Riots and Revolts

What is a riot? What is looting? Are these merely subjective terms that one could apply, willy-nilly, to whatever one wanted, or do they have fairly standard definitions, like “diamond” or “apple”?

Some definitions Google found of “riot” are:

  • a public act of violence by an unruly mob;
  • to belly laugh: a joke that seems extremely funny;
  • to carouse: engage in boisterous, drunken merrymaking;
  • an orgy, a wild gathering involving excessive drinking and promiscuity.

Certainly one could use “riot” in a subjective, biased manner. If one were to call a group of people loudly talking while waiting in lines for tickets a “riot,” that would be somewhat hyperbolic. It would be more troubling if those queuing were of one race and the commenter was of another. At the same time, these exaggerated uses of the word doesn’t alter the standard definitions. If a group of people are protesting violently, if there is clearly no one in control, if there are large enough numbers that ordinary citizens can neither take control nor avoid being affected by the group, this is a riot.

What about “loot“?

  • to take illegally;
  • goods or money obtained illegally;
  • to plunder;
  • to steal goods;
  • to take as spoils.

The word has Sanskrit and Latin origins that mean “rob” or “steal,” so when someone breaks a window of a store, rushes in with several others, and takes away merchandise none of them paid for, “looting” is a fairly factual description of what happened.

In any reasonable sense of the words, both “looting” and “rioting” are apt descriptors of what happened in Los Angeles in 1992 after the acquittal of Laurence Powell, Timothy Wind, Theodore Briseño and Rolando Solano for the alleged incident of police brutality against Rodney King.

John Ambrosio, in his essay “We Make the Road By Walking,” however, refers to the rioting and looting differently:

The day after the rebellion began in South Central Los Angeles in 1992, I walked into my class at Brooklyn College and raised the issue for discussion. Without realizing it, I had unleashed a firestorm of clashing perceptions between students of color and the mostly working-class European American students in the class.

The European American students tended to view the rebellion as an irrational explosion of rioting and, as a communal act of self-destruction. Students of color saw it as a righteous response to the persistence of racism and economic oppression. In the heat of the debate, African American students revealed their deep-seated anger and resentment toward White power and privilege, and their furious rage at having to endure the daily insults and humiliations of living in a racist society. (32)

This was not rioting or looting but “rebellion”? Googling “define: rebellion” provides these insightful definitions:

  • refusal to accept some authority or code or convention;
  • organized opposition to authority.

One could argue that the L.A. riots were an enomous “refusal to accept some authority or code or convention.” But one could also make an argument that such a definition applies to most anything.

The key word in these definitions is “organized.” What happened in Los Angeles nearly two decades ago was hardly organized. As I watched coverage on the news, I got the distinct impression that the news producers didn’t know which live feed to air, such was the chaos throughout that part of the city.

“Rebellion” is certainly less negative — not to mention less judgmental — than “rioting” or “looting.” It is certainly a “different perspective” on the matter. Yet to what end are we going to take this insanity of not calling things by their name in the name of tolerance and adaptation of a multicultural perspective? We might as well call the American soldiers during the Revolutionary War terrorists and Osama bin Laden a misunderstood freedom fighter. Indeed, the fact that Ambrosio writes that the “work of Antonion Gramsci, the Italian Marxist political theorist[ and considered by many to be the father of Italian Communism], had a profound effect on [his] thinking,” it wouldn’t be at all surprising to find Ambrosio seriously considering such absurdities.

What is rebellion?

A slave uprising in the Antebellum South would certainly qualify. While it might not originally be organized, slaves would quickly organize themselves and work toward the common goal of liberation.  Indeed, one of the most famous slave uprisings, aboard the Amistad, was highly organized.

The Jewish uprisings of 66-70 CE in Iudaea Province were highly organized and carefully planned, as was Bar Kokhba’s revolution some fifty years later. While it started locally and in an unorganized manner in Caesarea (over non-Jewish sacrifices in front a synagogue), it spread quickly, and the Jews organized.

The greatest rebellion of the last century, the Warsaw Uprising, took months of planning and was so organized that additional German troops had to be called in to crush the uprising. Had it not been for the Soviets’ conspiratorial lack of support as they sat on the other side of the Vistula river, letting the Germans clear out the Polish intellegensia so they wouldn’t have to, the uprising would have been successful.

The revolts at the Treblinka and Sobibor concentration camps were highly organized and represented the most successful uprisings in staged against the Nazis.

In each and every example of what most individuals call “rebellion,” there was great organization and a single goal.

Is that what we saw in Los Angeles? Truck driver Reginald Denny was beaten so badly that he still has problems walking and talking. Korean shop owners had to organize in order to turn back rioting mobs. Chaos reigned, and yet it was a rebellion.

Ambrosio’s concern seems to be that by calling it a “riot,” we are disenfranchising those participating in the riot/rebellion. We are declaring their anger to be illegitimate and misplaced (as opposed to “righteous”). Calling it a “riot” in no way suggests that the underlying anger is unjustifiable. Calling it “looting” in no way implies that the feelings they felt is somehow immoral.

Referring to it as a “rebellion” that’s inspired by “righteous” anger takes it to the other extreme.

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