instead judge them according to whether they belong to a sympathetic class or not.

        You can simultaneously say that some certain behavior is objectively morally wrong and express sympathy, but the latter doesn’t change the former from wrong to right. In fact, to forgive someone, you first have to accept that what they did was wrong. When you forgive someone for something that you don’t really think is all that wrong, that’s not forgiveness; that is rationalization.

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      • Is that really how you are going to counter my argument?

        My point was that I think there are a lot of folks who are all too happy to say, “Black folks being violent? Clearly the entire race is morally depraved from the get go. White folks being violent? Kids being kids. Or outliers. A few bad apples.” I don’t think you are one of those folks. But I know for a fact those folks exist and their preponderance in society — both in terms of numbers and position of influence — help shape a broader societal response.

        That is very, very different than what those people are actually saying about what we can generalize about an entire group of people based on the actions of a few member so that group over a few nights.

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      • You want to assess these acts absent their context.

        Is the singular act of throwing a brick through a window that doesn’t belong to you wrong? Yes.

        Is attempting to achieve justice wrong? Hell no.

        So what if the only means by which you can achieve justice is by throwing a brick through a window that doesn’t belong to you? Is that right or wrong? Shit gets a lot more complicated now, doesn’t it?

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      • You want to assess these acts absent their context.

        I guarantee you that I do not. I challenge you to point to anyplace where I have said such a thing. It is exactly the historical and social context of rioting that makes me judge it and dismiss it so harshly.
        So what if the only means by which you can achieve justice is by throwing a brick through a window that doesn’t belong to you?

        In asking this question, you are making two fundamental errors. The first is claiming that throwing a brick through a window is somehow an act that achieves justice. A rioting mob of people is not justice. It is the antithesis of justice. And second is the claim that this is the only means. It is absolutely not, as evidenced by all the people who did not throw bricks through windows or loot or burn down stores.

        My point was that I think there are a lot of folks who are all too happy to say, “Black folks being violent?

        Here is the problem. When you counter the “black folks being violent” claim, with a counter that black folks have a reason to be violent, you are still operating within the same racialist paradigm. “Black folks” do not commit acts of violence. “Black folks” do not riot and loot. Individuals do those things, individuals of all ethnicity, nationality and creed.

        The most basic thing that you can do to affirm someone’s humanity is to stop addressing them as members of some undifferentiated mass and start addressing them as individual human beings with agency and the ability to make choices.

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      • So what if the only means by which you can achieve justice is by throwing a brick through a window that doesn’t belong to you?

        What if the only way we can get information on that terrorist plot is to torture a suspected terrorist?

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      • Once you start excusing objectively immoral behavior, because of sympathy for the perpetrators

        I’m not excusing them, although on first blush it may look like it.

        I’m thinking about the proper way to engage them, which is a very different animal.

        Look, in the RK riots, there were three groups of folks:

        * There are folks stuck in mob behavior that are looking for blood
        * There are folks who are stuck in mob behavior that are looking to break some stuff and steal some junk.
        * There are folks who are protesting

        The sizes and positioning of these groups is really important. You have a group of bloodthirsty folks walking with a bunch of people who just want to protest… you don’t break up that mob you’re going to get somebody beaten to death. That’s something you need to engage with, even if you wind up hurting somebody who is just protesting, you’re trying to prevent that beating murder.

        You have a group of vandals and a group of protestors and you engage them in the same manner you do the previous group, you’re going to wind up hurting or killing somebody who is just protesting to save somebody’s window.

        I’m not sure that’s a justifiable trade-off. It certainly isn’t to the guy or gal doing the protesting. We can, as a society, compensate the shopkeeper for their busted window. We can’t un-maim a protestor who was clubbed by a cop in riot gear.

        From a crowd control standpoint, it’s very difficult, I get that. But it seems like the “riots” that we’re seeing in Ferguson are very much more that second type. We’re seeing tens of people arrested for property crimes, not thousands. We’re not seeing folks dragged out of trucks and beaten near-to-death.

        And yet the police reaction is a lot more forceful. The public comments by many members of the law enforcement community and their supporters seem to indicate that there’s no sense of discretion between the two different types of riot.

        *That* seems broken, to me. That seems to be creating conditions that lead to worse outcomes.

