Donney Rose — The Fire THIS Time: On the Universal Language of Riots

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In 1963, critically acclaimed essayist, novelist and playwright, James Baldwin, released an iconic book of essays titled, “The Fire Next Time.” The novel, which consisted of two essays, “My Dungeon Shook — Letter to my Nephew on the One Hundredth Anniversary of the Emancipation" and "Down At The Cross — Letter from a Region of My Mind", served as a deep interrogation of race and religion in America.

The book’s title borrowed a line from a Negro spiritual called, “Mary Don’t You Weep,” where the author wrote God gave Noah the rainbow sign / No more water, the fire next time. The song, a reference to the biblical story of Noah and the ark, alluded to the failure of humanity and Noah receiving instruction by God to build an ark to protect himself from a forthcoming flood. The lyric that specifically inspired The Fire Next Time implied that God’s next form of punishment would be a scorched earth instead of a flooded one. In the book, Baldwin expressed America’s urgent need to find a resolution to racial inequality, and how its failure to do so would result in the figurative (or literal) burning of the nation by its most marginalized populations.

The 1960s would see the assassinations of Malcolm X, Martin Luther King, Fred Hampton Sr., and the riotous response to these tragedies from cities around the country. In the thick of Civil Rights legislation, battles to desegregate public spaces and the pervasive lingering attitudes of Jim Crow era socialization, Black America witnessed some of its most prolific and valiant freedom fighters be permanently silenced in the name of advocating for a more equitable nation. Cities burned. Citizens were beaten, arrested and tear gassed. Various factions of Black power groups were formed, vilified and infiltrated. America’s alleged freedom and justice sales pitch had its curtains pulled back for the world to see. The fire raged for the duration of a decade.

The following decades would bring about a temporary smoldering of said fire. Inequality never extinguished, but middle-class aspirations and socioeconomic achievements shifted Black America’s energy to focus a bit more on the warm glow of fireplaces built into redlined homes than the blaze from Molotov cocktails launched in resistance.

But history is cyclical, and as of this writing, the city of Minneapolis, MN is going up in flames on account of citizens outraged by the public lynching of George Floyd. The streets are back talking to America in a language that America hoped they were no longer fluent in. Since America has never sufficiently communicated with its most disenfranchised communities in an equitable or just manner, the critical mass has reached a point of responding in a way they believe America comprehends best.

"I think riots happen when communities are under pressure for long periods of time. That's not a mistake." - Ta-Nehisi Coates

There have been 194 Black citizens killed by police since the year 2000 in the state of Minnesota, which accounts for roughly 25% of all of the state’s police-involved killings in the past 20 years, according to the Star Tribune. A combined 31% of those killings have happened between the twin cities of St. Paul and Minneapolis. As of the 2010 Census count, Minnesota’s Black population was a mere 8 percent but per data as of December 2019, the state’s Black population decreased to 6.1%. Of those numbers of Black citizens, Minneapolis and St. Paul ranked respectively as the 5th and 9th most heavily African American populated cities in Minnesota.

What is the point of this data? Consider this for context:

In just the past four years, the state of Minnesota has been the slaughtering grounds of two of the most highly publicized cases of police violence in modern history. Philando Castile (2016 in the Falcon Heights suburb of St. Paul) and George Floyd (2020 in Minneapolis). It is important to point out that these incidents were brought to our collective consciousness by way of citizen captured footage and that the data is based solely on information that has been recorded. That data does not take into account racial profiling, harassment or non-lethal violence, and it certainly does not take into account the toll of traumatization on a sparsely populated Minnesotan Black population. In the case of Philando Castile, Black citizens of the Twin Cities were likely re-traumatized by the acquittal of Jeronimo Yanez, the officer who killed him.

The aftermath of the globally circulated video of George Floyd having the oxygen siphoned from his body has caused riots to erupt in the city of Minneapolis. One of the most visceral images from the rioting was an area Target being looted and decimated. Buildings have been engulfed in flames and protestors (both Black and white) have been ambushed with tear gas and shot with rubber bullets. But when the grotesque footage of George Floyd’s final minutes is combined with the looming history of Philando Castile’s execution, the weight of the coronavirus pandemic and recent headlines of the racially charged killings of Ahmaud Arbery and Breonna Taylor, there will be Black citizens moving about as ticking time bombs willing to risk freedom and life itself in the name of railing against systemic oppression.

"I don't think the riots derailed the civil rights movement." - Henry Louis Gates

In 1966, Martin Luther King appeared on a CBS news program with journalist Mike Wallace where they discussed a growing dissent toward King’s non-violent tactical approach from Black leaders opposed to his ideological approach. It was during this interview where King famously said that “a riot is the language of the unheard” and that the act of rioting was a response to America not listening to the worsening plight of poor Negros. This interview also happened at a time when Black power ideology was beginning to gain popularity with many Black Americans. Radical personalities like Stokely Carmichael and groups such as the Black Panther Party were giving voice to a new response to America’s subjugation of Black people that was antithetical to King’s approach of tactical negotiations with America’s political class.

If the phrase “Black people are not a monolith” had an origin point, it’s birth certificate would most likely list the 1960s as its time of arrival. The King calvary of Hosea Williams, John Lewis, Andrew Young and Bayard Rustin had a different approach than the SNCC who had a different approach than the Elijah Muhammad-led Nation of Islam who had a different approach than the Black Panther Party. What they all had in common was a desire for freedom and equality for Black people. Their opinions around arriving at those desired goals were shaped by their individual backgrounds and lived experiences. And because there has never been one definitive measure to move America towards equality, it could be argued that every strategy implemented by every freedom fighter bore at least some modicum of success.

I bring this up as I have witnessed Black folks on social media be hypercritical of the riots that have taken place in Minneapolis, dismissing the actions of hurt and vulnerable citizens as inconsequential reckless behavior. But history has shown us that new normals have indeed emerged from the rubble of scorched cities. And that some of our culture’s most tactical and intelligent organizers began in the trenches with chaos abound.

What we know or what we should know is, America fundamentally believes in and responds to money and bloodshed. Therefore, one of the biggest threats to an American city under the siege of rioting is a disruption in capitalism. Black people nor our allies can successfully engage in combat with American law enforcement. The full strength and militarization of American law enforcement (and the actual military) would obliterate any city’s Black population if it came to a show of violence. There’s a reason why you will not see rioters throwing rocks at cop cars and then stand in place to see how police will respond, but you will see rioters torch a business and stand in place as its infrastructure melts away. There is symbolism in feeling like you can orchestrate the demise of something more privileged than your helplessness and in the heat of resistance, sometimes symbolism is enough to do something that may be considered irrational.

The language of riots has never been about communicating might, it has always been about communicating frustration, exhaustion and pain. American leaders can stop American cities from going ablaze anytime they want to. American law enforcement can stop the extrajudicial killings of unarmed Black people anytime it wants to. This whole damn country can learn a new language of accountability, citizen rights, equity and deescalated violence if it wants to. But until there’s consensus from the powers-that-be to speak a language that is not cavalier about or in promotion of state-sanctioned violence, we will continue to see dehumanized citizens respond with a language that articulates the primal instinct of the persistently injured.