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The Language of the Unheard

This post is part of our Social Impact Summer Series. Initiated by The Institute for Social Justice Inquiry and Praxis and the Faculty Blog editorial team, the Series is meant to facilitate timely reflections and commentaries on unfolding events and to provide space for our faculty colleagues to strategize and coordinate efforts as we work toward freedom for ourselves, our students, and our communities.

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I marched with protesters during the initial rally in Atlanta on May 29th.  Thousands of demonstrators chanted and carried signs, many with quotes from Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., including this one: “a riot is the language of the unheard.” 

The initial Atlanta demonstration turned into a riot very suddenly, after a misguided police maneuver incited a panic outside the CNN Center.  But as King also said, “riots do not develop out of thin air.”  While media pundits and elected officials have been quick to invoke King’s name to denounce the riots and complain about the behavior of the marginalized, it is important that we don’t lose sight of King’s far more sophisticated analysis of the conditions that breed this expression of anger.  

Media outlets like to describe these protests—both the peaceful and the destructive—as a reaction to the police and posse killings of George Floyd, Breonna Taylor, and Ahmaud Arbery.  And that they certainly are.  But over the past few months the COVID-19 pandemic has exposed deep structural inequities that have always rendered poor and working-class Black people in this country vulnerable to exploitation and premature death.  These protests are not only about police reform.  They are a response to persistent cycles of impoverishment and neglect, to the devaluation of Black lives at every level, and to a policing apparatus that has been set up to protect and serve the structural order.  When elections and peaceful demonstrations don’t yield structural changes that improve the lives of those on the underside, more radical alternatives become increasingly inevitable.  This has been an historical truism in this country for decades.

In March 1968, following a meeting with Amiri Baraka and a cadre of militant Black youth in Newark, a city still reeling from major riots of the previous summer, King said this:

I wholly embrace everything they feel, I have more in common with these young people than with anybody else in this movement.  I feel their rage.  I feel their pain.  I feel their frustration.  It’s the system that’s the problem, and it’s choking the breath out of our lives… The trouble is that we live in a failed system.  Capitalism does not permit an even flow of economic resources.  With this system, a small privileged few are rich beyond conscience, and almost all others are doomed to be poor at some level.  That’s the way the system works.  And since we know that the system will not change the rules, we are going to have to change the system.

In his later years, King developed a sophisticated critique of what he called the “evil triplets” of capitalism, racism, and militarism (which for him signified both neo-imperial war making abroad and, significantly for our purposes, increasingly militarized policing at home).  And he knew that poor and working-class Black communities grasped these structural interconnections, because they lived them every day, and were fully capable of exercising political agency in response—including in the form of riotous rebellion.

Though King remained steadfastly committed to nonviolence, he nevertheless drew a contrast between violence against people and violence again property.  The latter, he said, is always the object of riotous protest and makes a degree of moral sense insofar as property in a capitalist society is structurally prevented from serving the needs of poor and vulnerable human beings.

Consider King’s commentary on the riots of his era:

Violent they certainly were.  But the violence, to a startling degree, was focused against property rather than against people.  There were very few cases of injury to persons, and the vast majority of the rioters were not involved in attacking people… It is clear that the riots were exacerbated by police action that was designed to injure or even to kill people… I am aware that there are many who wince at a distinction between property and persons—who hold both sacrosanct.  My views are not so rigid.  A life is sacred.  Property is intended to serve life, and no matter how much we surround it with rights and respect, it has no personal being… The [rioters’] focus on property is not accidental.  It has a message; it is saying something… Those people wanted the experience of taking, of redressing the power imbalance that property represents.  

Fifty years later this analysis still applies.  We still confront what King elsewhere called a “thing-oriented rather than a person-oriented society,” one that values property over people and that mobilizes a police apparatus to enforce this value structure.  In this context, riotous protest has to be seen as a form of political violence, an exercise of political agency, a meaningful if deeply troubling effort to challenge the “evil triplets” of capitalism, racism, and militarism. 

Of course, as King implored, we all ought to practice nonviolence.  We must!  Don’t get this twisted.  But King’s legacy teaches us that what it means to practice nonviolence in this context is not merely to condemn or attempt to dissuade the would-be rioter from giving in to temptation.  It is also, and perhaps more significantly, to organize widely for the abolition of the conditions that nurture the temptation in the first place.

History does not move at a steady pace.  It starts and stops, twists and turns.  As the venerable C.L.R. James liked to say, struggles for liberation always have their moments when the people “leap, leap, leap!”  We may be experiencing a leaping moment in the movement for Black lives, a lunging start that will vivify the failures of the racial capitalist edifice and its apparatuses of protection.  To the point of King’s larger legacy, a sustained movement will require nonviolent organizing that builds on the lessons of this moment. 

One organization that could use your support as we lunge forward is Southerners on New Ground (SONG).  In his impassioned speech on Friday night, the rapper Killer Mike mentioned the importance of grassroots organizing and he highlighted one example of recent success on this front: Atlanta-based organizers had managed, he said, to eliminate cash bail policies that have led to the needless incarceration of so many poor and working-class Black people.  SONG was instrumental in that effort and is engaged in so much work to abolish the conditions that give rise to the rebellions we’re seeing today.  We must support this work.

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Andrew J. Douglas is an associate professor of political science and faculty affiliate in Africana studies and international comparative labor studies.  He is the author of two books, including W.E.B. Du Bois and the Critique of the Competitive Society, and is currently finishing a book-length project on Martin Luther King, Jr.’s economic theory (coauthored with Jared Loggins, Morehouse c/o 2015).