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      • I haven’t said “Black folks have a right to be violent.”

        I’ve said, “These particular folks are justifiably upset about what has happened and they are making use of the means available to them.”

        If you want to call these particular folks violent, okay. If you want to call them morally depraved, I’d push back with the act/actor distinction Patrick offered.

        My concern is the broad stroke brush painting (which, again, I do not think you engage in). The people who want to make this about all black people. The people who want to blame Obama because something something black folks.

        People have gone from criticizing the acts of individuals to criticizing an entire race. And, yes, this is happening. Not everyone who is criticizing the riots is doing this but a hell of a lot of people are. And even some of those folks who aren’t going that far are still allowing their reactions to be colored by race.

        I reject that analogy because there is a difference between violence against property and violence against individuals.

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      • Zazzy’s cousin — who I otherwise assumed was sane and who is a lawyer — said on Facebook that every single rioter should be shot on sight. Because of broken windows. This is the mentality we are dealing with. It’s insane.

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      • – I don’t disagree with anything you are writing, but on this part:

        We’re seeing tens of people arrested for property crimes, not thousands. We’re not seeing folks dragged out of trucks and beaten near-to-death.

        And yet the police reaction is a lot more forceful. The public comments by many members of the law enforcement community and their supporters seem to indicate that there’s no sense of discretion between the two different types of riot.

        I want to play Devil’s Advocate for a minute.

        Stipulated at the outset that the Ferguson PD had a large hand in creating the conditions that sparked the riots, not just in the shooting of Brown and their overreaction after, but everything that preceded the shooting.

        That said, there is a certain “damned if you do or don’t” aspect to all this, once we reach the point of civil unrest.

        In my hometown and state, over the years there have been multiple instances of civil unrest, following somewhat similar-type police shootings (by which I mean details differ, but generally speaking it’s a white officer shooting a black suspect).

        In some instances, the police were accused of simply cordoning off the worst areas and preventing people from entering, and waiting for the unrest to burn (pun partially-intended) itself out.

        This of course was variously interpreted as “the police don’t care if people they see as animals basically kill each other”, or “the police are too chicken to risk their own asses to help people”, or “it was the smart move not to insert police into a volatile situation and further inflame/exacerbate it”.

        There’s also the school of thought that says that lawlessness can spread like a fire, and a decisive reaction now can prevent its spread – I guarantee that supporters of a heavy hand in Ferguson would say it’s BECAUSE of the heavy hand, that the Ferguson unrest doesn’t look nearly as bad as the RK unrest.

        I make no pretense to knowing how to handle this; to know when it’s better to step back and let people blow off steam, and when it’s time to go in and bust heads before things spin dangerously out of control and innocent people get hurt/killed.

        I only mean to suggest it is probably a complicated question, and I don’t envy the good cop (if there are any left) who has to make that decision.

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      • kazzy,

        there is a difference between violence against property and violence against individuals.

        I disagree. The violence done against property isn’t just done against a non-sentient object, but against the owner of that property. It’s well known that home invasions don’t just rob people of material goods, but of their peace of mind. An invasion of a store may be as violating as a robbery of one’s person. And it is the person who bears the economic loss, not the property. “Violence against property” is a good shorthand way of saying a person was not physically harmed, but if we use it to suggest that no persons were actually harmed, then we’re misunderstanding the term.

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      • So where does all this talk about moral judgement of the individuals within the group who committed “absolute moral wrong” leave us regarding our own history? Was not the US created by the “Absolute moral wrong” of rebellion against a tyrannical king – a rebellion that was executed by open warfare using smuggled guns, resulting in burned and looted Royal properties? And was not our Nation “reunited” by the “absolute moral wrong” of civil war when slave owners decided to leave the US rather then see their economic engine collapse – only to be drug back in at gun point? And how much “absolute moral wrong” was committed by Native American Tribes fighting European settlers for the simple right to exist as they were on lands they and their peoples had roamed for thousands of years?

        Or were those not “absolute moral wrongs” because they were mainly perpetuated by white Europeans?

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  4. Were there national riots during 1992 because of Rodney King? I was only 12 at the time and remember that there were riots and some stuff about the trial (including the idea that Gates had a Klan connection of some kind) but not much else. And the video. I remember the video of course.

