A riot can be many things.
It can be an act of communal madness, reflecting the emotional imbecility of those who believe the best way to express joy at their ball team’s win is to overturn a car.
It can be an act of opportunism, a chance, under cover of darkness, influence of chaos, suspension of order, to smash and grab and run away, arms heavy with loot.
And it can be an act of outcry, a scream of inchoate rage.
That’s what happened this week in Ferguson, Missouri. The people screamed.
To believe that this carnage — the windows smashed, the buildings torched, the tear gas wafting — is all about the killing of Michael Brown is to miss the point. Brown, of course, was the unarmed 18-year-old African-American man shot multiple times by a Ferguson police officer on Saturday.
St. Louis County Police Chief Jon Belmar — Ferguson police asked his department, as an outside agency, to investigate the shooting — has said Brown was walking with another individual when a so-far unnamed officer sitting in a police car stopped him. According to Belmar, the officer was trying to get out of his car when one of the two individuals pushed him back inside, where there was a struggle over the officer’s weapon and at least one shot was discharged. He says the officer came out of the car and fired, striking Brown, who was about 35 feet away, multiple times.
Witnesses say Brown, who was to have started college this week, had his hands up when he was shot. Police have not said why the officer felt the need to stop him in the first place.
Details are still too sketchy for us to draw hard conclusions about what happened that afternoon. But it is all too easy to understand what happened afterward and why good people should be paying attention.
Because, again, this is not just about Brown. It’s about Eric Garner, choked to death in a confrontation with New York City Police. It’s about Jordan Davis, shot to death in Jacksonville because he played his music too loud. It’s about Trayvon Martin, shot to death in Sanford because a self-appointed neighborhood guardian judged him a thug.
It’s about Oscar Grant, shot by a police officer in an Oakland, California, subway station as cellphone cameras watched. It’s about Amadou Diallo, executed in that vestibule, and Abner Louima, sodomized with that broomstick. It’s about Rodney King.
And it is about the bitter sense of siege that lives in African-American men, a sense that it is perpetually open season on us.
And that too few people outside of African America really notice, much less care. People who look like you are every day deprived of health, wealth, freedom, opportunity, education, the benefit of the doubt, the presumption of innocence, life itself — and when you try to say this, even when you document it with academic studies and buttress it with witness testimony, people don’t want to hear it, people dismiss you, deny you, lecture you about white victimhood, chastise you for playing a so-called “race card.”
They choke off avenues of protest, prizing silence over justice, mistaking silence for peace. And nevermind that sometimes, silence simmers like water in a closed pot on a high flame.
One can never condone a riot. It is a self-defeating act that sells some fleeting illusion of satisfaction at a high cost in property and life.
But understanding this does not preclude recognizing that the anger we see in Ferguson did not spring from nowhere, nor arrive, fully-formed, when Michael Brown was shot. It is the anger of people who are, as Fannie Lou Hamer famously said, sick and tired of being sick and tired.
Silence imposed on pain cannot indefinitely endure. People who are hurting will always, eventually, make themselves heard.
Even if they must scream to do so.
Leonard Pitts Jr., winner of the 2004 Pulitzer Prize for commentary, is a columnist for The Miami Herald, 3511 N.W. 91 Avenue, Doral, Florida, 33172. Readers may write to him via email at lpittsmiamiherald.com.