The difference between "black riots" and rebellion

Historically, rioting may not have been beneficial to black communities, but the easy dismissal of black rebellion allows politicians like Obama, and those to whom he appealed, to believe that stalled progress in race relations has been the result of indi

In the United States, Americans recently commemorated the 50th anniversary of the March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom. A large crowd gathered peacefully in the nation’s capitol to hear soaring speeches and searching retrospectives that measured the historical moment, the distance the United States has traveled from the racial politics of the mid-twentieth century, and the difficulty of the road ahead.

There was common agreement that significant progress in racial politics had been secured by the non-violent protests of the Civil Rights marchers. The corollary to this was a casual disregard for black rebellion. Peaceful protest was admired, but outright rebellion was dismissed as rioting. “If we're honest with ourselves,” said President Barack Obama, “we'll admit that during the course of 50 years, there were times when some of us claiming to push for change lost our way. The anguish of assassinations set off self-defeating riots. Legitimate grievances against police brutality tipped into excuse-making for criminal behavior.”

If Obama wanted to cite reasons for a stalled civil rights agenda, he would have been more accurate to condemn discriminatory housing markets, opposition to school integration, the dismantling of social safety nets, the mushrooming prison industry, and the general promotion of personal responsibility for society’s lower classes while offering publicly financed safety nets to too-big-to-fail banks and corporations.

Rioting may not have been beneficial to black communities, but the easy dismissal of black rebellion allows politicians like Obama, and those to whom he appealed, to believe that stalled progress in race relations has been the result of indiscriminate eruptions of black frustration. But had the “rioters” really “lost their way,” or had they merely run out of options? Were these “riots” — uncontrolled, chaotic, and irrational — or rebellions with clear intentions, regardless of their ultimate outcome?

How we characterise such outbursts is important, because it is possible the “rioters” knew something that is difficult for most of us to admit. Subsequent years have shown that the gains of the Civil Right years made it possible for the emergence of a broad and thriving black middle class — and allowed a black man educated in Ivy League universities to achieve the highest office in land — but did little to eradicate racial disparities in life chances. There was no social revolution to raise the living standards of the working classes. And the system of incarceration, the largest in the rich world, consumes black men now as never before. It may be that rebellion was the only avenue available for protesting the most fundamental social problems that would not be resolved by “civil” means. In that case, the “rioters” were similar in kind to the violent protesters of the French Revolution or those of other common people throughout history.

Obama’s speech participated in a long tradition of singling out black outbursts as explosions of disorder without justification or clear intention. For example, while some understood the frustration with repressive policing and economic exclusion that lay behind the uprisings in Brixton and Toxteth in 1981, many more people were astounded and resentful, demanding police crackdowns and expanded incarcerations. The same angry confusion has marked the reaction to similar disturbances in America, following the Rodney King verdict in 1992, or in the late 1960s following the assassination of Dr Martin Luther King, Jr. Such reactions reach even further back, into the nineteenth century and the reaction to the insurrection scares of the American Civil War or 1865 Morant Bay Rebellion in Jamaica. These episodes too were commonly seen as “riots.” Yet contrary to popular belief, many black uprisings have resulted from careful strategy and tactics in response to genuine grievances.

An emerging alliance between historians and mapmakers promises to enlighten public perceptions of black insurrection. We can look as far back as the mid-eighteenth century, when a major slave revolt in Jamaica attacked the heart of the British Empire. In 1760, more than fifteen hundred enslaved black men and women staged a massive uprising in Jamaica, which began on Easter Sunday in April and continued until October of the next year. As with more recent disturbances, people at the time debated whether the rebellion was a spontaneous eruption or a carefully planned affair. Historians still debate the question, their task made more difficult by the lack of written records produced by the insurgents. With the help of cartographers, historians have analyzed this slave revolt by plotting its movements on thematic maps that reveal the political strategies of the rebels. Drawn from cartographic evidence, a new map of the 1760-1761 slave insurrection in Jamaica developed in collaboration with Axis Maps shows that the rebellion was in fact a well-planned affair that posed a genuine strategic threat, not an indiscriminate outburst.

Descriptions of black freedom struggles as riots and rampages provide a handy justification for denying legitimate claims to political participation and rights. Perhaps we can dispel these misconceptions by applying new methods of research. If historians and cartographers can find new explanations for uprisings that happened more than 250 years ago, it should be much easier to understand more recent events, with our newfound access to geo-coded data and mapping software. By tracing the movements of crowds in revolt we might discern their political designs. There may be many uprisings that have no strategic intent, offer no vision of a better society, and encompass no legitimate grievance. However, easy dismissals of black “riots” leave no clear understanding of the frustrations, aims, and aspiration of those in rebellion.

