The Language of A Riot
“A riot is the language of the unheard. What is it that America has failed to hear?”
- Martin Luther King Jr. The Other America
I came across this quotation several times on Tuesday after the wave of protests and riots throughout America against police brutality, racism, and the killing George Floyd, Breonna Taylor, and Ahmad Arbery. Aside from its poignancy, King’s words resonated with me as a reminder of the various modes of communication. I deal primarily with words- their origins, their components, and when combined, their narratives, the art they produce, and the insights they impart. However, let’s remember that etymology is the study of the origin of words. And words represent concepts and ideas. So etymology is the study of the origin of various ideas, method of communication notwithstanding.
In his speech, Martin Luther King Jr. etymologizes riot. Not the word itself, but the origin of the 1960s riots. (Note: the word riot came from Old French riote “a dispute or quarrel; chattering; an argument; domestic strife”.) By 1967, King’s focus was on race, economic justice, and the Vietnam War. On April 14, 1967, he spoke his Stanford University stating
[R]iots are socially destructive and self-defeating. I’m still convinced that nonviolence is the most potent weapon available to oppressed people in their struggle for freedom and justice…[b]ut at the same time, it is as necessary for me to be as vigorous in condemning the conditions which cause persons to feel that they must engage in riotous activities as it is for me to condemn riots. I think America must see that riots do not develop out of thin air. Certain conditions continue to exist in our society which must be condemned as vigorously as we condemn riots. But in the final analysis, he states that a riot is the language of the unheard. And what is it that America has failed to hear? It has failed to hear that the plight of the Negro poor has worsened over the last few years. It has failed to hear that the promises of freedom and justice have not been met.
The King quotation reminds me of another, found at the opening of On Violence (Fanon in Wretched of the Earth): “[n]ational liberation, national reawakening, restoration of the nation to the people or Commonwealth, whatever the name used, whatever the latest expression, decolonization is always a violent event.” (2004, p.1) Because colonialism and racism themselves are violent. Colonists usurped native land through looting, raping, and starvation. Colonists “otherized” black people as savage, amoral, and infantile. To justify their dehumanizing praxis, the colonized were deemed the “quintessence of evil” (p.6), the “enemy of values” (p.7), reduced to the state of an animal and viewed through a zoological lens. Categorized, compartmentalized. White was purity. Black, brown, red, and yellow were evil. Colonialism and racism have always been violent because they cause social death. And let’s not forget physical death. There are many reminders. Too many to fill this space.
Franz Fanon was one of the foremost theorists on revolution, colonialism, and racial difference, as many activists consider Wretched of the Earth to be an antiracist classic. In a series of essays, Fanon outlines both the psychological impact of colonialism and the road to decolonization. His opening essay treats the role of violence in the African liberation struggle. While colonial regimes are the focal point of Fanon’s work, many parallel’s exist between paradigms of past and present conditions. For one, America continues to operate under coloniality: the impact of European colonialism in a postcolonial world. Living in a compartmentalized world is coloniality. A world where white bodies are vessels for the mind, while black ones are just that- a body. Physical violence and intimidation used against black bodies is coloniality. The destruction of black people’s agency and ability to mobilize is coloniality. White vigilante-ism (read ‘stand-your-ground’ laws) are coloniality. Thousands of black lives have been lost at the hands of coloniality. And demonizing black people for fighting back is indeed coloniality.
The riots and the destruction we are seeing today are acts of counterviolence or a violence “invested with positive, formative features” because it is the people’s work toward decolonization. (Fanon, 2004, p.50) It is taking violent measures against the capitalist, racist, colonial system that initiated the violence. And it is collectively cathartic. It is the “perfect meditation.” (p.44)
When I think of black catharsis, I am reminded of CP Patrick’s The Truth about Awiti. A painfully eye-opening narrative of an African immortal seeking retribution for the black trauma she and her people live(d). An exposé on the idea that major hurricanes are the avenging souls of former slaves. While it’s easy to dismiss as folklore, consider two things: a) there is wisdom in folklore, and b) meteorological reports show that “most Atlantic hurricanes start to take shape when thunderstorms form along the West Coast of Africa and drift out over warm ocean waters.”
One of the most striking lines in Awiti is “…it is not good to hold in painful memories,” This is what we are experiencing now. A nation that has held onto and tried to bury its most painful memories. And what results? Hurricanes. Violence. Riots. Eruption. Explosion. And after it all, we hope for the exorcism of racism. Because the other option is what? Implosion? Internal self-destruction? What will our muted indignation produce? We have already lived social death, been living it. We cannot allow ourselves to acquiesce to this, lest we hasten the physical demise of black people.
The emergence of the new nation and demolition of the colonial system are the result of either a violent struggle by newly independent people or outside violence by other colonized peoples, which has an inhibiting effect on the colonial regime…[t]hey discover that violence is atmospheric [and] plays out not only an informative role but also an operative one.” (p.30)
To all the protesters, continue to fight the good fight. Be safe. And everyone else, myself included, find ways to support this effort. In the annals of history, let this time be one in which deadly colonial systems are destroyed for good. We need these riots and protests to tell America that people are fed up and tired. We want a change. We want to live. We want to be free. Free. Free.