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This is America: Riot is the History of US

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CLR James speaking in Trafalgar Square, London, in 1935.
Photograph: Keystone-France/Gamma-Keystone via Getty Images

Riot does not roll off the tongue so nicely these days but it is not possible to talk about the history of the United States without telling a story written in violence. A story written with the blood of slavery, and nearly one hundred million Indigineous bodies when Columbus and his soldiers came. Stories of Bostonian patriots who threw imperial tea into Boston Harbour. Tales of slaves inciting rebellion in a slave-stricken South – Nat Turner and the Southampton Insurrection; Harriet Tubman on the railroad; Frederick Douglass as a pioneer of abolition. On Edmund Pettus Bridge, (named for the KKK big shot), in 1965 state police go to work on peaceful protesters. What US history shows us is that there is a pattern of rebellion and dissent.

Once, the United States was a beacon of anti-colonial rebellion and radical opposition to British rule, perhaps this is a chance now for the US to show us who they are

Now, in light of the murders of Breonna TaylorAhmaud Arbery and George Floyd, the tear-gassing of protesters and the attempted murder of Chris Cooper, Black America shows its teeth. America is a tinderbox. London marches in solidarity. Social media, well… there is some hope that they are not just more hashtags that amount to nothing. The riots in Minnesota show me America hasn’t lost its touch under Trump. Not beaten blue by America’s first-born son, the scurge of public executions and White supremacy.

Before Rose Parkes, there was Claudette Colvin

Here, I will not condemn the violence. I applaud it. Violence against the American establishment is not only necessary but completely justifiable. White Power did not like the peaceful protesting. Not when Claudette Colvin and Rosa Parkes set the ball rolling; not when Colin Kaepernick took a knee or when activists marched with Black Lives Matter. You murdered Malcolm, Martin, and Medgar before they reached 40. You killed Fred Hampton at 21; you nearly put Angela Davis on death row and forced Assatta Shakur to flee the country. Anti-establishment dissent is as American as apple pie.

We must stand in solidarity with antifacists; we have defeated facism before and I know we will do it again.

I have no time for naysayers; I have no ears for their brand of “wokeness” and liberal piety, that riot is unacceptable at a time when Black lives are on the clock, from both COVID and a police officer’s footprint, like a confederate flag. Disease or the noose, public executions are not a thing of a bygone era of cotton pickers and segregated schools, and water fountains in a southern state come hell or highwater. “There is no chip on my shoulder, that’s your foot on my neck” and Malcolm’s words have not aged a day.

“I incite this meeting to rebellion” said Emmeline Pankhurst and when I see White allies in Kentucky weaponising their whiteness against the forces that feed it, this is how you use your White privilege for good; that is antiracism in action

I once believed there were good police and bad police. Now, I’m not sure. It’s like saying there were good slave masters. NWA wrote that song ‘Fuck Tha Police‘. Today, I think of bad police and police that are silent. However, silence is violence “cause they’ll slam ya down to the street top / Black police showin’ out for the white cop.” Whiteness is a psychosis and Black police and other police officers of colour are also complicit in holding up racist structures, like police departments that do not care about them and theirs.

Freedom is never gifted, it is fought for. Suez. Haiti. Independence is never gifted it is fought for. Ghana. Jamaica. India. Human rights are never given, they are fought for. Votes for Women. Stonewall. Apartheid. What about when the Jews and the Irish kicked Oswald Mosely out of Cable Street? What about when Lancashire’s white working class stood in solidarity with American slaves during Cotton Panic of the 1860s? Nelson Mandela wasn’t “one of the good ones” in his time, he was branded a terrorist. Martin Luther King was on the FBI’s radar. They tapped his phone for God’s sake.

Protesters in Manhattan after the Stonewall Riots,
marking a turning point in the gay rights movement (Summer, 1969)

When we study anti-colonial movements (incl. independence struggles), I struggle to follow how people condemn Black America for this uprising, knowing the story of America’s conception (Hamilton, Burr and Washington in toe). That even when Black America is having its rights and dignity as human beings curtalied, people still say but. That in what Harvard’s Michelle Alexander calls a “new Jim Crow”, there are many out there who would gladly see over forty million citizens back on slave plantations.

“If men use explosives and bombs for their own purpose they call it war, and the throwing of a bomb that destroys other people is then described as a glorious and heroic deed. Why should a woman not make use of the same weapons as men?”

Christabel Pankhurst (1913)

I still have not brought myself to watch the video of George Floyd’s murder. The stills of his body were enough. I’ve heard versions of “violence is not the answer” and “rioting is counter-productive.” At this point, when the bodies keep mounting, some want the angry to write sternly-worded letters (how very British, might I add). I don’t think one can blame folks for taking to the streets. If violence is not the answer to attack White supremacy and systemic racism in a country born out of violence, what is? March? Vote in a different president? (White supreamcy far predates the days of Trump).

But change has never come by waiting around, change has always come from civil disobedience and rocking the boat; at what point in history has change come from being nice?

Obama showed us that the ballot will not stop the bullet. I have not seen a worldwide reaction to US police violence in this way since Fergurson in 2014. We are seeing sometimes violence is all that’s left. We like to pretend that the best of us are not capable of such things but we are all capable of anything given half a chance. And this part of the Civil Rights movement is glossed over, how “non-violent” political movements like women’s suffrage are sanatised, because they are not as clean-cut as we’re taught they are.

Ferguson (2014)

Once, to harbour runaway slaves was a crime. Once, caught runaways would lose a half a foot to stop them running. Once, slave women were raped by Master. Once, slaves would kill their babies to stop them becoming slaves. Once, black bodies swayed in the breeze of a Louisianan sunset. Violence is not always the answer but when you’ve been oppressed so long, it looks like the only answer. When is enough, enough? When do you stop watching people being kicked when they’re down, saying “I can’t breathe.”

Post-traumatic slave syndrome tells me that police violence is not just police violence, but a single part of a racist system that’s been allowed to fester for over 400 years; and more importantly, begs the question: when will Black men and Black women be able to move freely in a society where they can love themselves without fear of (social) persecution?


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