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.

Photo: Getty
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Prime Minister Jeremy Corbyn sitting down with President Bernie Sanders no longer sounds so outlandish

Both men have a certain authenticity and unpretentiousness that their rivals lack.

Unlike many of us, Bernie Sanders never doubted Jeremy Corbyn. The week before the general election, the independent US senator from Vermont was addressing a crowd of progressive voters in Brighton during a whirlwind tour of the UK. An audience member asked him what advice he might have for the leader of the Labour Party. “I don’t think Jeremy Corbyn needs my advice,” Sanders replied. “I think he’s doing quite well.”

The week after the election, a delighted Sanders invoked Corbyn’s election performance in a New York Times op-ed. “The British elections should be a lesson for the Democratic Party,” he wrote, urging the Democrats to stop holding on to an “overly cautious, centrist ideology” and explaining how “momentum shifted to Labour after it released a very progressive manifesto that generated much enthusiasm among young people and workers”.

Sanders and his growing movement in the United States offered more than mere rhetorical support for Corbyn.

With the help of former members of the senator’s presidential campaign team, Momentum – the grass-roots organisation set up to support and defend Corbyn in 2015 – ran 33 training sessions across the UK, preparing thousands of Labour activists.

Momentum’s national organiser Emma Rees says that the Sanders people made a “significant contribution” to the Labour campaign with their emphasis “on having empathetic conversations that focused on the issues the voter cared about, and actually trying to persuade voters on the doorstep rather than just collecting data”.

“In the final stage, I recruited a bunch of former Bernie volunteers from around [the United States] to . . . help get out a last [get out the vote] texting assignment,” recalls Claire Sandberg, who was the digital organising director for Sanders and spent the 2017 election campaign working with Momentum in the UK. “It was an amazing thing to see them volunteering . . . while we were all asleep the night before election day.”

Is it really surprising that Sanders supporters, thousands of miles away, would want to volunteer for Corbyn? Both men are mavericks; both have a certain authenticity and unpretentiousness that their rivals lack; both, in the words of Emma Rees, “have inspired tens of thousands of people to participate in the political process and to realise their collective power” and they want “to transform society in the interests of ordinary people”. Perhaps above all else, both men have proved that left populism can win millions of votes.

According to the latest polls, if another election were held in the UK tomorrow, Corbyn would be the winner. Sanders, however, has a much higher mountain to climb in the US and faces at least three obstacles that the “British Bernie” does not.

First, Sanders leads a growing grass-roots movement but does not have the support of a party machine and infrastructure.

Corbyn may have been a backbench rebel who voted against his party whip more than 500 times before becoming party leader, but he is a lifelong Labour member.

Sanders, on the other hand, is the longest-serving independent politician in US congressional history. He declared himself a Democrat in 2015 only in order to seek the party’s presidential nomination and promptly declared himself an independent again after he was defeated by Hillary Clinton last summer.

Such behaviour has allowed establishment Democrats to portray him (wrongly) as an opportunist, an interloper who is using the Democratic Party as a vehicle for his own benefit in a country where third-party candidacies cannot succeed.

Second, Sanders has to confront an even more hostile and sceptical media than Corbyn must. Under US law, Fox News is under no obligation to be “fair and balanced” towards Sanders – nor is CNN, for that matter.

Thanks to the UK rules on broadcaster impartiality, however, Corbyn was “able to speak directly to the voters who still get their news from TV instead of the internet”, Sandberg notes. “In contrast, Bernie was completely and totally shut out by broadcast media in the US, which considered his campaign totally irrelevant.”

Third, Sanders failed to connect with minority groups, and especially with African Americans, whereas black and Asian British voters flocked to Corbyn – a veteran campaigner for the anti-racism movement.

Two out of every three ethnic-minority voters voted Labour on 8 June. “Bernie would’ve won [the Democratic nomination] if he’d had a message that resonated with 50 per cent – just 50 per cent – of black voters, because Hillary got upwards of 90 per cent in many states,” the activist and journalist Naomi Klein, who is a supporter of both Sanders and Corbyn, told me in a recent interview for my al-Jazeera English show, UpFront, which will air later this month.

Nevertheless, she is confident that Sanders can learn lessons from his own campaign for the 2016 Democratic nomination, and “build a winning coalition” next time which ties together the narratives of financial, racial and gender inequality.

Just as it was a mistake to write off Jeremy Corbyn, it would be wrong to dismiss Bernie Sanders.

Despite media bias, and even though he doesn’t have a party machine behind him, Sanders today is still the most popular politician in the United States. And so this may be only the beginning of a new, transatlantic partnership between the two self-declared socialists. Those of us on the left who grew up watching Reagan and Thatcher, then Clinton and Blair, then Bush and Blair, may wish to pinch ourselves to check we’re not dreaming.

“I think by 2021,” Sandberg says, “we may see Prime Minister Jeremy Corbyn sitting down with President Bernie Sanders.”

Don’t say you weren’t warned.

Mehdi Hasan is a contributing writer for the New Statesman and the co-author of Ed: The Milibands and the Making of a Labour Leader. He was the New Statesman's senior editor (politics) from 2009-12.

This article first appeared in the 22 June 2017 issue of the New Statesman, The zombie PM

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