Riots! It’s a word that’s been tossed around a lot in the wake of the George Zimmerman verdict. And while we’ve heard it used, we have yet to see it because… well, there haven’t really been any actual riots. Allegations that communities of color would rise up to wreak havoc after the miscarriage of justice for Trayvon Martin have proven to be wild speculation rather than reality.
Certainly, there have been protests. Many cities throughout the country have hosted vigils and rallies in Martin’s honor, but these events have remained largely peaceful. Why, then, have First Amendment-protected rights been construed as something much more violent and destructive?
Well, if there’s one thing that certain white people are afraid of more than the sight of a single black person, it’s the sight of several black people in a group… particularly those who are shouting discontent with the system. It’s the same ingrained prejudice that led Zimmerman to view an unarmed Martin as a threat that causes society to worry about the intent of black and brown activists… presuming their call for justice includes harm to others.
It’s telling that one of the jurors on Zimmerman’s trial erroneously believed that there had already been race-based “riots” following Martin’s death. If her mentality is that black people are violent troublemakers, she would always have the reasonable doubt necessary to acquit Zimmerman given that she can empathize with the idea that Martin could be considered a danger.
While people’s subconscious biases have certainly contributed to exaggerations of rioting, the government has played a role in this misinformation campaign as well. Prior to the delivery of the verdict, Florida police confirmed that they were preparing for riots if Zimmerman were acquitted. Furthermore, the Department of Justice and Homeland Security confirmed they were coordinating with police in the event of riots, as well. So why were people expecting riots? Probably because the authorities told them to!
Pundits played a role, too. Pat Buchanan has been “warning” his followers of race riots stemming from this trial for months now. Additionally, former Speaker of the House Newt Gingrich compared the weekend’s protests to a “lynch mob” on CNN. Not only is this a gross characterization of the peaceful assemblies, but it is also an ignorant choice of words considering the historical context: around the turn of the 20th century, white Americans were responsible for lynching thousands of African Americans.
A video that purported to show Miami residents “rioting in the streets” after the Zimmerman verdict went viral over the weekend. It turns out, however, that no such riots occurred and the video is actually a clip of Vancouver citizens causing destruction in their own streets following a hockey loss. Still, hoaxes like this only help contribute to the idea of minority uprisings.
The most substantial incident of rioting occurred in Oakland, California, although initial reports of the area’s unrest exaggerated the damage and number of people participating. Considering that the city’s protesters have been routinely clashing with police in recent years, it seems unfair to attribute the vandalism solely to the Zimmerman verdict without also acknowledging the ongoing power struggle between Oakland’s authorities and residents.
The media and state’s eagerness to proliferate the idea of race riots in the absence of them seems like an attempt to bolster the same prejudices that cause this trouble in the first place. If you’re looking for evidence of an outright conspiracy, look no further than Los Angeles, where the media reported that Sunday protesters vandalized the W Hotel. In an on camera interview, Police Commander Andrew Smith confirmed that rioters had “stormed” the hotel and caused $15,000 worth of damage.
There’s one big problem with this story, however: it didn’t happen. As W Hotel representatives are happy to report, no damage was done and the protesters at no point threatened the hotel or guests. When the LAPD was asked whether it would set the record straight, the police’s media representative said, “No, but you will.” The police’s initial lie and the unwillingness to present the truth raises all sorts of red flags.
Then, on Tuesday night, about a dozen minors were arrested for committing acts of vandalism and theft on Hollywood Boulevard. Although police clarified that the teenagers were not actively participating in a Trayvon Martin protest, they stated that they had reason to believe that the arrested individuals had participated in such rallies over the weekend. Given the previous lie about the W Hotel, it seems valid to ask why LAPD is attempting to make a connection between Zimmerman protesters and this later criminal activity.
As someone who has attended a couple of Trayvon Martin rallies in Los Angeles, I can assure you the ones looking for riots are those who come prepared for one… the police. Even as our assembly broke into small discussion circles to discuss our current political climate, the police presence was heavy, as if to indicate that formulating potential steps to alleviate systematic racism was something that needed to be monitored. Meanwhile, the police are the people who wear the riot gear. Moreover, they are the only ones who wound up firing weapons (rubber bullets and beanbags) later that night.
Of course, if recent Occupy actions have been any indication, the police and government are not fans of protests in general. With protest “disaster drills” and human rights violations directed at protesters, it’s hard not to see the conscious attempt to discourage free speech in this country. The fact that a heightened number of participants in the Trayvon Martin protests are non-Caucasian just allows the powers that be to use existing prejudices to more easily portray dissent as dangerous, criminal, and “riotous,” too.
Photo credit: Kevin Mathews