Protest, Riots, Violence and Realities

First, I’m going to ask you to watch this clip from Zizek’s film ‘A Pervert’s Guide to Ideology’.  Yes, I understand that his language is very dense, so it requires that you listen carefully. I understand that at this moment, while the protests in Baltimore are ongoing, this clip is going to seem very abstract, theoretical and out of touch with reality, but it’s only 7 minutes of your life. Please listen.

Zizek’s point is that we are always, even when we are reacting against it, caught up in the narrative of an ideology. The dominant ideology in liberal Western democracies, like the US, has a number of points of meaning – ideas what we apparently embrace as being central to our understanding of our societies: fairness, equality, justice, a free market.

But what happens when, for a certain section of the population, it becomes clear that fairness, equality and justice is not available? When their expectation of what our common ideology promises to all is only selectively on offer? When fairness, equality and justice are only accessible at a price? And when that price is out of the reach of a portion of the population. And what does that ‘free market’ really entail?

The concept of a free market has evolved considerably. I won’t go into the history of economics. But we find ourselves in a society where the ability to consume is a defining part of what it means to be part of the society. In a way, within our culture, I am because I buy. Much of how we maintain our identities within this culture is based on what I can buy and say or show that I possess. (I’m a mother, a father, a homeowner, a car driver, a lawyer, a teacher. Think about it – your profession often implies that you had the money to pay for the training or education to be that thing. Even being a parent suggest you could pay the hospital bills, or the healthcare cost of the delivery of that child. And think of all the ads for products and services that promise to make you more of that thing – a man, a woman, etc. or better at being that thing IF you have the money.)  But this is problematic: who am I if I can’t buy? Think about the ads you see, the films and television you watch, the way we identify each other on a casual basis. At a certainly level, if I can’t consume, if I possess nothing – because I can’t find work, or haven’t inherited money – I am no one. I am invisible to the culture.

But just because you are poor doesn’t mean the ever-present demand –  to be, to buy, to have –  gets any quieter. In fact, quite the opposite. If you’re poor, you can never quiet that voice by obeying the injunction to consume, even for a minute. You are constantly compelled to consider why you can’t comply with the demand to consume.

Zizek’s point in the video is this: when a community becomes aware that it is not receiving its promised share of fairness or justice or equal treatment, and it is still being bombarded with messages to consume, even though it cannot afford to participate in the consumer cycle, it is left in a state of terrible cognitive dissonance.

The media represents those who loot and burn and destroy during riots as the most revolutionary elements of a protest, but in fact, it is the exact opposite. Those looters and burners are people who are all the more trapped in the ideology. How do you get what will identify you as a valid member of society when you can’t buy it, when you aren’t given it by rights? You steal it. And no one steals what they don’t consider to be valuable to them. No one burns what has no value. Consider the very immature but common feeling that ‘if I can’t have it, then no one should be able to have it.’ You can’t cart away a building.

But, you might say, these people are burning down and looting in their own neighborhoods! They’re hurting the people that can least afford it. Those who are only perhaps a rung or two above them on the social ladder.  But you are making the assumption that these people are acting with purpose, or rationally, or intentionally. That there is some conscious plan behind their destruction. But there isn’t. This kind of behaviour is an irrational reaction to being put – sometimes for their entire life – in the untenable position of being unable to obey the constant command they have heard all their life: consume.

Ironically, the people who are capable of peaceful protest – of imagining a change to their situation, to their state of oppression – who are the ones who have achieved some partial escape from the overarching ideology of a consumer society. They don’t loot or burn because they have decided the things they want – justice, equality – are of fundamentally more value than goods or property.

Unfortunately, the sad history of protest is that the peaceful variety has seldom led to any quantifiable change. The times when it has succeeded, those movements had incredibly powerful, charismatic leadership who focused the  voices of the many. These days, it seems almost impossible for those leaders to emerge; the media seems unable to resist publicly compromising every potential leader who emerges. We’ve been taught to demand perfect leaders, perfect heroes and, at the same time, we take masochistic delight in exposing them as flawed humans.

The history of social change in the US has, with a few notable exceptions, been one brought about by unpeaceful protest. In the 20th century, it has more often been the deadly riots, from the 1960s riots in New York, New Jersey, Chicago, and Watts, in California to the L.A. Riots following the acquittal of police in the beating of Rodney King, that have forced cities to make fundamental changes to, for instance, policing practices.

It seems illogical that the power brokers in these cities will not commit to making needed changes before the sense of injustice in a community reaches the stage where rioting breaks out. You don’t have to be an historian to get it: letting community relations deteriorate to such a state that riots happen is much more expensive than making necessary changes earlier. And yet is seems that Governors, Mayors and Police Departments seem incapable of learning from history – no one intervenes to rectify the situation early enough.

Think about what the Ferguson riots cost that city and that state, what this current upheaval is costing Baltimore. Think about the fact that the next incident of apparent police brutality that gets caught on video will immediately result in protests. Because there is a part of the population that no longer believes they are receiving true information and has no confidence that the officers involved will be dealt with accordingly.

There is a reason that there is no rioting going on in South Carolina. It’s not that, left to their own devices, the police would not have sought to cover up the murder of Walter Scott. Indeed there is evidence to suggest that initially, there was some attempt to do that, and not just by the officer who shot him. It was the emergence of a video that made the misdeed absolutely indisputable and, to give them credit, the credible promise that Scott would receive justice. In fact, I would argue that it was that very striking and iconic footage of Michael Slager being booked, broadcast nationwide, that gave the people of that town some confidence that he would be held to account for his actions. It took something that obvious, that concrete, to calm the suspicions of rightfully suspicious populace.

There is one very easy solution to this issue. It is not a quick fix, but it is the only one that will avoid these situations in the future. Mayors, prosecutors, and police department heads need to acknowledge publicly that their processes and their methods of dealing with incidents of police brutality have been poor, opaque, and often unjust to the victims. They need to be overly transparent. They need to communicate very clearly, not in jargon, and what they need to keep foremost in their mind is the very justified mistrust of the people they are addressing. They need to do the right thing, and be seen to do the right thing. And they need to do it consistently.

P.S. I am sure many readers will wonder why I have not addressed race in this essay. It seems like I’ve skated over the issue of the systemic racism that is at the core of these events.

In this essay, I have attempted to address the part that ideology and economics plays in this matter. What I note is, regardless of the culture or the racial dynamics of a society, it is never the rich or the empowered of any race who feel the need to protest to demand their rights.

I don’t know what it is like to be Black in America. I cannot know and it would be an unforgivable arrogance to pretend I did. I need to leave the testimony of that experience to those who live in that reality.