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Saturday, August 13, 2011

Riot, Try It: A Pragmatics of Urban Disruption in a Planet of Slums

A political scientist at Drexel University, George Ciccariello-Maher, provides an insightful preliminary analytic sketch of recent rioting (hereafter, usually scare-quoted) as a pragmatic political tactic and ethos as well as of the prevailing media narratives through which such disruptions tend to be pathologized here and now in the service of incumbent-elite interests and hence profoundly misconstrued. (Although I will not pursue the point in this essay, I do want to mention at the outset that the Stonewall Riots in 1969 in New York City offer an interesting counter-example, in which an unambiguous insurrection inassimilable to compulsory non-violence narratives about efficacious historical change seems nonetheless to be canonized in liberal progressive discourse. Sure, there's also that whole pesky American Revolution against British Occupation to consider too, but Stonewall still seems to me an especially surprising and encouraging resistance to be getting the liberal postage stamp treatment.)

Ciccariello-Maher emphasizes the emerging pragmatics of rebellious "rioters" in urban settings stratified by economic and police violence. This pragmatism has a number of dimensions. For one thing, it puts a kind of pressure on otherwise unresponsive authorities to address real problems. A case in point, Ciccariello-Maher recalls that in 2009 here in Oakland (where I live) "it was riots and only riots that led to the arrest, prosecution, and conviction of BART police officer Johannes Mehserle for the death of Oscar Grant." The emphasis that it was "only riots" that compelled a response is his, but I certainly agree with it.

In his now canonized -- and hence largely domesticated -- Letter from the Birmingham City Jail, the Reverend Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., writes that
law and order exist for the purpose of establishing justice and... when they fail in this purpose they become the dangerously structured dams that block the flow of social progress…. [T]he present tension in the South is a necessary phase of the transition from an obnoxious negative peace, in which the Negro passively accepted his unjust plight, to a substantive and positive peace, in which all men will respect the dignity and worth of human personality. Actually, we who engage in nonviolent direct action are not the creators of tension. We merely bring to the surface the hidden tension that is already alive. We bring it out in the open, where it can be seen and dealt with. Like a boil that can never be cured so long as it is covered up but must be opened with all its ugliness to the natural medicines of air and light, injustice must be exposed, with all the tension its exposure creates, to the light of human conscience and the air of national opinion before it can be cured.
I am not exactly proposing that King would approve contemporary "riots in the streets" but I may be proposing views that seem tantalizingly or scandalizingly close to that. If the very idea seems scandalous I would remind you that just weeks before his assassination King explicitly refused blanket condemnations of riots, insisting on more contextually sensitive critiques:
It is not enough for me to stand before you tonight and condemn riots. It would be morally irresponsible for me to do that without, at the same time, condemning the contingent, intolerable conditions that exist in our society. These conditions are the things that cause individuals to feel that they have no other alternative than to engage in violent rebellions to get attention. And I must say tonight that a riot is the language of the unheard.
More than that, it bears remembering that although King did not "endorse" "rioting" (whatever saying that is supposed to good for), he was quite happy to raise the specter of "blood in the streets" should the powerful choose to ignore the terms of non-violent struggle. The force of this contrast actually depends on the lived experience of violent insurrection and protest, and hence assumes a curious and substantiating role within non-violent rhetoric. But I would propose a deeper continuity still between the provocation of tension in nonviolent social struggle and some of the unrest that will tend to be condemned as rioting from the perspective of beneficiaries of an unjust status quo.

It is important to see the ways in which King's radicalism complicates the proper location of violence in analyses both of it and responses to it. King is insisting that the exposure of violence is never properly identified as the commission of that violence (which is not to justify violence when it occurs but to attribute responsibility for violence more realistically). King subversively proposes both that when disruption leads to negotiation (or, say, to the proper conviction of a wrongdoer) that would not have taken place otherwise the end of negotiation to which that disruption has contributed should articulate our sense of the substance of that disruption itself, just as when an unjust and exploitative status quo leads to a disruptive response among those who suffer in silence and without recourse in the midst of its superficial peaceableness the resulting disruption should articulate our sense of the substance of that peaceableness. A superficial peace that yields a disruptive reaction may not be the peace it seems but can be an insidious enactment of violence, while an apparent tension that yields a negotiated settlement may not be the violence it seems but can be a promising enactment of reconciliation.

