A Statement in Support of Americans Protesting the Murder of George Floyd. And Ahmaud Arbery. And Michael Brown. And Philando Castile. And Jamar Clark. And Eric Garner. And Freddie Gray. And Botham Jean. And Breonna Taylor. And Trayvon Martin. And countless more.
In March 1992, after four police officers were acquitted for beating the shit out of Rodney King, I, like most people in America, and especially most people in the media, referred to the subsequent violence that swept across Los Angeles as a “riot.” It was the same word, after all, that had been used to describe the events in Newark, Watts, Harlem, and other American cities in the mid-’60s, and indeed the same word used to describe almost any incident in which civil unrest, physical violence, or property damage could be attributed, factually or slanderously, to Americans who weren’t white. At some point during those tumultuous six days, however, I read a piece in the Village Voice that forever changed my thinking about what was going on in Los Angeles, and what had been going on between black and white Americans since 1865—or perhaps since 1619, when the first African slaves were brought to Britain’s North American colonies aboard the White Lion, or since 1526, when African slaves in San Miguel de Gualdape in present-day Georgia revolted against the Spanish who had kidnapped them and dragged them across the Atlantic. What was happening in Los Angeles in March 1992, the Village Voice wrote, wasn’t a riot. It was civil war.
Perhaps unsurprisingly, “riot” was initially the term used to describe what had happened in Tulsa, Oklahoma on May 31 and June 1, 1921, when the largely black neighborhood of Greenwood was destroyed by a paramilitary force that included law enforcement officers and aerial bombings. After it became undeniably clear, however, that the conflict had been incited by white people and that the overwhelming majority of casualties was black, the “riot” was renamed a “massacre.” In the same way, the mass murders in Opelousas, Louisiana in 1868, Colfax, Louisiana in 1873, and Rosewood, Florida in 1923, in which in each instance hundreds of black Americans were slaughtered by their white fellow citizens under the pretext of quelling black violence, were retconned from “race riots” and “race wars” to “massacres” only after it became impossible to pretend that the violence was anything other than one-sided.
“Massacre” is a tricky word for propagandists. In American history the term is most often associated with violent encounters between people of European descent and Native Americans in which white people experience greater casualties than native populations. It is perhaps most famously used to describe the events in Jamestown, Virginia in 1622, when the Powhatan killed some 347 British invaders who were attempting to drive the Powhatan from their land, but was also used to describe the conflict at Fort Mims in 1813, when a Creek army defeated an extraterritorial outpost of the United States near present-day Mobile, Alabama, and at Spirit Lake, Iowa in 1857, when a Sioux army destroyed settlements that were part of an effort to displace Native Americans, and then again at Little Bighorn in 1876, when an army under the command of George Custer—who had himself commanded the American forces at the so-called Battle of the Washita River in 1868, where some 150 Cheyenne, including prisoners of war and women and children, were slaughtered—was defeated by Siouan forces who refused to cede their territory to American invaders. In each instance the military and colonial nature of the encounters was denied and the “savage” nature of Native Americans emphasized in its stead.
But if “massacre” activates a certain amount of sympathy for its victims, its primary function is to emphasize the victims’ defenselessness, which is why white commentators will sometimes consent to use the term to describe their own actions. If the white perpetrators of a massacre incur a certain amount of opprobrium, the mealy-mouthed nature of the condemnation does nothing to challenge their place in the legal, economic, and social hierarchies that characterize race in America, and everything to remind America’s black citizens that their lives and livelihoods exist on sufferance. The fact that the violence is illegal only emphasizes the precarious safety of African American and other nonwhite victims of white massacres: even if the law affords nominal protection to its citizens of color, white people, acting on behalf of white supremacist interests, reserve the right to take matters into their own hands. When the looting starts . . .