    The main point of my essay was wondering about whether it made sense to do damage several thousand miles away from Ferguson as is happening right now.

    SF has had Vandalism in the past few years relating to the Giants getting into and winning the world series. There was one famous picture of a guy picking up a barrier (the kind put up during Parades and races) and using it to smash the front windows of a MUNI bus. I think people used social media to track the dude down.

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    • There was some vandalism in SF in ’92. Richard Hongisto, the brand-new police chief, who was a pretty progressive guy [1], ordered a curfew to prevent looting. One of the local throwaway papers put out an issue calling him a fascist. He was accused of sending police out to confiscate all the copies. He denied this, but was fired anyway.

      1. He’d been the first sheriff to hire gays and lesbians, and went to jail for contempt rather than evict tenants from a residential hotel that had been sold.

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  5. I’m not so sure how the two would compare if you were actually at ground zero of the King and Lakers “riots”. I think they’d look rather similar, maybe depending on your skin color.

    But I will say this: you define “engaging in minor mayhem” as overturning cars? I call that a lot of things, but minor ain’t one of them.

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    • It is both more major than certain international incidents, and relatively minor in the scope of things.

      I find it interesting that when white WV folks hit Oakland and do a bit of rioting, it isn’t called that in the papers nearly as much as when black folks in LA do the equivalent amount of mayhem.

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    • I was at ground zero of the Lakers “riot”. I felt like I did when I was on Isla Vista in 1992 for Halloween or in Las Vegas on New Year’s 1999. “Jesus, those people are acting like crazy idiots, that’s funny as hell, I should be careful of those folks throwing champagne bottles into the air” instead of “Jesus, those people are acting like crazy idiots, I better get the fish out of Dodge before I get killed”.

      I knew of some guys who – as their senior prank in high school – took a car and carried it and deposited it in the campus pool because they thought the swim coach was a jerk (this was not me, to be 100% clear). They did thousands of dollars of damage to somebody’s car and the school pool and got in serious trouble for it.

      That was mostly just an act of stupidity, not moral depravity. This is the trouble I have with J.R.’s “full stop” approach up above. The outcome can be morally depraved but if the underlying motivation is just stupidity, you’re probably going to be approaching the folks committing the crime with a far too Puritanical righteousness. That gets folks who don’t need to get killed, killed.

      Watching Wilson’s interview, all I can think of is that him shooting Brown was actually an act of stupidity more than a moral failure; his testimony on camera sounds like someone who is telling the world a story he’s constructed and told himself to justify the things he did. Basically he sounds like someone who was under a huge amount of stress, made very bad snap decisions, and has reconstructed his memories into a narrative he can tolerate. Chris can chime in on the psych lit, but I’ve heard plenty of first person accounts of stress events and that’s far more common than not.

      He sounds remarkably like those guys that put the car in the pool, really. That doesn’t make Brown any less dead. That doesn’t make the action any less an act of moral depravity, if Brown doesn’t actually deserve to be dead. But it means the problem is stupidity with a badge, not moral depravity with a badge. The first problem is addressed differently than the second one.

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  6. Here’s my issue with the riots.

    Let’s say that I’m an enterprising young entrepre… let’s say that I’m an enterprising young aspiring business owner. I’m thinking about opening up a bodega.

    I’m going to avoid Ferguson. I’m just not going to put my shop there. There are hundreds of places in the country that I could open a shop and while not all of them look better than Ferguson, the ones on the top half of the list sure do.

    There are going to be fewer businesses in Ferguson for the next few years. Fewer jobs for members of the community and residents of the neighborhood are going to have to travel farther to get the stuff they used to get at the corner store.

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    • Really? That’s your overarching issue with riots? That a citizenry’s overwhelming frustration and anger with social injustice might, omg!, hamper the facile plans for your little hypothetical enterprise?

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      • Erm, no. Not the point I was making.

        I was more thinking about the lack of businesses that will be there in Ferguson, the lack of jobs available to locals, and the lack of necessary products that will be in walking distance.

        I already have a job.

