Interview With A Rioter: The Case For Militant Protests
The opinions and perspectives shared in this article do not reflect those of Civinomics, only the individuals interviewed. This article is intended to provide insight as to why someone might choose these types of protests tactics, and in no way advocates for them.
12/23 Update: The original title, “Interview with an Anarchist” was changed to prevent association of anarchist theory with the current protests.
As 2014 comes to a close, undeniably one of the most important events to have happened were the protests surrounding police killings of unarmed black men. With the back-to-back no-indictment decisions from the Michael Brown and Eric Garner case, protests and riots have broken out in cities all across the country.
Over the last couple weeks, it turns out my hometown of Berkeley would receive what would seem to be a surprising amount of coverage. The New York Times ran several stories covering the protests that happened in this university town, this despite being geographically far removed from the actual events.
With this in mind, I called up an acquaintance of mine who I originally met on a ride share. This person, who asked to remain anonymous and I’ll refer to as B, has been closely involved with these current protests. B was active as an organizer during the Occupy movement, and so I asked if we could sit down and discuss these current events. I wanted to hear the perspective of someone who wholeheartedly and intellectually believes in the power and necessity of protests and riots.
So we set a time to meet at a local bar here in Berkeley. I got there early and got us a table. Shortly thereafter, B arrived. We sat down and B got right into it. I didn’t even have to ask that many questions, because most of what I wanted to talk about B had covered.
At the top of my mind were questions such as what organizing forces are behind these protests? What do the protests hope to accomplish? Is vandalism justified? I knew that B was the perfect person to explain these issues to me from a unique perspective, and I hope you’ll find the following transcript of our conversation enlightening. It certainly has broadened my own perspective on this issue.
Russell: What’s been your experience as a protest organizer?
B: The way it’s been going – people will make callouts on social media to meet up at certain times and places. And then there’s some groups who have very bad reputations in the Bay Area, who have been making callouts and have been attempting to lead the formation of what the marches look like, and usually they get sort’ve punked by other people in the marches. There’s the Revolutionary Communist Party, who are irrelevant Maoists who nobody likes. Another group called Bamn, which is By Any Means Necessary, who are pretty irrelevant, nobody really likes them. And then there’s another group called Bay Waters, which is kind of a loose anarchist group, but they usually just put together analyses and do a lot of textual stuff.
There’s been these different groups who have been making calls for meet up times and places, but that doesn’t mean that once the marches start that there’s any form of organization.
The Millions March was organized. As were the the civil disobedience actions that you see – on Black Friday a group of all black women called the Blackout Collective locked themselves to the bart trains at West Oakland station, like in between the bart trains and the stations. So they stopped all the train service between the east bay and San Francisco on this huge shopping day. So this was [an example] of organized civil disobedience.
But the marches and the riots – riots are a social phenomenon . They’re totally not organized.
So there’s these different forms, right? Definitely the civil disobedience has been organized by a collective called Onix, the Blackout Collective, which are organized black liberation groups. All this other shit you see is not organized. The highway takeovers, the riots…so yah it’s really important to understand that distinction.
And then what you see out of that is the crowd is really, on these marches and all these riots, the crowd is very anonymous. It’s been an ever changing crowd every single night.
Russell: What do you mean by anonymous?
B: Nobody is representing the crowd and there’s no way the crowd could represent itself. It’s truly a broad social response.
And the interesting thing about it is, like the property destruction, no matter what end of the critique you fall on, if that’s the proper tactical response or not, the property destruction, even though the crowd is so anonymous and there’s no real organization to it, the property destruction has been largely corporate targets.
You know one night someone started to smash the window of a bike shop, and everyone was like, “Yo, these people are cool, it’s a collective, they’re a collective.” And the person was like really embarrassed.
It’s not that the riots are unconscious just because there’s no organization behind them.
You know, during the Oscar Grant riots some small businesses were destroyed, like this one African braid shop. And so the media really focused on the African braid shop to be like, “look, these people are destroying their own community.” I was there when the african braid shop got destroyed, it was a similar situation. People were like, look at what you’re doing, and the guy was again really embarrassed.
So there’s this racist idea that black people are feral and that when they riot they have no consciousness about what they’re doing and they’re burning down their own community, which is not at all what’s been going on. The looting has been all grocery stores and electronic stores. And then, if you’ve been in downtown Berkeley or Oakland the stuff that’s gotten smashed up is all banks and corporate stores.
I think it’s really hard for Americans to wrap their heads around property destruction and looting because of the liberal focus on private property. But it’s very clear that this how people alleviate their alienation, right? Capitalism locks them out from any kind of a relationship; this idea of private property and commodity – people are conscious that these things matter more than the value of their own lives.