We see the same double-edge sword at play in the evasive or misdirecting language used to describe conflicts between Palestinians and Israelis, or pro-democracy actors in Taiwan and Hong Kong and the People’s Republic of China, or Muslims in India and the Hindu nationalist thugs who carry out Narendra Modi’s dirty work. The oppressed are rioters, the oppressors are soldiers; the rioters commit acts of vandalism while the soldiers fight a war in defense of national security and private property. War is a condition exclusive to the state, in which sovereign nations are permitted to designate certain types of violence legitimate or justified. But when the state claims the sole right not just to declare war, but to declare which events constitute war, then only the state can declare whether the violence that surrounds those events is justified. Hence the distinction between riots and massacres, terrorism and war. We might remember that the British preferred to call the American Revolution a “rebellion” or “insurrection,” and attacked the honor of patriotic soldiers because they often fought out of uniform and in arenas other than agreed-upon battlefields, as if declining to allow the enemy to kill you on its own terms were somehow an act of cowardice. Or we might simply note the tendency of the largest social media platforms to police speech in accordance with state-sanctioned evaluations of the speakers rather the content of the speech itself. The president of the United States hasn’t designated himself a terrorist; therefore the president’s words cannot be viewed as an incitement to violence.
When the shooting starts.
We have been so inured to this state of affairs that we deploy the terms without thinking and often interchangeably, despite the fact that they have very different meanings and implications. Even when we’re sympathetic to the motives of so-called rioters we still tend to characterize their actions as responses to recent events rather than seeing them as part of a history of individual and collective resistance to state-sponsored oppression. We highlight the emotional nature of the violence rather than the events that produced those emotions, or then again the emotional response to the violence, rather than the political or practical consequences of direct action. Derek Chauvin wasn’t charged with second-degree murder until Minneapolis’s Third Precinct went up in flames, yet it’s Terrence Floyd’s tear-filled appeal for an end to the violence that dominates the headlines.
Yet to say that the moral outrage and civil unrest filling the streets of hundreds of American cities right now is solely a response to the murder of George Floyd is like saying that African Americans are dying of Covid-19 at a rate three to seven times higher than that of white Americans solely because black people are more likely to be obese than white people. The conversation is designed always to frame inequality and injustice as isolated occurrences or individual behaviors rather than the features and goals of a statewide system of deliberate discrimination on every level: legal, economic, cultural, and psychological. Derek Chauvin did not kill George Floyd by accident, nor did he kill him because he was a bad egg in an otherwise honorable police department. Derek Chauvin killed George Floyd because white police officers have been trained to kill black Americans ever since slavery was removed as the preferred method of controlling an expendable black labor force, and despite the Civil War and the NAACP and the Civil Rights Movement and Pres. Barack Obama and Black Lives Matter, they will continue to kill black Americans until they are made to stop. That African Americans understand this kind of change requires more than the prosecution or conviction of a Derek Chauvin or Amber Guyger is evidenced in the scope of the reaction, even during a time of pandemic. It’s not just police officers that are killing African Americans, after all, nor is it just a virus. It is, rather, a legally codified and socially entrenched system of laws, behaviors, and attitudes whose goal, sometimes unconscious but just as often deliberate, is the control of America’s black citizens. There is nothing surprising about the fact that they should rise up in opposition to this situation, even at the risk of their own health and property. What is surprising is that their supposed white allies should encourage restraint, as if, after nearly five centuries of white supremacy, change were just a good-faith handshake away.
Like most Americans in 1992, I watched the Los Angeles uprisings on television. There was one afternoon when I was watching with my friend Barry and his boyfriend at the time, whose name I’ve mercifully forgotten. Like Barry and me, the boyfriend had participated in ACT UP and Queer Nation demonstrations, and like Barry and me the boyfriend was white. Unlike Barry and me, however, the same process that had led us to question not just heteronormativity but other identitarian myths on which we’d been raised, including patriarchy and white supremacy, had passed the boyfriend by. He was perfectly comfortable being outraged by the government’s disregard for the lives of gay citizens who looked like him while simultaneously looking at images of black Angelinos rising up against the exoneration of four self-satisfied badge-wearing racist thugs and declaring, “They do it every time.” I’ll leave it to you to fill in the word he used instead of “they.” If the Village Voice taught me to see black uprisings in historical terms, this man taught me that the only genuine opponents of white supremacy are people who genuinely oppose white supremacy.
It is no more my place, or this publication’s place, to approve the actions of African Americans as they react to yet another murder of one of their own than it is to condemn them. But there comes a time when every American has not just to choose sides but to declare that choice, and I, along with the staff of Evergreen, declare our support for every American standing up against the state-orchestrated murder of African Americans, whether it be by police officers or systemic health-care inequality or red lines or gerrymandering. By any means necessary.