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      • You do realize that “little hypothetical enterprise”s are part of what make up communities? Your dismissal of commercial activity tells me that you are probably lucky enough to live somewhere with lots of commercial activity to provide you with the goods and services that you want.

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      • My point, and , was that advocating for social justice sometimes gets ugly.

        So if the only thing you really care about is economic feasibility in any given community, as illustrated by @jaybird’s comment, then maybe you’re not equipped to constructively weigh in on this kind of thread. You don’t hear it, I guess, but you’re beating a drum with a Jim Crow rhythm.

        Maybe when there’s a riot over the injustice of drug laws, will be a little less focused on his hypothetical business?

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      • “advocating for social justice sometimes gets ugly.”

        It seems like you’re saying that middle-class small-business owners should intentionally take risky acts and allow themselves to be victimized and I really don’t think that’s what you mean.

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      • Instead of walking to the corner to get groceries, you have to drive your car or take the bus.

        Instead of grabbing a quick bite to eat around the way, you have to drive your car or take the bus.

        Instead of needing an extra half hour to do your errands, you need an extra two hours. Day after day, week after week, month after month.

        And this is true for pretty much everybody in the neighborhood.

        There are a lot of things that contribute to life being just a little bit better. The ability to buy food quickly and easily is one of them.

        If Ferguson ends up with a better police force, that’s a good thing. Maybe the better police force will result in enough stability for some enterprising young person to feel safe opening a bodega in a few years.

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      • You don’t hear it, I guess, but you’re beating a drum with a Jim Crow rhythm.

        Honestly, what are you talking about? Is that sentence supposed to mean something? And not “equipped” to weigh in?

        What exactly is it that equips you? Who are you? W.E.B. DuBois? I didn’t realize that I was conversing with such an authority on the struggles of the downtrodden.

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      • Social justice is only important if you recognize it as a concept. I believe that social justice is a real and important thing but many people do not. To them, social justice is a such a nebulous and unclear idea that it seems nothing more something you say to justify liberal economic and social policies. Even people who believe in social justice get in fights over what social justice means. I see social justice as using various laws and policies to reduce the effects of past oppression but other people have a much more expensive definition of social justice that I balk at.

        What Jaybird is saying, and I don’t agree with him, is that the property destruction caused by the civil unrest in Fergusson is going to leave Fergusson’s residents worse off because many existing businesses that provide employment, goods, services, and tax revenue to Fergusson’s residents are going to leave because they won’t feel that their propety is going to be safe there. This may or may not be true but it doesn’t do anything about the politics and police of Fergusson.

        Radley Balko had a very long and good article in the Washington Post on how many of the towns in St. Louis County generate revenue by fining the poor for traffic violations and other minor infractions. This naturally happens much more frequently to African-Americans than non-Black residents of St. Louis County. Its also the natural consequence for wanting low taxes. Most of the revenue generated by fines is used to fund perfectly minimalist-friendly government services like police departments and courts. Just because government revenue through taxes disappears, doesn’t mean the need for government services does.

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      • @jim-heffman: It seems like you’re saying that middle-class small-business owners should intentionally take risky acts and allow themselves to be victimized and I really don’t think that’s what you mean.

        Of course that’s not what I meant. I was responding specifically to @jaybird’s comment that emblazoned his Big Thought for the day: basically, no one should ever riot because then maybe someone might not want to open a biz in their town. It’s as if he has no knowledge whatsoever of the many riots that indeed built the nation we live in today.

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      • It’s apparent that social contracts in a liberal democracy can be reduced to a pile of ash in minutes. I would have it no other way when rule of law separates from rule by law. If this is the result of your government services I say, keep ‘em to yourself, I’m good.

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      • @jaybird:
        Instead of walking to the corner to get groceries, you have to drive your car or take the bus. Instead of grabbing a quick bite to eat around the way, you have to drive your car or take the bus. Instead of needing an extra half hour to do your errands, you need an extra two hours. Day after day, week after week, month after month. And this is true for pretty much everybody in the neighborhood. There are a lot of things that contribute to life being just a little bit better. The ability to buy food quickly and easily is one of them.

        So, you’re suggesting that this was all available in Ferguson before Brown was shot? Or, you’re saying that this was the way things were gonna be in Ferguson, but dammit, Brown was shot and, crap, now none of it can happen?

