Riots for Justice

Some of the best-known riots of recent decades have been presented as campaigns for justice. The Rodney King riot in 1992 in Los Angeles and other American cities resulted from the acquittal of police officers who had been filmed viciously beating an unarmed black motorist with nightsticks. However, no-one could argue that this was really a campaign for a better criminal justice system. Our report, in Wildcat 16, wasn't critical enough of this at the time. But the general picture was one of an attack on capitalism and the police.

The same is true of the recent riots in Cincinatti. Since 1995, fifteen black men have been killed by the police in this backwater Ohio city. One was choked to death. One was a mentally disturbed man who had wandered out of a mental hospital. He was wearing pajamas, but the 15 police officers who shot him must have felt they were in danger from the brick he was carrying. These are the police murders - there are doubtless thousands of other incidents of lesser brutality. The final straw was the April 7 2001 murder of Timothy Thomas, an unarmed 19 year old who was shot while trying to flee the police - understandably in view of the above events. The "Over-the-Rhine" district, where many of the victims lived, crossed the Rubicon. On the 10th April, protestors took over City Hall and marched to the police HQ. The pigs responded with tear gas and what are euphemistically called "bean bags" which are fired from shotguns and are full of shot, not beans. At one point, a carload of pigs drove up to a peaceful crowd, and fired a bean bag into the faces of two girls aged 7 and 11. However, the rioting has caused some backtracking by the local, state and national authorities and some relatively sympathetic reports in the media. The cop who killed Thomas was put on a desk job and brought before a jury. The jury charged him with the least serious kind of unlawful killing they could find, but without the riot, he and his pals would still be lynching unchecked, in Cincinatti and other forgotten capitalist wastelands. Committees of inquiry have been formed, and politicians are running around saying "No justice, no peace" and "Police behind bars, not desks", but the essence of the uprising cannot be reduced to a campaign for justice.

The famous "White Night" riot in San Francisco in May 1979 was a different story. Dan White was found guilty of manslaughter instead of murder for shooting the mayor and gay supervisor Harvey Milk. He got seven years in jail. The demonstration and riot which followed were unquestionably demands for justice - demands that this mentally disturbed character should get longer than seven years in the hole. When he was released in 1984, there were more demonstrations in protest. The "gay community" eventually got their revenge though - next year White committed suicide.

The point of this article is that we should not take the traditional "if it moves, support it" attitude towards riots and rowdy demonstrations. Just because something comes into conflict with the authorities does not mean it has positive implications. Justice is deeply embedded in most people's unconscious, reflecting the exchange mechanism of civilization. It's not a recent capitalist idea - "an eye for an eye" goes back to the Old Testament of the Bible. Justice, Revenge... spot the difference.

The Critical Mass riders in April in San Francisco were faced with a similar dilemma. Bicyclist Chris Robertson was deliberately killed by an angry truck driver. The judge let him off. If he'd been found guilty of a felony, he would have gotten life without parole, as he had two previous convictions. This law is known by the charming baseball phrase "three strikes you're out". Robertson's friends don't support the three strikes law, and this partly accounts for the peacefulness of the April 27 protest. Some streets were blocked, a few altercations with our four-wheeled friends ensued, but it was nothing like the riot of '97. Considering that two cyclists were killed in the Bay Area earlier the same day, it was smaller and less militant than one might expect.

On a more positive note, recent years have seen demonstrations which declare themselves to be against capitalism. Although the participants' definition of "capitalism" varies, some of them opposed to large corporations but in favor of "fair trade", they contain a hard core who mean exactly what they say. The recent riots in London and other European cities are not demands for justice and human rights. Here is the Guardian report on the Mayday 2001 events. Considering the preparation the police put into it following the riot last year and the media hysteria, the protesters put up a spirited fight. Our readers can no doubt extract the real story from between the lies of the police, their friends the civil rights brigade, and Ken Livingstone, London's lefty mayor.

There were of course riots in Berlin, and, in a promising new development, Sydney. The capitalist system cannot grant their demands except by disappearing. They are not riots for justice.

Richard Tate, May 2001