There’s this married couple that I went to graduate school with who own a home about two blocks from where George Floyd was murdered. When the Target store they frequent was looted, I checked in on them. Both were fine, but a little nervous. They said they saw this coming a mile away, and how they loved Minneapolis — it was their home, but tensions between the police and the black community had been (understandably) mounting for a while. Ultimately, they understood that things were going to get worse before they got better, and it was something that needed to happen.
They were not blaming the black community for the vandalism and damaged property, because ultimately we know that many of the arrests related to these things are folks from outside the area and linked to white supremacist groups.
This was all in direct contrast to what I was seeing online. At first, people were shocked by the video of George Floyd’s murder. But it soon turned to complete outrage over breaking glass, flipping cars, and looting stores. These were the common questions: “What does this solve?” and “Why would people do this to their own town?”
It seemed so strange to know people who lived in the area and understood why it was happening, only to see those who had no real connection to Minneapolis be completely outraged. And what I think has been lost in translation is the simple act of empathy.
People keep trying to find logic after seeing footage of riots online, but they are not taking a moment to realize what a riot means. It’s an act of rage, and frustration, and anger, that comes out any direction it can, and is almost always a result of being unheard, unacknowledged, and unfairly oppressed. The exception being when white people riot because their favorite sports team lost.
In college, I attended several classes where we discussed literature that came out after the ’92 Los Angeles riots. One piece of work in particular was Twilight: Los Angeles, 1992. It is a one-woman play written by Anna Deavere Smith. It consists of real oral histories from people who lived through the riots. And when I say people, I mean she interviewed 300 people to find the right mix of varied perspectives.
The play includes voices from across the spectrum of the riot: public officials such as LAPD chief Daryl Gates and Congresswoman Maxine Waters; a nameless juror on the Rodney King police trial (the acquittal of police officers involved in his attack was a catalyst for the riots); various victims and instigators of violence in South Central, including white truck driver Reginald Denny, who was beaten; and residents of greater Los Angeles with their own view of the events.
She memorized and delivered words in Korean to portray a Korean-American woman whose business had been burned down. Twilight was nominated for the 1994 Tony Award for Best Play, and now, almost 30 years later, it might be the most relevant work I’ve ever read.
Ultimately, what I was left with after studying Twilight was this: riots happen when people have had enough. They happen when a group of people have asked for help, asked for safety, asked for security, asked for the necessities of human life, but no one has listened. It happens when people keep saying the same thing calmly, when they have brought up injustice time and time again, in as many peaceful ways as possible, through protests, celebrities, and news coverage, but the message has fallen on deaf ears. They happen when the evidence of the injustice is clearly videotaped, but there are no convictions.
Those of you asking why a city is burning, I want you to really think about how angry and uninvested and unheard you would have to be to riot. Really think about it. The people posting online about how they are more outraged by broken glass than a broken system feel heard. They feel safe. They have a lot to lose by rioting. But clearly there are a lot of people feeling like they have nothing to lose right now, because it is as bad as it’s going to get, so they might as well burn it down and start fresh — and that is a dangerous state for society to be in.
Please realize that nothing I have written here is a justification for burning down a city. It is not a justification for violence in the streets. Though some of that violence is perpetuated by police officers too. This is me trying to explain why it’s happening to folks who are speaking up about broken windows and staying silent on matters of systemic racism and unjust killings of black people. I need, we need, you to take your mind off the broken glass, and focus on the people, the outrage, the frustration, the catalysts for why folks feel the need to riot in the first place.
And please don’t act like you didn’t see famous athletes take a knee. Don’t say that you didn’t see the cast of Hamilton make a statement. Don’t say that you didn’t read the stories, one after another, of unarmed people of color dying at the hands of the police. Don’t say that you didn’t shrug it off, or call for action against people like Colin Kaepernick, because there were countless opportunities to address these issues before now. Countless. And nothing changed, nothing happened, so here we are.
What happened to George Floyd, Trayvon Martin, Philando Castile, Freddie Gray, Alton Sterling, Eric Gardner and so many other unarmed people of color is an injustice alone, but it only becomes even more so when a society doesn’t listen.
Right now, the problem isn’t the looting, or the broken glass, or the burning buildings. The problem is that change needs to happen now. It needed to happen in 1992, and yet here we are, with history repeating itself. And if this message continues to fall on deaf ears, riots will continue.
Riots are the language of the unheard, and they only way to stop (and prevent them) is to listen, and I mean really listen and dig deep, act, and make change.