        Question: What was the economic landscape of Ferguson before Brown was shot? Answer before you google.

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      • maybe you’re not equipped to constructively weigh in on this kind of thread.

        Huh, I thought started this particular thread, and responded to him.

        You don’t hear it, I guess, but you’re beating a drum with a Jim Crow rhythm.

        FTR, I don’t hear it either. It’s pretty uncontroversial that civil disorder plays havoc with property values, financial security/stability, and prospective investment for at least a few years. All things people need, not least so they can afford to hire good lawyers that help ensure they don’t get wantonly abused by police all the time.

        It’s perfectly possible to disagree with the premise, or its weighting, or its implications or conclusions, without going the “You’re Thinking/Talking About It Wrong” and “accusations of crypto-racism” route.

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      • At the very least, I know that there was a nearby little store called “the Ferguson Market” that isn’t currently open. There’s apparently a “gofundme” to help it re-open. If it does, I guess that that is one market that will still be there.

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      • Erm, no. Not the point I was making. I was more thinking about the lack of businesses that will be there in Ferguson, the lack of jobs available to locals, and the lack of necessary products that will be in walking distance.

        So, you actually know a thing or two about Ferguson, then.

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      • “no one should ever riot because then maybe someone might not want to open a biz in their town. ”

        That’s not prima facie incorrect. And it is definitely an issue that someone who claims that they’re rioting on behalf of the Common People need to address.

        Unless your attitude is that once you own a business you’re not Common People anymore and you deserve whatever you get.

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      • Glyph,

        It’s perfectly possible to disagree with the premise, or its weighting, or its implications or conclusions, without going the “You’re Thinking/Talking About It Wrong” and “accusations of crypto-racism” route.

        Well, if you’re of a mind that the problem plaguing Ferguson’s community is basically a very racist criminal justice system (born out by statisticals and everything!) which apparently isn’t a product of their own choice and therefore the product of other people’s choices (ie., folks who aren’t them), presumably folks with certain interests and values, then prioritizing economic values above social justice seems like it might very well, you know, serve the interests of the people who aren’t black Ferguson residents. It also seems to put the cart before the horse, in a reallyreally non-trivial way.

        That’s not to say that I don’t agree with what Jaybird is getting at. Just to say that I think without social justice and some sense of security and playing-field-levelness, worries about future business startups are misguided.

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      • I wanna add, in I hope a way that won’t inspire outrage, but I get the sentiment Jaybird is expressing from his ideological pov as well. I just think this is a case where focusing on improved market activity without considering the underlying political and social issues driving Ferguson into the ground is not only a mistake, but inconsistent with the theory under which market activity can lead people out of poverty and etc.

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    • I wouldn’t open one there because the police force appears insane, or at least incompetent and an obvious danger.

      Not because of riots, but because the local government seems absolutely incapable of finding it’s butt with both hands, coupled with a predatory police-based taxation structure built on over militarization.

      In short: Everything Ferguson was BEFORE the shooting would have convinced me not to move there, assuming I had simply done the minimal research. And if I find the local government –pre-shooting — appalling at a remove, I can only imagine the citizens who do live there had plenty of reasons to be angry, distrustful, and unhappy.

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      • “I wouldn’t open one there because the police force appears insane, or at least incompetent and an obvious danger.”

        This is the part where you show us the big list of business owners who’ve been burglarized, threatened, assaulted, and shot by police officers.

        I’m absolutely certain that you have one, and aren’t just talking out your pants.

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      • Jim,
        This would be the point where you familiarize yourself with the facts on the ground in Ferguson.

        I’d start with the warrants per household, the average fines per person, and then check that against the crime rate.

        Even a casual glance shows the police force was completely out of control — actually, that’s a lie. They were doing exactly what the local government wanted — the police had become tax farmers.

        A tax that, of course, fell overwhelmingly on the poor and powerless. Call it a regressive tax, with the added fun of trips to jail, additional charges for failing to navigate the deliberately labyrinthine court system, and the joy of realizing you’re stuck paying for the very harassment you’re undergoing.

        Toxic, at even a casual glance. Asset seizure is bad enough, this was a systemic graft on the poor and powerless.

