There’s No Such Thing as a Pretty Protest
Critics of riotous rallies are missing the point
It didn’t take much for us to slip on the running-turned-rioting kicks and say “fuck social distancing.”
“Something goin’ on on 52nd, bro,” I muttered. Down the hallway, my roommate Tre was already putting on outside clothes — a black tee with revolutionary names and matching joggers — and strapping on his camera. We skedaddled down West Philly’s Blackest street, our hearts pounding in our chests and adrenaline coursing through our veins. We ran into some old college friends who informed us that a cop car had been flipped just over the Market Street line, and that folks were burning shit in front of McDonald’s. As we continued up Market, teenagers cracked cinder blocks against shuttered storefronts and tossed them at police wagons and fire trucks, hurling insults when they ran out of concrete ammo.
The looting started small: a few kiosks toppled, a few T-shirts and incense packs ransacked. As the crowd piled into the neighborhood dollar-store-slash-deli for all the goods, I began to question the purpose of all this ugliness — but then I smelled the tear gas wafting through the air and heard the sound of a police helicopter swooping low to snap pics. Once again, Black people were risking it all for a slice of humanity. And that shit ain’t pretty.
To be clear, it was never supposed to be glamorous. The need to be neat is a front, as videos of police in riot gear kneeling in front of protesters before tear-gassing them clearly show. Yet the most common critique of some of the protests that have taken shape in cities around the world centers on the vandalism, looting, and rioting that have come into play in a tiny minority of scenarios. (Forget the boogaloo boys, White supremacists, and anarchists who have intentionally incited violence and destruction — they’re liable to catch a fade on sight.)
Linking looting to the canard of Black-on-Black crime is meant to further limit the various forms of protest available to Black people. Setting ablaze the businesses in your own neck of the hood may be ugly, but it’s no less legitimate a way of criticizing American greed.
Interrogating the ways we protest has become a fervent dialogue on social media, but blind criticism does a disservice to the reality of revolution when it draws distinctions between “bad” protesters and those who opt to march, kneel, or even dance. To argue over the means when the ultimate end is disruption — as Malcolm X said, by any means necessary — obscures the end itself. For those clinging to the structures being dismantled, all activism looks ugly.
Yet, it was crushing to see the chaos happening on our own Black-ass block — neighbors seemingly robbing neighbors. Some might see the behavior as a form of self-hatred — Black people vandalizing Black stores located in Black neighborhoods — but that wasn’t really the energy at all. Tre and I ran into our radical homegirl Shakira, who was not only making it her mission to shut down any Black-on-Black looting, but also convincing the aggrieved to “take that shit back to Center City,” downtown Philly’s commercial epicenter, where folks had flamed up a Starbucks the day prior. ’Kira is Philly born and bred, so when she spoke, people listened. She and a few others protected Hakim’s, the city’s oldest Black-owned bookstore, until the tear gas grew too thick to bear.
Taking from Black businesses is difficult to rationalize, but consider how little the state and federal governments have done to meet folks’ needs in the midst of a pandemic. Looting essentials from kiosks and other small businesses — as opposed to raiding a Whole Foods — isn’t so much about retribution as it is about proximity. These local shops stock the kinds of products people need to survive while quarantining. And while I felt empathy for the business owners, the socialist in me was thrilled to see some of those “looters” handing out cash and merchandise to folks roaming the streets.
It’s easy to believe the myth that Black folks just love ripping apart our own stuff. But this stuff ain’t us; those small business owners are renters, their entrepreneurial dreams so often snared in a predatory financial relationship with opportunistic landlords. The underlying assumption speaks to what Angela Davis would call “an inability to understand the complexity of racism” — even amongst Black people. In a 2015 speech, Davis argued for “richer, more critical vocabularies with which to express our insights about racism.” Linking looting to the canard of Black-on-Black crime is meant to further limit the various forms of protest available to Black people. Setting ablaze the businesses in your own neck of the hood may be ugly, but it’s no less legitimate a way of criticizing American greed.
“One of the major examples of the violence of racism,” Davis adds, “consists of the rearing of generations of Black people who have not learned how to imagine the future.” Imagination is key because it’s the very thing that White power structures seek to stamp out. Looting isn’t the most creative way of taking aim at the pockets of big business, but it is a useful tool in shedding light on how far people are willing to go to be heard. It’s a symbol for the idea that the present just ain’t cutting it.
Direct action isn’t for everyone. Some prefer moving quietly, donating to bail funds or anti-police brutality organizations, or retweeting folks whose insights have proven valuable in this wild-ass time. All of it is protest, and all of it is legitimate.
Alternative ways of protesting, even if they’re behind the scenes, can be disruptive as well. Just take the Bolshevik phenomenon of the early 20th century, which awakened the radical imaginations of Black militants across the country. Back then, not only were Black folks subject to the mass injustices of Jim Crow, but the federal government deemed Black-owned media voices — outlets like the Chicago Defender, The Whip, and the Broad Ax — too destructive. Under the guise of what was then called the Military Intelligence Division, Uncle Sam scrutinized their papers and excoriated them for being anti-American (read: anti-business) and radicalizing Black folks. These papers were taking eyes away from the larger publications of the time, moving folks to divest from the mainstream spin against Black humanity — and they were continually terrorized for it under the charge of “Negro subversion.”
During the civil rights movement, nonviolent protests produced shame in the nation’s nightly television audience. Now, it seems for some of us, the shame is ours. We look sideways at Black folk taking what they need to live in the face of police terror, at those expressing their rage at systematic racism in a destructive way. We’re told by the Black celebrity class that we’re acting like animals and need to have a timeout. We’ve been influenced by White power to assign respectability to how we dismantle White supremacy, how we sustain our own movement. I felt a tinge of that myself that day.
Shakira, Tre, and I sprinted from the pepper spray, breathing heavily through our face masks. “Get some milk, y’all!” she screamed, her voice raspy with irritation. We pulled up to my apartment, snatched the milk out of the fridge, and ran back downstairs. But before she even treated herself, ’Kira was offering our coughing, bleary-eyed neighbors assistance. My nerves were cooked. Protests, riots, and uprisings are all intense scenes of barefaced humanity and all of its many complexities — and that humanity, that intimacy of direct action, is exactly what is so invigorating. The fires are a reminder that change is often terrifying.
As I sat my sore body in my bedroom, I noticed that, despite the audible sirens and chopper, our block was clear. Across the way, I heard the booms of another building being blown into. This is the price Black people pay — our lives, our homes, our peace — for a slice of freedom fulfilled. And there ain’t nothin’ pretty about that.