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Understanding the Ferguson riots as a symptom of violence

As the killing of unarmed teenager Michael Brown in Ferguson, Mo. this week showed us, black bodies in the United States have been deemed the legitimate subjects of state violence — in other words, expendable. Jay Dodd wrote for the Huffington Post that “There is an open season on black life in this country.”

In the aftermath of the shooting, mainstream media outlets and the Twitterverse alike have condemned the riots and looting that followed a vigil for Brown on Monday night. One CBS/AP headline read, “Vigil for dead teen turns violent.” To many, “dead teen” would make this statement more than a little oxymoronic. But depending on which coverage they’re reading, even a moderately thoughtful person might walk away from their morning paper with the impression that the real victims in all this are Ferguson storefronts, with some outlets barely mentioning that Brown was even murdered.

Mia McKenzie at Black Girl Dangerous wrote a “List of Things to Stop Being Distracted By When A Black Person Gets Murdered By the Police.” Unsurprisingly, riots and looting topped the list. After all, what police state descended onto East Lansing, Mich. this November when hoards of college students burned mattresses and flipped cars after the Michigan State University Spartans won the Big Ten Conference championship? How about when thousands of Penn State students rioted in State College, Pa. over the firing of Joe Paterno for his complicity in sexual assault? Or when young, largely white crowds at the same school and countless others across the country rioted after the news of Osama Bin Laden’s assassination? Police and media are perfectly capable of ignoring riots, so long as there’s nothing more unsettling for people to be distracted by — like the fact that a black man is killed by either police or vigilantes every 28 hours.

There’s a common thread that connects all of this seeming incoherence, and it’s called racism: 300 years of enslavement, incarceration and murder — legally sanctioned and otherwise — in which white bodies rise to the top of whatever hierarchy they can find. Seeing racism as a structuring principle for society at large starts to fit this week’s events into a twisted kind of logic. This realization, of course, is reserved only for those of us who haven’t grown up surrounded by the daily violence of discriminatory policing, food insecurity, school closings or military recruitment. Violence isn’t only murder, but ignorance too. By its nature, racism is violent and so is its perpetuation. A riot is just a symptom. Natasha Lennard wrote aptly for Vice News that “a context in which yet another young, unarmed black teen has been shot dead by police, and riot cops stand stationed to shutdown even a shadow of dissent, is not a context of peace.”

A narrative around riots which says that they occur in a vacuum is a racist and violent one, holding that black communities are — as a Ferguson police officer was quoted as saying — animalistic and prone to outburst. This narrative is also convenient, especially in the aftermath of yet another murder justified on the grounds of a “scuffle.” While sometimes easy to dismiss, a series of hashtags have emerged in response to Brown’s murder in an attempt to change the story. #IfTheyGunnedMeDown invites black users to call out the media’s use of “threatening” and decontextualized images of black youth — like this picture of Michael Brown or this one of Trayvon Martin — by posting their own. #BlackLivesMatter has served as a clearinghouse for news, analysis and action alerts around Ferguson and police brutality more generally over the last several days. While online activism will never be an adequate substitute for on-the-ground organizing, it can provide a vital, viral complement.