        “Insane” seems a good word for systemic abuse and theft by the police. It is, in fact, the opposite of their stated goal (“To protect and serve”? ha! “To steal and abuse”).

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    • This is true, which should make the question, “Why do people riot?” even more important. If, in many cases, riots are actually counterproductive on some dimensions (short-to-medium-term economic, e.g.), then why would people do it? Are they just irrational, or is there an explanation that we should be looking really hard at?

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      • The first answer to come to mind is time horizons. Rich people have the luxury of worrying about future generations. Poor people who just watched one of their own get gunned down in the middle of the street and then watched the government use a completely different grand jury process that resulted in exoneration of the officer who pulled the trigger have a much, much shorter time horizon.

        You can see some time horizon differences in some of the complaints from various residents of the neighborhood. “We’re still going to have to live here!”, that sort of thing.

        The second thought involves how violence is also helplessness manifesting itself. If the only two choices you see are keeping the status quo and rioting, rioting might not seem so bad. If the riots result in changes in how “law and order” is achieved (cameras, maybe?) then that’s probably a good thing that will result in a better outcome than the old status quo. I hope.

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      • Rich people have the luxury of worrying about future generations.

        I regret this phrasing.

        I meant “Rich people have the luxury about worrying about the details involved with decades and decades down the road. Poor people have to worry about the details involved with This Month if not This Week if not Tonight.”

        I didn’t mean to imply that poor people didn’t care about their children or their children’s children.

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      • Right, often the options are, in fact, “status quo” or “violence.” Consider, for example, some fairly straightforward examples, like the Merthyr riots, the New York flour riots (of 1837), and the Southern Bread Riots (of 1863). In these cases, people had a choice: starve or riot. There were no other straightforward routes to acheive the desired goal (having food), so they rioted. What do starving Welsh workers care that some English aristocrats will be less likely to invest in businesses in their towns if they riot? The point is that they’re starving. Investment may be a long term solution, but it doesn’t put any bread on the table tonight, so losing it doesn’t change a thing.

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      • This is true, which should make the question, “Why do people riot?”

        I am all for asking that question, but be prepared for some answers that run counter to the preferred left-of-center narrative. That is because there is no one answer.

        My whole point in this conversation is that a riot is not just some great big undifferentiated mass of id, even though it can seem like it. In any given riot or mass demonstation, you are going to have people who are trying to focus the crowd on a particular political objective. You are going to have people who are just feeling an unfocused anger and are doing their best to deal with it. And you are going to have people who just like to break stuff.

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      • “In any given riot or mass demonstation, you are going to have people who are trying to focus the crowd on a particular political objective. You are going to have people who are just feeling an unfocused anger and are doing their best to deal with it. And you are going to have people who just like to break stuff.”

        Do you think those three groups should be responded to and treated differently, both in the moment (crowd control) and after-the-fact (legal proceedings)? If so, assuming the police cannot determine on the ground which person belongs to which group, which of the approaches would you want them to default to?

        My gut would be to treat everyone like the first group. No one should get their head bashed in for seeking political change in the wrong place at the wrong time. Odds are the people in the last group will either fall in with the crowd or will identify themselves as requiring an elevated response at which point the police can offer as much in a more targeted fashion.

        Might this mean a few more windows get broken than if they go all “Shock and Awe”? Yes. That is almost assured to happen. But if it means more windows broken but fewer bashed in skulls — even among the guiltiest of parties — I still think that is a preferable trade off. As I believe said, we can make someone whole again for a broken window. It is much harder to do for a bashed in skull or, gulp, worse.

        And that is before we look at the long term effects of treating a segment of the population as if they are the enemy.

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      • My whole point in this conversation is that a riot is not just some great big undifferentiated mass of id, even though it can seem like it.

        Who is saying that it is?

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    • Jay,
      you could say the same thing about Fayettenam, without the rioting. The place is full of nutjobs and folks that it’s probably a poor idea to be drunk in the same room as.

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    • It’s pretty uncontroversial that civil disorder plays havoc with property values, financial security/stability, and prospective investment for at least a few years. All things people need, not least so they can afford to hire good lawyers that help ensure they don’t get wantonly abused by police all the time.

