The Rhetoric of a Riot Examining ferguson & The necessity of unruly rhetoric

August 9, 2014

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Everything You Think You Know About the Death of Mike Brown Is Wrong, and the Man Who Killed Him Admits It

Deconstructing the Dichotomy

When discussing the dichotomy between Ferguson protesters and police officer there is an inherent difference in understanding in how everyone is situated within the rhetorical context.


There is a need that is not being met. The practice of rhetorical listening is expected of protesters but not of the police officers who are brutalizing them regularly within their communities. There is an expectation for citizens to succumb to all of the wishes of the police force without any consideration of the mistreatment the police may be imposing on them. A large percentage of the protesters belong to communities of color. The discrimination they face from police occurs at the intersection of their race and socioeconomic status. Police patrols in economically underdeveloped areas are statistically more aggressive and result in more arrests than areas of strong economic development. Within communities of color, there is an understood notion that whether you respect law enforcement or not, you will be subject to their mistreatment if they wish. Consequently, creating a sense of oppression and despair around those who should create sentiments of safety and protection.

Law Enforcement

They lack an understanding of what it means to be on the other side of someone’s oppressive gaze. The people within many of the communities that are subject to police violence have inherited a lack of privilege. They are born into systems of structural violence that they have no control over and statistically speaking, most people within those systems are not able to make it out. The “success stories” the public hears are typically exceptions to the rule. The police force has to suspend preconceived notions based in false biases that contribute to their justifications for their mistreatment of the people. Additionally, there’s a great deal of racism embedded into the nature of policing that dates back to the ante bellum era that must be addressed in order to correctly suspend this dichotomy.

Darren Wilson vs. Mike Brown

Within the construction of this subsidiary dichotomy, there are racially biased notions at play. Mike Brown's large, black, and male frame make him suspect in the eyes of Darren Wilson. Based solely on the racist suspicions of Darren Wilson, Brown becomes set up in an altercation with the police officer without having planned, nor wanting to initiate, any controversy. The rhetorical context at which both men are situated is completely different. Brown is fighting for his life, Wilson is provoking a situation to say his life is threatened. Mentally, both men are in dire straits. While in reality, only one has true power in the situation and knowingly evokes it to end the life of the other,

Not at Issue Statements: Ferguson

Many of these "not at issue statements" contribute to the need for the unruly rhetoric in Ferguson. With these statements being largely accepted misconceptions, it makes it hard for residents in areas like Ferguson to feel supported, validated, and cared for. Protests feel like the only way for their voices to be heard.

“Black people should learn how to respect the police and they won’t be shot.”

Being respectful to the police does not equate to protection. Law enforcement officers still have the power to kill unarmed civilians without remorse. In the case of Philando Castile's death two years after Brown's, we see compliant citizens involved in a deadly interaction with police officers in Minnesota. Castile is pulled over with his girlfriend and daughter in the car. When Castile informed the officer of his license to open carry a weapon and that the gun was in his glove compartment, he was shot and eventually died from the wounds. Compliance does not equal life.

“It’s not Black Lives Matter, All Lives Matter.”

All lives cannot matter if black ones do not.

“The reason why urban neighborhoods are subject to police brutality are because of violence from the inhabitants.”

Police brutality is neither based on the neighborhood nor the amount of violence between a neighborhood's inhabitants. It’s based on the relationship between citizens and their law enforcement officers. Urban neighborhoods' lack of economic and structural development make them targets for discrimination

"A riot is the language of the unheard." - Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.

This quote sums up the experience of the residents of Ferguson. They are regularly overlooked and the death of Mike Brown only drew more attention to their neglect. When the media or other Americans sit in the comfort of their offices with well-paying jobs, or in their homes surrounded by privilege, they need to remember this statement. During the riots in Ferguson, many people used Dr. King's example to try to make a point that Ferguson residents' push for peace should come in a nicely wrapped package of smiles and calm swaying. However, many forget that Dr. King had a terrible approval rating during his lifetime. Throughout the extent of the Civil Rights Movement, J. Edgar Hoover, the head of the FBI, listed him as the "most dangerous man in America". Dr. King's iconic image was not resurrected until after his death. During his lifetime, he was no different than the people in Ferguson attempting to have their voices heard.

While rioting is not necessarily productive for the community as a whole, it causes attention to be brought to an issue. The riots in Ferguson made America pay attention to a city long forgotten whose residents were in dire need. It made people pay attention to the pain that many of Ferguson's residents feel regularly. Far too often, marginalized identities are told to make room for and explain their struggles to their oppressors. That is not only unfair but a privileged way to look at inequality. Many people would feel that the protesters needed to have an "accountability logic" of sorts. However, how long have the police officers had to create a camaraderie with Ferguson residents? Is it the community's responsibility to create community policing policies on the force? Objectively, the answer is no. The riots in Ferguson were a necessary evil, a justified unruly rhetoric that prompted national conversations regarding police brutality and communities of color. Out of the Ferguson riots, the Black Lives Matter movement was born. Thus, creating discourse across platforms about what equality, equity, and social justice truly looks like. This dialogue has continued to progress and now influences new cases and incidents surrounding the abuses of law enforcement. If anything, that makes the rhetoric of Ferguson's riots completely worth it.

"I think riots happen when communities are under pressure for long periods of time. That's not a mistake."

Ta-Nehisi Coates


Created with images by digitaldefection - "ferguson dc protest 112514 19"

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