If you take some time to do a little research, you’ll see there have been about 500 or so instances of civil unrest (academic for riots) in American history. Give or take. We’ve rioted over employment, public transportation, taxes, whiskey distribution, drinking in general, even prostitution. Rioting is a racially and culturally inclusive activity. Irish, Italian, Black, Latino, Catholic, Protestant, you name it, we’ve rioted. Our most concentrated period of rioting came in the 20th century, around the time when we had just about had it with state sanctioned racism. Well, at least most of us had. Rioting didn’t start there though. There were 85 or so documented instances of civil unrest in the 19th century. And since we white folk had the market on, well everything, we also had the market on rioting back then. Oddly, there are only three documented instances of civil unrest in the 18th century. If you look closer, there’s some more to be found. There’s four if you count the Boston Tea Party. Five if you count that whole Revolution riot. Those didn’t make the list though, probably because of who we were civilly unresting against.
I know its crazy to lump our historic origins in with our uniquely modern problems, but if you read what those imperialist Brits said about us unruly, uneducated colonists, it sounds disturbingly like what I read on my Facebook feed the night the rioting started in Ferguson. The Brits, like many of us a few months ago missed the message. Parliament responded by passing the “Intolerable Acts” declaring military rule on the Massachusetts Bay Colony. It did not have the desired effect. The rest belongs to text books.
So what’s my point here? It’s this. People don’t riot because they are poor or because it’s a part of their culture or because they don’t know any better. There are poor people that don’t know any better all over the world tonight of every culture sleeping peacefully in their beds, civilly resting. People riot because they feel, right, wrong or indifferent, that they have no voice. That they have, no representation. This is the clear common thread that materializes throughout history. Those pure patriots in Boston even took the time to make up a snappy rhyme about it. Taxation….representation…something like that. When people have no voice, eventually, it comes to a head.
I work in the consumer software industry. Bear with me, there’s a relevant analogy here. When a single customer struggles with something in a consumer software product, we are happy to help that customer, but we don’t change the product. When many customers struggle with the same thing in a software product, we change it, because there’s something wrong with the “experience”. We don’t hide behind principal or ideology to maintain status quo. If the data tells us there’s a problem, there’s a problem and we fix it, or people don’t buy our program and we all get fired. Here’s why this is relevant. Right now the data is telling us there’s a problem with the African American “experience” in our country. Unfortunately, no one can opt out of the product so for decades we’ve chosen not to believe what the data is telling us in the name of ideology, ignorance or simple racism without consequence. Or so we thought.
Here’s where it comes full circle. Remember, when people feel like they have no voice, eventually it comes to a head. It starts with civil outrage and unrest and if we’re smart it transitions into a dialogue. If we’re not, it eventually degrades into something worse. The Arab Spring may feel like extreme reference, but it’s fundamentally a similar argument. This is where we need to give ourselves some credit. The dialogue is happening now. We are starting to talk more openly about what the data has told us for decades. We are starting to talk about how this is our problem to solve.
This is what has changed over the last six months. We haven’t fixed the symptoms of the disease. Unarmed black men are still being killed by law enforcement officers. Disproportionately, black men are still being arrested. We still jail people for traffic fines and continue to remove steps from the bottom rungs of the socio-economic mobility ladder. There’s inexcusable violence taking place on the streets in Baltimore and Ferguson, but once where there would be only outrage, there’s acknowledgement that there is more going on here. And we’re talking about it. We’re paying attention. Where there was once no voice, no representation, the discussion is everywhere. We’re asking questions about our incarceration rate. We’re asking questions about whether or not sending someone to jail for not paying child support has any positive impact on any participant in any part of society. We’re talking about understanding the root cause of the problem of the race divide in America. We have given the under-represented our voice. And a voice is the only thing that has ever led to change.