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From Peaceful Protests To Violent Uprisings, Here's What History Can Teach Us About The Baltimore Riots

While many are expressing their disapproval of the violence in Baltimore, others are pointing out the way uprisings have changed history for the better.

Following Freddie Gray's funeral on April 27, the media has been ablaze with gut-wrenching images of the riots in Baltimore, including burned buildings, smashed windows, and police responding in riot gear.

In response, many people are calling for peace, and tweeting out phrases like,'violence doesn’t help anything,' and 'violence is part of the problem.' However, there are others who are suggesting that sometimes, maybe the destruction of property can actually serve an important purpose in a social movement -- and they’re not the first to make this claim.

Uprisings Make History

Following the Ferguson protests last October, Rolling Stone published a listicle called “Nine Historical Triumphs to Make You Rethink Property Destruction.” Items on the list included the Boston Tea Party, when protesters destroyed chests of tea to protest a corporate tax break, numerous slave uprisings, and the destruction of unsafe train tracks and coal mines by secret societies like the Molly Maguires to protect workers from dangerous conditions before the existence of labor laws.

We now know that many of these uprisings ultimately changed the course of humanity, but when it comes to more modern events, many scholars are still on the fence about whether the effects of rioting have been beneficial or detrimental for society. In 1965, the Watts Rebellion in Los Angeles, sparked by the violent arrest of a black man by a white police officer, lasted six days and resulted in 34 deaths, over 1,000 injuries, nearly 4,000 arrests, and an estimated $40 million in property damage.

With those facts in mind, some people have argued that the Watts Rebellion had a negative impact on family income, employment, and property values in the area, ultimately hurting the community. Meanwhile, others have pointed out that the Watts Rebellion played as big of a role in the success of the civil rights movement as the peaceful protests led by Dr. Martin luther King Jr., even suggesting that every successful movement for social change in the U.S. has included some rioting.

The 1992 Rodney King Riots in Los Angeles, which were ignited by the acquittal of white police officers who’d been videotaped beating and sexually assaulting King, a black man, lasted over five days. The riots left more than 50 people dead, more than 2,000 people injured, and resulted in over $1 billion in property damage. As a direct result of the riots, the LAPD underwent drastic changes, including increased hiring of minority officers and intense scrutiny of the use of force. This was also one of the first times police tactics, including excessive force, were examined on such a large scale.

Listening To The Language Of The Unheard

Plenty of voices in the media are speaking out now to defend the call for justice in Baltimore. On the same day as Gray's funeral The Atlantic published a powerful story, titled "Nonviolence as Compliance." The writer, Ta-Nehisi Coates, who grew up in Baltimore, pointed out the inherent hypocrisy when calls for nonviolence are one-sided. “When nonviolence begins halfway through the war with the aggressor calling time out, it exposes itself as a ruse,” Coates writes. “When nonviolence is preached by the representatives of the state, while the state doles out heaps of violence to its citizens, it reveals itself to be a con.”

Salon published a similar story on Tuesday with a provocative headline -- "Baltimore’s Violent Protesters are Right: Smashing Police Cars is a Legitimate Political Strategy." Author Benji Hart wrote, “We need to clarify what we mean by terms like ‘violence’ and ‘peaceful.’ Because, to be clear, violence is beating, harassing, tazing, assaulting and shooting Black, trans, immigrant, women, and queer people, and that is the reality many of us are dealing with daily.”

16-year-old actress Amandla Stenberg, who played Rue in The Hunger Games: Catching Fire weighed in too, Tweeting, “Don’t condemn our anger. Don’t denounce our pain as savage. What’s savage is the cruel inhumanity and brutality of the police. Condemn that.”

It’s also being pointed out that government officials and the media seem more inclined to use the word “riot” and condemn property destruction when it comes in the form of Black Lives Matter protests than they do in just about any other context.

For example, when a bunch of white college students turned a pumpkin fest into a violent riot in New Hampshire last Halloween, Twitter users were quick to point out the difference between police and media responses in this instance and at the Ferguson protests. When the San Francisco Giants won the World Series in 2014, couches were burned, shootings occurred, businesses were vandalized, and 40 people were arrested, but news stories referred to it as “fans taking to the streets” instead calling it a “riot.”

In order to point to a familiar, solution-oriented figurehead, many people are holding up Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. as an example of what Baltimore protesters “should” be doing right now. Although Dr. King never advocated for violence, he did speak out about riots during a speech in 1968, not long before his assassination:

It is not enough for me to stand before you tonight and condemn riots. It would be morally irresponsible for me to do that without, at the same time, condemning the contingent, intolerable conditions that exist in our society. These conditions are the things that cause individuals to feel that they have no other alternative than to engage in violent rebellions to get attention. And I must say tonight that a riot is the language of the unheard.

As unrest continues in Baltimore and all over the U.S., many people are wondering how loud that "the language of the unheard" must be be for anyone to really listen, and if nonviolence will bring a real solution to this ongoing injustice.