A Respectable Riot

26 Nov

Saw lots of opinions about riots on twitter which is strange because I don’t think many people on twitter have ever been in a riot. Anyway, having lived through a riot, here’s what I think.

Riots suck, except if you’re of age, then I can imagine them being incredibly cathartic. I imagine the ideal age for a riot is maybe 16-22? And the ideal gender is male. Lots of things have to occur for you to be of age during a riot, unfortunately for the majority of people, like me, we’re either too young or too old when a riot occurs.

A lot of rioters are jerks, but it doesn’t mean they are necessarily wrong. A lot of righteousness is mixed in with a riot but also a lot of defeat. Riots are derided by assholes to defame a community with boots on its back, but they’re also used to romanticize a struggle. We say that riots spark movements, but it isn’t that clear cut. Riots spark certain people to start movements, but the starters of a movement are rarely the rioters. This is why I have been drawn to Victor Hugo’s characterization of the fictional french revolutionary Enjorlas:

a charming young man who was capable of being terrible

The terribleness of Enjorlas is incompatible with society, and even if he was right all along, he has to be put down (mega spoilers, sorry!)

There are people who don’t riot but who share the anger of the rioter; academics, scholars, writers, celebrities, protestors, pre-existing organizations dedicated to your cause. That they don’t riot, and that they can express this anger in un-terrible ways makes them the leaders of a movement by default. Their anger is palatable.

The movement ends up eventually eating the rioter, or whitewashing them. We forget the nefariousness of a looter and we want the public to forget too, and the cycle of respectability starts up again.

I was too young to riot, and even if I was of age, I wouldn’t have rioted, but my anger isn’t above a looter’s. My anger also isn’t any more respectable because I can express it in writing and they can’t. And because of that anger I can’t help but see red when I hear that communities in pain should behave. 

I think whitewashing a riot is irresponsible because it dehumanizes a complicated population. I worry that, as a movement starts, the rioters are forgotten.

The last thing I have to say is about Sylvia Rivera, a trans woman who was there at the Stonewall Riots AND who took a seat in the subsequent gay liberation movement. Here in her own words are what happened in the movement after the riots:

After Gay Liberation Front folded and the more reformist Gay Activists Alliance (GAA) became New York’s primary gay rights group, Sylvia Rivera worked hard within their ranks in 1971 to promote a citywide gay rights, anti-discrimination ordinance. But for all of her work, when it came time to make deals, GAA dropped the portions in the civil rights bill that dealt with transvestitism and drag—it just wasn’t possible to pass it with such “extreme” elements included. As it turned out, it wasn’t possible to pass the bill anyway until 1986. But not only was the language of the bill changed, GAA—which was becoming increasingly more conservative, several of its founders and officers had plans to run for public office—even changed its political agenda to exclude issues of transvestitism and drag. It was also not unusual for Sylvia to be urged to “front” possibly dangerous demonstrations, but when the press showed up, she would be pushed aside by the more middle-class, “straight-appearing” leadership. In 1995, Rivera was still hurt: “When things started getting more mainstream, it was like, ‘We don’t need you no more'”. But, she added, “Hell hath no fury like a drag queen scorned”


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