Again, this is not the facile insinuation that King would have approved what are being called "riots" in London or in Athens or in Oakland, but I very deliberately do indeed mean to annoy those whose smug identification with a thoroughly domesticated and nonthreatening fantasy of King would fancy his rebukes would address only the "rioters" while championing the authors of violation and injustice against whom these "rioters" are so conspicuously responding. King properly assigns blame and locates irrationality and recognizes the source of violence not with the suffering but with the failure of constituted authorities when he reacts to his comfortable establishment critics, saying that while they
deplore the demonstrations taking place in Birmingham… your statement, I am sorry to say, fails to express a similar concern for the conditions that brought about the demonstrations. I am sure that none of you would want to rest content with the superficial kind of social analysis that deals merely with effects and does not grapple with underlying causes. It is unfortunate that demonstrations are taking place in Birmingham, but it is even more unfortunate that the city's white power structure left the Negro community with no alternative.
There are real questions whether King would still have proposed in our present circumstances the same alternatives he championed in the face of the segregated South (any more than he would have confined himself to the alternatives Gandhi championed in colonial India). Ciccariello-Maher quotes one young rebel who puts the point succinctly:
You wouldn’t be talking to me now if we didn’t riot, would you?... Two months ago we marched to Scotland Yard, more than 2,000 of us, all blacks, and it was peaceful and calm and you know what? Not a word in the press. Last night a bit of rioting and looting and look around you.
A failure of what might be deemed conventional Kingian nonviolence forms an inextricable part of the story of "no alternative" to which many so-called "rioters" are responding in London.Part of the reason this is an especially complicated assessment to make is that so many of the tactics we have come to identify with non-violence were once regarded unambiguously as violent. The violence notoriously advocated by Sorel turns out to be the General Strike -- no longer regarded as violent at all. The occupation of privately owned lunch counters was once regarded as violent, rather than as iconic non-violence. What clearly emerges is that the politics of non-violence is never only, or even primarily, a matter of applying already-established tactics of non-violence to political struggle, but a political struggle to establish-anew the matter of non-violence.

[Added! Wow, the recent Occupations of both public and "private"/owned open spaces but also transport passages, bridges, streets and docks (sometimes rendering them inoperable to expose the complicity of everyday people in the smooth function of systems of oppression) would seem to be pressuring our intuitions about the non-violent still more. Especially provocative are contemporary critiques of policing in which acts of vandalism "provoke" disproportionate tactics of racial profiling, harassment, brutality, and murder by police in the communities they are meant to serve -- suggesting an intriguing (and I would say promising) elaboration and insistence that property crimes are comparatively non-violent in contexts of systemic police violence may also be consolidating.]

It is impossible to deny the force of the London rebel's intelligent assessment of the scene. And once it is grasped that something like "the riot" has often functioned historically both as an effective threat pressuring otherwise unresponsive authorities to solve real problems and also as an effective way to attract otherwise unresponsive media to attend to real problems, and effective where other strategies fail, it becomes necessary to deny the prevailing proposal that "the rioter" is (always-only) unreasoning, ill-considered, self-destructive.

When Ciccariello-Maher goes on to document some of the ways in which contemporary "rioters" more easily evade the sophisticated measures developed in recent years by police to marginalize resistance, arrest demonstrators, and control crowds one realizes that "activists" may have easily as much to learn from "rioters" in this historical moment as "rioters" might learn from "activists" trained in non-violent civil disobedience (that would-be rebels do still have something to learn from civil resistance is one of the lessons of the Egyptian Revolution, as I have discussed already here).

As it happens, there is a profound symmetry to discern in the phenomena of "rioting" and "looting" in the face of the neoliberal mode of profit-taking in an epoch of planetary precarity, financial fraud, skimming schemes, and taxpayer-funded bailouts: gang warfare against gangsters and looting looters has about it a ring of justice that is unquestionably on to something. And, again, Ciccariello-Maher provides quite a lot of evidence that this symmetry is one of which the "rioters" themselves are absolutely aware:
One onlooker to the London riots puts it precisely: "This is about youth not having a future… a lot of these people are unemployed, a lot of these people have their youth center closed down for years, and they’re basically seeing the normal things: the bankers getting away with what they’re getting away with… this is the youth actually saying to themselves, guess what? These people can get away with that, then how come we can’t tell people what we feel?" As one young female looter told The Sun, “We’re getting our taxes back,” and as another told The Guardian, “The politicians say that we loot and rob, they are the original gangsters.”
One inevitably hears an echo of Fanon here, and the argument in Concerning Violence in which he describes the "manichean world" of colonial administration, an absolute opposition of colonist/colonized constructed by means of the making and policing of parallel (and inter-dependent) conceptual boundaries and geographical boundaries. Fanon focuses on the "irrational rationality" of race which rationalized colonial exploitation and violence, but one could speak just as well of the demarcation of the so-called "investor class" or "creative class" from illegal, informal, or precarious labor, an "irrational rationality" still resonating with pseudo-scientific racial stratifications as often as not.