      Indeed. Civil unrest causes stress to enterprise, especially local, which, unsurprisingly, explains why biz isn’t generally a big fan of civil unrest. Go figure. And if every civil rights exercise first prioritized the economic consequences … where do you suppose our country would be? The way paints it, communities like Selma should have just sucked it up because, y’know, jobs. And handy coffee.

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      • The way@Jaybirdpaints it, communities like Selma should have just sucked it up because, y’know, jobs. And handy coffee.

        Two things. Yes, jobs are pretty damn important. And what does Selma have to do with a comment about rioting? What does vandalizing and looting have to do with the free exercise of civil rights. I guess that I am not as qualified as you to opine on these matters, but last time I checked there is no right to destroy other people’s stuff because some other party did you wrong.

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      • – that was my understanding as well, and that King was under considerable internal movement pressure to take/lead more aggressive/violent action, which he resisted to continue with peaceful nonviolent demonstration/the third march.

        Maybe I’m missing something here; the idea that, all else equal (that is, assuming roughly equivalent political results for each route) nonviolent action is preferable to violent, seems pretty straightforward.

        The catch, of course, is if violent action gets results where nonviolent wouldn’t, at least not within an acceptable timeframe.

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      • Non-violent collective action takes a level of coordination that violence does not. I mean, in order to get a sustained movement of nonviolent collective action on a large or maybe even bigger than just local scale, you end up having to have a King or a Gandhi, or a sustained, experienced, large-scale cultural movement like the anti-war and feminist movements of the 60s and 70s, which had learned many of their tactics from the Civil Rights movement and rode waves of cultural change as much as they stirred them.

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      • Maybe I’m missing something here; the idea that, all else equal (that is, assuming roughly equivalent political results for each route) nonviolent action is preferable to violent, seems pretty straightforward.

        I would go even further than this, because this analysis implies that violence and non-violence are just two roads to the same result. In most situations, violence and non-violence lead us to two different places. There are some situations where the violent route can get us where we want to be. Those situations, however, are not universal. Putting aside the idea of the issue of morality for a moment, it should be pretty obvious that burning down a neighborhood is not likely to put us on the road to reforming and developing that neighborhood. It is much more likely that burning down a neighborhood just puts us further along the road to that neighborhood’s ruin.

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      • In order to get a sustained movement of nonviolent collective action on a large or maybe even bigger than just local scale, you end up having to have a King or a Gandhi, or a sustained, experienced, large-scale cultural movement like the anti-war and feminist movements of the 60s and 70s,

        Not exactly. The Birmingham bus boycott had neither. But it did have an educated black professional class, knowledgeable enough to develop good strategy, and generous enough to let their personal vehicles be used to taxi around the poorer people who otherwise needed the bus to get to work. It’s not far off what you say, but it didn’t require a King (although charismatic leadership can certainly help),

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      • The Birmingham bus boycott is actually a good example of what I mean. It was one of the sparks for a larger, national Civil Rights movement, but in order for it to go national it rquired strong leaders (notably, but not exclusively, King). Local movements can, and often are, somewhat spontaneous. We’ve seen that in Ferguson, in fact.

        If we want the protest movement in Ferguson to spread in such a way that it can create social change on a large scale, we’re going to need some seriously talented leaders.

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      • Chris,

        A correction: the Birmingham bus boycott failed through poor organization. The Montgomery boycott succeeded. Contra my initial statement, King was a leader in the successful Montgomery boycott, but not in the failed Birmingham one.

        I still believe a charismatic leader, while helpful, is not crucial (strategic planning is). But my example doesn’t support my claim.

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      • The way@Jaybirdpaints it, communities like Selma should have just sucked it up because, y’know, jobs.

        1. I don’t think “not smashing stores” necessarily equals “just suck it up.”

        2. If a big part of the problem is poverty, I’m not sure why it makes sense to sneer at the concern about having even fewer jobs, hence exacerbated poverty.

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  7. Systems and institutions are nebulous, abstract, withdrawn; windows are not. You can’t put a rock through a system.

    This was my point with the Google buses back when. Sure, it looks silly to those of us who are not at risk of being evicted or priced out of our homes, our neighborhoods, our cities, that some people who are take it out on buses, but you can’t put a rock through gentrification.