So that’s what the feeling has been in the streets when you see this stuff go down. The system privileges private property over our lives and thus it’s been a response to that, this kind of alienation.
So despite the fact that it’s unorganized, there is a consciousness to it.
You would think that, the way the media portrays stuff like this that there’s these angry, unruly mobs in the streets, that are completely not self conscious. That when you put a crowd of people together – it’s this crazed, apocalyptic paranoia about crowds in the street. And that’s not what’s going on at all.
So there’s been three different forms. There’s been the highway takeover, which is the disruption of everyday life. There’s been the civil disobedience stuff which has been similarly along the highway shutdowns except that they’re organized. And then there’s the riots. That’s what’s going on.
Russell: What do you think the aim of all these actions are? What do they hope to accomplish, and can they accomplish that if they aren’t more organized?
B: Well, obviously it’s already been successful. Because now the national conversation has completely shifted. There’s even mainstream media consensus about riots right now. I mean Time Magazine had an article, “Defending Riots”. Which blows your mind! But Rolling Stone took it to the next level with an article about abolishing policing as a form. Do we need police? That is deeply ingrained in the anarchist theory that people can actually cooperate and take care of each other and that there could be community forms of policing that would not involve the tyranny of the state. And then fucking Rolling Stone wrote this article!
Without a revolution there’s no way for people to accomplish the aims that I think people want. But in light of that where does the pushback happen? It happens in national consciousness and discourse.
Right now there’s this standing threat that if police kill someone, that there’ll be rioting. That they’ll look bad, that the state will lose legitimacy. I mean Obama is talking about this! “The police have lost legitimacy.” And he’s saying it in this mournful way, but that – that’s a threat.
So whether or not you disagree with property destruction or looting, it’s provided this standing threat. The highway takeovers, too.
Russell: So this is sort’ve a check on police forces?
B: Oh yah. So here’s the thing: all these police killings are legalized lynchings. I mean if you leave Michael Brown’s body in the street for four and a half hours – the reason everyone is bringing up this four and a half hours thing is because it looks like a lynching. You know, you kill a black person and leave their body hanging – that’s what lynchings were. These were white, racist symbols to the black community that if you don’t stay in line, we’re going to hang your body up for everyone to see. There was a very public, spectator message to lynchings. So the reason this four and a half hours thing, the reason that became such a fucking big deal is because it looks like a lynching.
And then you know the Eric Garner thing – the video makes everything very clear. There’s very little arguing with the video. How do you argue with that video? And everyone saw the video, there’s this spectatorship aspect to these events, with the proliferation of these images, but the way that that gets internalized by the black community when there’s no indictment is that these are legalized lynchings. They’re state sanctioned. That’s how the black community is understanding this. They’re definitely using the word “lynching”.
The African American community is largely locked out of public discourse, is locked out of access to any kind of dignified existence in the economy and when it comes to the state. So what else do you do to be heard? You know what I mean?
So you know, the Martin Luther King quote, “Riots are the language of the unheard.” So everyone thinks that Martin Luther King was all about peaceful protest, but actually he spoke in favor of riots. No matter what you think about riots, it’s the language of the unheard. How else can the unheard speak? So, that quote has been making the rounds all around the country right now. All around social media, in the rallies and the marches.
Then in Oakland, when Oscar Grant was killed, [officer] Mehserle wasn’t arrested or charged. And then people rioted, and Mehserle was arrested and charged. And during that time, everyone was saying riots work. Or else there won’t be this standing threat to the state that there will be this response.
So the question is, what would have happened if there was no response? If Ferguson had not rioted off the top, where would we be? Where would the black community be? Pretty much getting lynched in silence.
So the response lead to this debate about body cameras, about police reform. Which is really interesting because the Ferguson activists started saying – if Michael Brown lead to an argument about body cameras, then Eric Garner was the rebuttal. Cause the whole thing was fucking filmed.
So once these protests start a national conversation about body cameras, about police reform; and then you see the Eric Garner video which means the body cameras are actually not any kind of a solution, then the national conversation becomes, well, this is not about body cameras, it’s not about evidence. It’s about institutionalized racism. Which is an incredible conversation to be going on.
And I struggle with this too – what does this mean? As a radical, so these steps towards collective empowerment, or openings to do community organizing, for people to begin to organize themselves outside the structure of capitalism and the gendered and racialised institutions of power. I’m a radical. When everyone’s like what is the goal or where does this lead? Nothing would be good enough for me if there were no revolution. I’m an anti-capitalist! Ideologically, I don’t have those answers because I’m a radical.
But what i’ve heard about people in the black community is that it’s been important for them to see their community stand up really militantly and show a non-compliance to being killed in the streets. And it’s actually a really hopeful moment for them right now.