Fanon also directs our attention to physical boundaries, borders, walls, infrastructure, the vivid contrast of the separate quarters and settlements of colonizer and colonized, and while Fanon points himself to the example of the conceptual and architectural circumscription of race via norms as well as papers as well as walls in Apartheid South Africa, one could speak just as well of contemporary Palestine, one could point to the recent and still ongoing history of zoning practices and highway construction through which "white flight" of capital from cities to suburbs was facilitated through the destruction of traditionally thriving neighborhoods of color, one could take a hard look at "gated communities" filled with McMansions subsidized by fraudulent finance and maintained by illegal and informal labor.

For Fanon the characteristic violence of anti-colonial struggle is perfectly symmetrical to the violence of colonial administration, the "argument" of civilization under colonialism is relentless violation, exploitation, humiliation, and the violence of de-colonization is in fact the proper "answer" to it, the answer precisely proper to and determined by the context.

The question raised by Ciccariello-Maher's initial sketching of a political economy of "rioting" and "looting" in the context of neoliberal corporate "developmentalism" and neoconservative military "democratization" is whether or not the planetary precarization of structural over-urbanization and over-exploitation produces the kind of "manichean opposition" to which Fanon so ruefully but righteously speaks in The Wretched of the Earth.

I have read Ciccariello-Maher's piece as a sort of preliminary critique of contemporary disruptive "dis-organized" social protest in urban settings under conditions defined by neoliberal-neoconservative ideology, institutions, and public practices. But he described his own aims much more modestly:
I want to address directly the idea that the riots are fundamentally irrational, as the smear of “the mob” would symbolically insist. Let’s listen closely, let’s block out the torrent of media denunciation and hear what the rebels are saying themselves.
When prevailing explanatory narratives and frames in the media and elsewhere infantilize, bestialize, and pathologize these disruptive "dis-organized" urban protestors as "rioting" and "looting" they are re-activating the reassuring platitudes of incumbent-elites confronting what they take to be utterly and essentially irrational "mobs" and one fears they are preparing the way for the usual exterminism in response. To "listen" to the ones who have the guns pointed at them at a time like this is immediately to hear a voice rather than an infantile wail, a bestial cry, a pathological shriek, to confront reason and reasons rather than an unreasonable unreasoning force. To propose to hear anything at all is inevitably to embark on a more ambitious project of analysis it seems to me.

It is not only because I find relevance in both King and Fanon to the social disruption about which Ciccariello-Maher is writing that I found myself turning to them the moment I started reading his piece, but also because I find in the tendency to canonize King while demonizing Fanon the same discursive forces that would insist we see in Oakland, in Athens, in London nothing but a kind of madness rather than a predictable and explicable and even pragmatic response to madness. The conditions of colonization in French North Africa differed from those of colonial India and again from those of Jim Crow, and I would argue that these normative and institutional differences better account for the differences in Gandhi's, King's, and Fanon's radicalisms than does some Fanonian ethos of celebration of violence as an end in itself (about which I begin to say a little more here).

Ciccariello-Maher proposes we understand these disruptions (which isn't the same thing as justifying them in any blanket sense, so I hope I don't get too much of that line of anti-intellectual bullshit in the Moot) and also that we learn something of their actual organization and from their actual practice as they play out. This seems to me an indispensable intervention on its own, but it also seems to me to be an intervention that provokes so much more in the way of analysis and elaboration. These off-the-cuff reactions of mine certainly don't offer the kind of analysis and elaboration I'm talking about, but they do attest to the provocation and I'd like to think they might even amplify it a bit.


myst101 said...

Hmmm...I wonder if all the costs associated with the riots will end up cancelling out or even exceeding the savings Cameron had hoped for from the austerity cuts. Something to think about.. especially for other governments thinking about implementing similar austerity measures.

Dale Carrico said...


myst101 said...

I'm absolutely horrified by how the british media, pundits & politicians are handling the protests & riots. Folks in this country would be tarred & feathered if they uttered some of the shockingly racist & classist stuff coming from some of these pundits.

Americans tend to put the british on a moral & intellectual pedestal. However, in reality the british psyche is the most schizophrenic & two-faced in the world when it comes to race/ethnicity, class, immigrants, etc. Of course, the Americans only see the "Dr. Jekyll" side.

Oh, and Obama would never have been elected prime minister in the UK.