The Language of the Unheard vs The Demands of the Entitled: Two Sides of Rioting

On Saturday, February 6 a riot erupted at the City Justice Center (CJC), a correctional facility in St. Louis when over 100 incarcerated people housed in the facility protested over inadequate COVID-19 protocols and conditions. The protest, the third since December, happened at the behest of inmates’ demands for proper heat, proper personal protective equipment (PPE), proper clothing and proper visits from their families said Tracy Stanton, an activist with St Louis’ branch of Ex-incarcerated People Organizing (EXPO) in a press conference following the event.

St. Louis-based Democratic congresswoman, Cori Bush tweeted what many perceived as being in support of the jail riot, echoing Martin Luther King Jr.’s famous quote about riots being “the language of the unheard.” 

“I want to talk to my constituents in the window. Their lives and their rights must be protected.

“My team and I are working to ensure that the urgent needs of people who are incarcerated are not ignored,” Rep. Bush tweeted in response to the incident. She was subsequently lambasted for taking a stance many conservative outlets labeled as hypocritical after being outspoken about the lawlessness of the January 6 Capitol riots, the denunciation of white supremacy and expulsion of Congress members that propagated the type of rhetoric that produced the Capitol insurrection.

But the conservative attempt at chastising Rep. Bush for her alleged hypocrisy is akin to comparing apples to hand grenades. White supremacists stormed the U.S. Capitol on January 6 in efforts to disrupt the electoral confirmation of a fair election. They sought to kidnap public officials. People were killed. A federal building was decimated. The then-president of the United States encouraged and invited their anarchy.

Incarcerated people in a St. Louis jail setting fires and smashing windows in response to inhumane conditions during a pandemic, is the very definition of “the language of the unheard.” It is responding to the punitive norms of America’s criminal justice system that has a deeper vested interest in dehumanizing the citizens it jails than it does providing basic necessities to ensure they survive their stint of incarceration.

The seditious acts of the Capitol insurrectionists were the result of an entitled group of people who felt compelled by a white nationalist leader to defend their brand of democracy. They were assisted by members of local law enforcement. They are now being brought up on charges, but at the time were able to leave one of the biggest crime scenes in American history.

A comparison can only be made if one considers both incidents as merely examples of lawlessness, without taking into account what prompted these very separate events. 

The jailed population at City Justice Center were assuming the fight of a wounded animal, trying to deter further injury, which in this case was their susceptibility to coronavirus due to the negligence of facility personnel. The insurrectionists of January 6th assumed the predatory role of a hunter who was seeking to spill blood behind a political temper tantrum.

All riots are not created equally, and neither are those who participate in the act. At least not in the eyes of the powers-that-be whose policies inspire the torches to be lit.

About the Author

Donney Rose is a poet, essayist, Kennedy Center Citizen Artist Fellow, advocate, and Chief Content Editor at The North Star. He believes in telling how it is and how it should be