In Defense of Rioting

This year, rioting occurred in Greece, France, Peru and Iceland, to name a few countries, as a response to damaging government action or economic policies. Here in Vancouver, spray-painted 'Riot 2010' slogans incite people to do just that come Olympic time. When democratic processes are ignored and people are suffering, why not fight back?

The first and most common argument against rioting as a legitimate act for social change is that it is violent. Harming people is rarely the motivation or the outcome of a riot (other than clashes between rioters and police) and harm done to innocents is even more rare. Usually, destructive acts are focused on property. It is odd, therefore, that riots are described as violent, yet we often fail to recognise the much worse brutality that reigns down on rioters from police. There are two largely unquestioned influences at play here. The first is the hierarchy that exists in our society and the second is the state's monopoly on violence.

The unspoken hierarchy dictates that people higher on the hierarchy and their property are more important than the lives of those below them. George Bush didn't get put on trial for war crimes, and oil companies in the Alberta Tar Sands spread cancer causing agents amongst local communities daily. When concerned citizens try to stop these immoral acts, other people, people in dark blue uniforms with an ever-increasing arsenal of repressive implements, step in to defend the elite and money-making interests. Starving people stealing food from Safeway encounter this hierarchy, as do indigenous communities across this country trying to keep harmful resource extraction industries off their land. The concept of property being of higher value than a life is monstrously immoral and I challenge the notion that violence can be committed against inanimate objects. Violent is the ways in which people and planet are exploited. Rioters damage private property as a symbolic gesture and because the only place economic institutions register hurt is in the profit margin.

The basic framework for this hierarchy is our legal system. People and entities with power seek to maintain their power and use the legal system to stack the cards in their favour. Breaking the law is commonly considered immoral and institutions such as major media, the police, and the courts treat activities that threaten those higher on the hierarchy especially harshly. An example of this is environmental activist Jeffrey Michael Luers, who originally received a 22-year prison sentence in Oregon for burning three SUVs.

Law does not equal justice and violence on behalf of the police, and military is the only way this legal hierarchy can exist. So important are police to this hierarchy that they can commit violence towards citizens with almost complete impunity. So privileged are they in their power, that to defend one's self against brutalization is to commit assault of a peace officer, a severe crime. This organized repression is institutionalized, normalized and largely accepted. Rioting defies this.
Rioting is not simply an isolated act of economic sabotage or a challenge to the state's monopoly on violence. Rioting has a far greater purpose in the scheme of a movement. In a televised debate, Malcolm X pointed out that “as soon as the spirit of rebellion or revolution began to spread amongst the masses of black people in [the U.S.A.] . . . and they showed that they were not confined to [a] nonviolent approach, then the government . . . began to sit up and take notice.” The rise in black militancy, symbolized by Malcolm X and the Nation of Islam, created a threat much greater than the non-violent movement led my Martin Luther King Jr. The result was a much greater acceptance for King's movement by institutions and members of the public who had previously resisted their goals. This good cop bad cop routine works.

Another strategic benefit of a riot is the building of momentum often associated with the creation of formal or informal alliances. In late 2008 and early 2009 the streets of many Greek cities were literally ablaze. What spawned from the police murder of Alexandros Grigoropoulos, a 15-year-old boy on a university campus, turned into several weeks of rioting. Discontent grew from police brutality to encompass economic opportunism by the elite in the midst of the global economic crisis, government scandal, unemployment, and many other social issues. Astoundingly university and high school students, communists, socialists, anarchists, workers, labour unions, immigrants, the unemployed and teachers (to make a partial-list) all showed up in great numbers. The affect of all of these groups being in solidarity on the front lines of social change cannot be understated. The rioting has stopped but the bonds formed between people and organizations are not easily broken. This united front will force the Greek government to be accountable and properly representative.

Perhaps most importantly, riots prove to the dominant culture that struggles like those for dignity, freedom from oppression, equity, and sustainability are not games – They should not be ignored. A lack of responsibility breeds consequences.

Currently we have a Prime Minister who, at a G20 summit, stated Canada has 'no history of colonialism,' and has taken every opportunity to disrupt international environmental initiatives. Good-cop progressive groups have largely failed to force a political culture change. While the point of this article is not necessarily to entice you to be one of the bad cops, I hope you at least understand their importance and support them in whatever way you see fit.

//Lionel Kitz

Enjoy it? Share this on Facebook


© 2011 The Capilano Courier. phone: 604.984.4949 fax: 604.984.1787 email: