Riots are popular just now, though perhaps more in the older political sense of that term: acts “of or carried on by the people as a whole rather than restricted to politicians or political parties.” Or perhaps they fall under the related heading, less overtly political, of productions “intended for or suited to the taste, understanding, or means of the general public rather than specialists or intellectuals.” Notice the split between acts and the dissemination of ideas, even in the idea of the popular.
Certainly the recent riots in Ferguson, Missouri, have received the kinds of popular defenses that even a handful of years ago would have been off the table. The very recent supportive op-ed in Time, a magazine generally given over to making Newsweek appear progressive, was only one example of this cultural shift. And yet it is not altogether clear that riots themselves are pop culture.
Here I must make a leap to the biggest film of the year to date, which opened the Friday before a St. Louis County grand jury handed down its unsurprising, grotesque decision not to indict Darren Wilson. Awkwardly titled The Hunger Games: Mockingjay Part 1, the film ends unsettlingly in the middle of the trilogy’s narrative finale. The main story line concerns the rebel forces gathering against the Capitol, and their decision to use Katniss Everdeen not for her practical skills—which have gotten her to this point—but as a character for propaganda films, the Mockingjay of the title. The rebels wish to make her cultural: a figure for winning hearts and minds.
She agrees to serve if they will rescue Peeta Mellark and other of her comrades. This high-tech targeted operation in an enemy stronghold is the film’s only gripping sequence; it goes out of its way to recall the climax of Zero Dark Thirty. I have no idea why, except that making allusions is something culture does, and one of the ways it tries—however implausibly—to affix itself to the world, to daily life.
Daily life, as the film racked up its third, fourth and fifth $100 million globally, did not much concern the death of Osama bin Laden but the killing of Michael Brown, the impunity enjoyed by his murderer, and the riots that returned nationally just as they had burned locally after the killing itself. They opened like a movie, immediately after the release of the grand jury’s findings. They were generalized enough, predictable enough, reasonable enough, that they seemed like a social fact and an image of the future, rather than an exception that could be scolded back into the corner. Hence the defenses.
Some of these noted the ways that riots had, in the past, succeeded in forcing certain reforms. More often, commentators basked in the glow that accompanies quoting Martin Luther King Jr., especially his declaration that “a riot is the language of the unheard.”
The full passage is pressingly lovely. Its sense of worsening conditions for black people, and of the racialized violence and humiliations meant to guarantee “tranquility” for a largely white class of masters, is no less true now than in 1968. The phrase has been cited so often in these last days and weeks that it has taken on a sheen not just of compassionate rectitude but of inarguable justice.
And yet, is a riot really a “language”? To assert this is to make it cultural, a communication, knowledge given compelling form. A riot designs to “get attention,” as King said. It means to persuade. It is a kind of propaganda.
One disagrees with King at one’s peril, but it’s an error to understand riots this way. It plays into the most invidious convention for undermining political contest: separating the antagonists into good and bad actors, often figured as peaceful and violent, respectively. The underlying division, however, is invariably between those who understand the confrontation as primarily communicative, and those who understand it as primarily practical. There are those who see the main task of riots as presenting a message that will garner support, that will communicate grievances and demands in order to achieve some negotiated set of concessions; and those for whom the main tasks are material necessities like destroying the power of police and bosses, seizing space and goods, and so on. The former gravitate inevitably toward something like respectability politics and concessionary moderation; the latter confront the puzzle of unmaking systems that are not immediately to hand, but recede into the recesses of structural power. In the lonely hour of the last instance, power has tanks.
As soon as we presume that the riot is a language, we take the claims of the former group as a set of truths already agreed upon. We exclude all aspects but discourse. This would have been perplexing to the rioters of the eighteenth century, for whom the need to secure bread, to get rid of bosses and their armed lackeys, was why they left their cottages in the first place. A riot is more or less by definition the moment when the presumptions of a functioning and just democratic state—one in which citizens might petition for the redress of grievances—start to collapse. A riot is a riot because, at least in part, it is not simply a message.
This doesn’t mean riots are illegible. We can read much that isn’t language. We should be slow nonetheless to understand the Ferguson popular uprising and its kin first as language, as propaganda, as culture. With luck, it is the discourse of something more potent and practical.