A riot is a form of civil disorder commonly characterized by a group lashing out in a violent public disturbance against authority, property or people. Riots typically involve theft, vandalism and destruction of property, public or private. The property targeted varies depending on the riot and the inclinations of those involved. Targets can include shops, cars, restaurants, state-owned institutions, and religious buildings.
Just what constitutes a riot?
When the gilets jaunes--the "yellow vests"-- gather week after week on the streets of Paris to express protest and indignation about the policies of the current French government, as they first did in November 2018 and are still doing as I write this in the spring of 2019, are they rioting?
When over 50,000 protestors first occupied Cairo's Tahrir Square on January 25, 2011, during the "Arab Spring" were they beginning a riot? Was Occupy Wall Street later that same year a riot in Manhattan? Is every popular uprising as such a riot? What about the uprising in the black community of Detroit in June of 1967? Was that a riot?
What exactly is a "riot"?
By calling such events as all those I've just listed--all such "popular" uprisings, such spontaneous "public" gatherings, which is to say comings together of the "people" under their own authority--"riots," are we calling them by their proper names? That is, are we addressing such events, speaking of them, in such a way as to let be seen, in and through what we say, what truly characterizes those events in terms of what belongs to their very essence as such events? By calling them all "riots," are we revealing what such events most truly are?
Or are we cloaking that? Are we hiding the events in question under a mantle that distorts their true nature--disguising them so as to make them no longer recognizable as what they really are?
Just what are we doing by calling popular, spontaneously formed assemblies "riots"?
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James Cone, the founder of Black Liberation Theology, died just one year ago this month, in April 2018. His autobiography, Said I Wasn't Gonna Tell Nobody: The Making of a Black Theologian, was published posthumously, six months after his death (Maryknoll, NY: Orbis Books, October 2018). In it, Cone writes about the impact of what happened in the black section of Detroit in June 1967 upon him, and what it had to do with black liberation as with stimulating him to develop Black Liberation Theology itself.
Cone does not call the 1967 black uprising in Detroit a "riot." Instead, he calls it a "rebellion." Here is the key passage, from the first chapter of his book, which he significantly calls "Couldn't Keep It to Myself: Removing My Mask" (the emphasis is Cone's own):
"Black Power is the gospel of Jesus in America today!" That was my central theological claim as I reflected on the Detroit rebellion. I couldn't stop thinking about it. I went to bed thinking about it, got up in the morning thinking about it, and thought about it all day. I was obsessed. It was like a revelation, a sudden bolt from the blue, a fire burning inside me. I didn't say a word to anybody about what I was feeling and thinking. [. . .] I simply meditated on the claim for months, thinking about its truth and wondering why I hadn't thought of it before. Then, to my surprise, I boldly asserted it in a theological discussion with white friends from graduate school at the annual meeting of the American Academy of Religion in November 1967.
Only a few pages before that passage, Cone writes about how, before the uprising in Detroit, he'd already begun to make himself familiar with Stokely Carmichael's "Black Power" movement. Of that movement, Cone writes: "Though it challenged [Dr. Martin Luther] King's nonviolent philosophy, I never thought of Black Power in terms of violence and hate; rather, it expressed the necessity of black people asserting their dignity in the face of 350 years of white supremacy."
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What was the mass event that took place in the black community of Detroit in June 1967? Was it a "riot," as it was and is so often called? Or was it a "rebellion," as James Cone called it? Which name should we give it?
What is the difference between naming it a riot, and naming it a rebellion? The difference is in who does the naming--and to what end. The authorities call spontaneous popular uprisings riots in order to help conceal the fact of the people's freedom, bring the people back to silence, disconnect them from one another again--in sum, to add strength to the very chains the people rise up to break.
For those who are doing what the authorities call rioting, however, it is better to call what is happening a rebellion, to help themselves break into freedom, discarding the chains which they have till then let bind them.
Finally, however, what might best serve the true interests of genuine authority--which is always and only that of the people, one and all, and never that of those who style themselves as the authorities--is to do what queers did when they took back the word queer from those who used that word to demean them, and adopted it as their chosen name for themselves. Just so, to give another example, did the members of the black community perform the same act of verbal reclamation with the word black, taking it up for themselves to affirm themselves proudly in their belonging together as a community of their own. We, the people, need to do the same with the word riot.
So let us loudly and proudly proclaim it a "riot," whenever and wherever the spirit moves us to come together in celebration of our very being together.
*https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Riot (accessed 4/2/19).