White fear of black riots

Photo from the gathering in downtown Oakland to protest the verdict in the Oscar Grant trial, July 8, 2010
Photo from the gathering in downtown Oakland to protest the verdict in the Oscar Grant trial, July 8, 2010

In the summer of 2010, the Bay Area was anxiously awaiting the verdict in the trial of Johannes Mehserle, a BART police officer who shot and killed Oscar Grant while he was handcuffed face down on the train platform. For anyone who had paid attention to the history of unarmed black men killed by police, there was reason to be pessimistic about getting real accountability for this tragic incident.

I worked in downtown Oakland at the time, and the buzz around the impending verdict in some circles was not about the potential for injustice. It was about not coming in to work because of fear of riots. It was about feeling threatened and unsettled by the prospect of people, with the unstated implication that it was largely people of color, convening and breaking out into violence. It was the fear of people moving into a rapidly gentrifying city seeing the rest of its inhabitants as dangerous people tearing up the streets.

I was appalled that people who supposedly want to live and work in this city would feel so threatened by it at the same time, especially when the so-called threat stems from a community coming together to protest and grieve. I went to the rally when the verdict was announced because I was angry about the lack of accountability for taking a young black man’s life. But the fear I saw made me even more determined to go in defiance of people who think we should be afraid of our own city and its justified desire to fight back.

It’s because of that experience that Mahroh Jahangiri’s piece about white people telling each other to “stay safe” in Baltimore resonated with me so much. While she acknowledges the natural desire to check in on loved ones, she provides some important recommendations for how to push back:

But responding to this concern by just saying “I’m okay!” erases the real disparities in who is and who is not victim to police violence. It seems to be a disturbing way of suggesting that you had a chance of being hurt by this form of violence in the first place. It claims you survived, even when you were never under attack. Talking about how we, as non-Black people, are “safe” strangely centers ourselves in stories of violence that specifically targets Black people. It continues to claim the status of our safety as relevant and a priority in a conversation where it shouldn’t be.

So let’s be a bit more responsible and comprehensive in how we respond to white concern for safety instead of just saying, “I’m safe.” Convey to friends and family that if their concern is driven by fear of violent “thugs” rioting, it is heavily shaped by biased news or racism or a combination of the two. Provide them withalternate sources that actually convey what is happening in Baltimore (or Ferguson or elsewhere). If their concern is driven by you being a woman, share with them the history of the threat of “dangerous” brown andBlack men being used to justify centuries of race-based oppression. Share sources that highlight those Black female organizers that have been at the forefront of each and every one of these protests — contrary to popular portrayals.

Above all, convey to them that their concern is misplaced, because the protests are not the systemic threat — the police are. And explain to them that police violence is discriminate and affects neighborhoods and communities that our race and class remove us from. Convey to them that not only is it Black people in Baltimore City whose safety is threatened right now but that this is nothing new — that the whole point of these uprisings is that their safety always has been and continues to be at risk. There is no option for “staying safe” from the police for Black people in America by just steering clear of the protests.

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Author: Rebecca Griffin

I am a passionate advocate for progressive causes with over a decade of experience organizing for social change. That organizing experience informs the way I look at the world and the challenges we face in working toward social justice. I started Of Means and Ends to write about social issues I care about and share my thoughts on how we organize in a smart, strategic way. Please visit and join the conversation.

6 thoughts on “White fear of black riots”

  1. I can’t get my head around the idea that US police can get away with killing innocent people because of their colour. Crikey, don’t they understand that this is the 21st Century? The same goes for the legal system. What on earth is happening in the US?

    Having said that, from where I am, on the other side of the globe, there seems to be a long standing pattern of one dead African American and thousands vandalising private property and injuring hundreds of innocent white people. And nothing changes on either side of the divide.

    If I had the power, I would overhaul the judicial system and I would make the rioters, frankly not all of them high minded, accountable.

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    1. I think in an ideal situation, nonviolent tactics should be used. This is clearly far from an ideal situation. For one thing, there are more people protesting nonviolently that aren’t getting nearly as much attention. The people that are “rioting” are drawing a disproportionate amount of attention.

      Fixating on the violence by protesters ignores the fact that this is non a one-way violent relationship. It’s not just police killing of unarmed black people, which would be bad enough. But it’s also economic and psychological violence, and that’s where I think this debate should focus.

      The first part of this podcast where Ta-Nehisi Coates talks about Baltimore does a great job of laying that out: http://www.slate.com/articles/podcasts/gabfest/2015/05/political_gabfest_on_the_suspicious_death_of_freddie_gray_the_supreme_court.html

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      1. Rebecca, people who had nothing to do with that young man’s death died or were maimed or had their property vandalised. Those rioters are just as culpable as are the police.

        My children are decent people who have been raised to respect others and to be accountable for their actions. Would the rioters know this about them if they came across my children? That’s the problem with mass riots, The rioters don’t take into account who it is they are violating. Nor, while they are under that mass hypnosis of group think, do they care. Each individual rioter has a personal story too, but it’s getting harder for people like me to see them that way.

        I don’t think that non violent protests are any more effective than the violent ones have proved to be. But I do believe there any number of legal ways to make changes. To make people see.

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      2. I haven’t heard any reports of people being killed or maimed as a result of these protests. I feel like this feeds into an exaggeration of what is happening and playing up fear and sensationalism. People accept it as normal when white people riot over a sports game, but wring their hands when people react to something political.

        I think any kind of social change has to happen through multiple avenues. Protests are a part of that, as well as other ways to pressure those in power to change their minds.

        I’m not suggesting people go out and protest violently. But I think that there is more emphasis than necessary on that aspect of a complex story. I also think that it doesn’t help to fixate on what’s legal since law enforcement is the problem here, and plenty of social change has been made in this country by people who did not follow the letter of the law.

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