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  8. I’m curious about the fact that we now have entire communities that do not trust The Institution. They don’t trust the government, they don’t trust law enforcement, they don’t trust the people involved with it… and on a much more visceral level than any ivory tower libertarianism can claim to not trust it.

    That’s not sustainable, I don’t think.

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    • It can’t possibly be, unless those communities have no role in sustaining it.

      The interesting thing about Ferguson is that the moment its police department was threatened by the community that doesn’t trust it, police from other, whiter communities, communities that undoubtedly trust The Institution, were there with armored vehicles and assault rifles. What good does “We don’t trust this Institution, let’s get rid of it!” do when said Institution is just a part of a much larger, much more powerful Institution?

      I’m pretty sure that if Ferguson scrapped its police department entirely and started a new one from scratch, within a few years we’d be pretty close to where we are now, beacuse the police that came in, and the people who trained them, would just be people from the larger Institution.

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      • The last paragraph is an interesting question — I recall reading (not sure where, but probably here since that’s where I get most of my news) that part of the reason for the tension in Ferguson was that the racial composition of the city had changed over the years but the racial composition of the police force hadn’t kept up. If the police force were rebuilt, I expect it would have a more representative racial mix. So if we did reach this point again, that would suggest that the issue is more about police practices than about race.

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      • Certainly North St. Louis and the neighboring suburbs in that part of the county (which includes Ferguson) are generally mentioned in the same conversations as Detroit in terms of jobs, depopulation, and changes in racial makeup.

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    • Jay,
      it’s about as sustainable as a shit sunday. The fact that you don’t recognize this shows how sheltered you are.

      All around the world there are governments and military that people don’t trust. All around the world there are slaves — and those whose lives are worse than slaves.

      Someone once said that “The American military would never shoot American civilians.”
      I don’t believe that, anymore.

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    • My comment got eaten but is along the lines of what Chris and Kimmi have already said. African American distrust of institutions goes way back, for obvious reasons. (though to put a start date on it would be the sell-out of southern blacks in the deal that ended Reconstruction).

      Distrust of institutions is a common central theme in, for lack of better term, ‘black’ cultural creations (e.g. Boyz in the Hood, the entirety of the blaxplotation format). This distrust is further chronicled in more recent mainstream creations like The Wire And then there’s the persistent ongoing belief in The Plan.

      So, yes, it’s hella sustainable. It’s lasted for nearly half a millennium now.

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    • You’ve gone from saying that there is a hundred years of scholarship on this topic to offering Gawker and Rolling Stone links. If you know of any good survey papers on the dynamics of rioting, I would actually love to read them.

      These links, though, they don’t really make the case that they purport to make. The Gawker article mentions Gary Becker’s work on criminal justice and the economic costs of certain kinds of behavior, but makes no link between that and rioting. The Rolling Stone piece has some interesting examples of acts of political violence and vandalism, but most aren’t riots, rather they are deliberate acts of sabotage against specific targets. And with most of those examples, there is no clear link between the act and the eventual outcome. For instance, it is probably safe to assume that some woman taking a cleaver to a painting in the National Gallery was not the instrumental step in gaining women the vote. Likewise, apartheid didn’t end because of the paramilitary activities of Nelson Mandela and the ANC; it ended decades after as part of long, hard slog.

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      • You’ve gone from saying that there is a hundred years of scholarship on this topic to offering Gawker and Rolling Stone links.

        And you’ve gone from being an honest interlocutor into being a dishonest one, in one comment.

        I linked to a paper on the topic by one of the foremost researchers on riots in the U.S. in the earlier thread (with the blockquoted quote). If you’re going to play like this, I’ll just let you go get it yourself.

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  9. Hoo boy. It looks like the authorities are investigating Louis Head (Michael Brown’s stepfather) for inciting a riot.

    I’ll quote the CNN article: Louis Head stepped onto a platform above the crowd and embraced his wife, Brown’s mother. He then turned to the demonstrators — some of them shouting “F— the police!” — and yelled, “Burn this motherf—er down!” and “Burn this bitch down!”

    http://us.cnn.com/2014/12/02/justice/ferguson-protests-investigation/index.html

    You couldn’t make up a dumber thing for The Authorities to do.

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