Mapping uprisings can help us to better understand the politics of such events. It will make it easier to distinguish riots from rebellions. And most importantly, understanding black rebellions will make it easier to recognize and address the conditions that compel people to go to war against their own societies.

Vincent Brown is Charles Warren Professor of History and Professor of African and African-American Studies at Harvard University, where he directs the History Design Studio. He is the principal investigator and curator for the animated thematic map Slave Revolt in Jamaica, 1760-1761.

 

The March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom in August 1963. Photo: Hulton Archive/Getty Images

Vincent Brown is Charles Warren Professor of History and Professor of African and African-American Studies at Harvard University, where he directs the History Design Studio. He is the principal investigator and curator for the animated thematic map Slave Revolt in Jamaica, 1760-1761.

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Everyone's forgotten the one issue that united the Labour party

There was a time when Ed Miliband spoke at Momentum rallies.

To label the row over the EU at Thursday’s Labour leadership hustings "fireworks" would be to endow it with more beauty than it deserves. Owen Smith’s dogged condemnation of John McDonnell’s absence from a Remain rally – only for Corbyn to point out that his absence was for medical reasons – ought to go down as a cringing new low point in the campaign. 

Not so long ago, we were all friends. In the course of the EU referendum, almost all of the protagonists in the current debacle spoke alongside each other and praised one another’s efforts. At a local level, party activists of all stripes joined forces. Two days before polling day, Momentum activists helped organise an impromptu rally. Ed Miliband was the headline speaker, and was cheered on. 

If you take the simple version of the debate, Labour’s schism on the EU appears as an aberration of the usual dynamics of left and right in the party. Labour's left is supposedly cheering a position which avoids advocating what it believes in (Remain), because it would lose votes. Meanwhile, the right claims to be dying in a ditch for its principles - no matter what the consequences for Labour’s support in Leave-voting heartlands.

Smith wants to oppose Brexit, even after the vote, on the basis of using every available procedural mechanism. He would whip MPs against the invocation of Article 50, refuse to implement it in government, and run on a manifesto of staying in the EU. For the die-hard Europhiles on the left – and I count myself among these, having run the Another Europe is Possible campaign during the referendum – there ought to be no contest as to who to support. On a result that is so damaging to people’s lives and so rooted in prejudice, how could we ever accept that there is such a thing as a "final word"? 

And yet, on the basic principles that lie behind a progressive version of EU membership, such as freedom of movement, Smith seems to contradict himself. Right at the outset of the Labour leadership, Smith took to Newsnight to express his view – typical of many politicians moulded in the era of New Labour – that Labour needed to “listen” to the views Leave voters by simply adopting them, regardless of whether or not they were right. There were, he said, “too many” immigrants in some parts of the country. 

Unlike Smith, Corbyn has not made his post-Brexit policy a headline feature of the campaign, and it is less widely understood. But it is clear, via the five "red lines" outlined by John McDonnell at the end of June:

  1. full access to the single market
  2. membership of the European investment bank
  3. access to trading rights for financial services sector
  4. full residency rights for all EU nationals in the UK and all UK nationals in the EU, and
  5. the enshrinement of EU protections for workers. 

Without these five conditions being met, Labour would presumably not support the invocation of Article 50. So if, as seems likely, a Conservative government would never meet these five conditions, would there be any real difference in how a Corbyn leadership would handle the situation? 

The fight over the legacy of the referendum is theatrical at times. The mutual mistrust last week played out on the stage in front of a mass televised audience. Some Corbyn supporters jeered Smith as he made the case for another referendum. Smith accused Corbyn of not even voting for Remain, and wouldn’t let it go. But, deep down, the division is really about a difference of emphasis. 

It speaks to a deeper truth about the future of Britain in Europe. During the referendum, the establishment case for Remain floundered because it refused to make the case that unemployment and declining public services were the result of austerity, not immigrants. Being spearheaded by Conservatives, it couldn’t. It fell to the left to offer the ideological counter attack that was needed – and we failed to reach enough people. 

As a result, what we got was a popular mandate for petty racism and a potentially long-term shift to the right in British politics, endangering a whole raft of workplace and legal protections along the way. Now that it has happened, anyone who really hopes to overcome either Brexit, or the meaning of Brexit, has to address the core attitudes and debates at their root. Then as now, it is only clear left-wing ideas – free from any attempt to triangulate towards anti-migrant sentiment– that can have any hope of success. 

The real dividing lines in Labour are not about the EU. If they were, the Eurosceptic Frank Field would not be backing Smith. For all that it may be convenient to deny it, Europe was once, briefly, the issue that united the Labour Party. One day, the issues at stake in the referendum may do so again – but only if Labour consolidates itself around a strategy for convincing people of ideas, rather than simply reaching for procedural levers.