Rage and Uprising

Crisis Cities is a public symposium on the 2020 crises and their impact on urban life, co-organized by Public Books and the NYU Cities Collaborative. Read series editor Thomas Sugrue’s introduction, “Preexisting Conditions,” here.
A politics of rage does not equate emotions with irrationality or impulsive behavior, but can affirm equality, claim agency, and ask for justice.

None of this was doing anybody any good. It would have been better to have left the plate glass as it had been and the goods lying in stores.

It would have been better, but it would also have been intolerable, for Harlem had needed something to smash.

—James Baldwin, Notes of a Native Son


Consider the following incidents from Minneapolis, the city at the heart of the 2020 global uprising that erupted after a white police officer sat on the neck and slowly took the life of George Floyd, an unarmed Black man. In 2015, two police officers shot in the head and killed 24-year-old Jamar Clark, another Black man, while he was handcuffed and lying on the ground, as Floyd was. Clark’s murder was followed, the next year, by that of Philando Castile, a 32-year-old Black man who was shot at least five times and killed during a traffic stop, with his partner and little daughter in the car, in a suburb of Saint Paul, not far from the epicenter of the 2020 uprising. In 2017, Justine Damond, a 40-year-old white woman, was shot to death by a police officer responding to Damond’s emergency call to report a possible sexual assault. The following year, Thurman Blevins, a 31-year-old Black man, was shot in the back and killed in Minneapolis while running away from two police officers and yelling, “Please don’t shoot.”

Castile’s murderer, who was of Hispanic descent, was tried and acquitted. No charges were brought against the white police officers involved in Clark’s or Blevins’s murders. Damond’s murderer, a Somali American, was sentenced to 12.5 years.

Such brutal taking of Black lives with white impunity is not restricted to Minneapolis, as we saw through other high-profile killings in the years leading up to the 2020 uprising. In 2017, Charleena Lyles, a 30-year-old pregnant mother of four, was shot seven times and killed by two white Seattle police officers at her home, in front of her children, after reporting a burglary. A couple of months before the George Floyd uprising, Breonna Taylor, a 26-year-old Black woman, was shot five times in her apartment and killed by three white police officers executing a “no-knock” entry in Louisville, Kentucky. Neither case resulted in charges against the police officers.

Floyd’s murder was the trigger, but not the only reason for the 2020 uprising. It was yet another act of violence that finally “overflowed the unimaginably bitter cup,” as James Baldwin wrote in his 1966 essay on police violence against Black lives. It is this violence that connects the current wave of urban uprising to previous ones in 21st-century US cities. This violence is at the heart of the uprising that started in Minneapolis in May 2020 in the wake of George Floyd’s murder, as it was in those that followed Freddie Gray’s murder in Baltimore in 2015, Michael Brown’s in Ferguson in 2014, and Timothy Thomas’s in Cincinnati in 2001. Floyd, Gray, Brown, and Thomas were Black men, unarmed, whose lives ended at the hands of the police.

A politics of rage does not equate emotions with irrationality or impulsive behavior, but can affirm equality, claim agency, and ask for justice.

But the violence that motivates the uprisings extends beyond literal killings. It is the kind of violence that is routinely visited upon Black and brown lives in white-supremacist societies, reducing life chances, poisoning everyday lives, and, with shocking regularity, ending life with impunity. And we should remember that the names associated with the uprisings—Floyd, Gray, Brown, Thomas—are just the tip of the iceberg in the long history of routinized violence against Black and brown men and women.

Urban uprisings are responses to this violence. They are eruptions of simmering rage, bent on survival rather than destruction, to paraphrase Audre Lorde. They may involve their own violence, mainly in the form of looting and burning, but this violence is episodic and not directed against people, as opposed to the routinized violence against Black and brown lives that produces it. A politics of rage does not equate emotions with irrationality or impulsive behavior, but can affirm equality, claim agency, and ask for justice. The fact that calls for change have had to be expressed in rage through revolt, as we have seen in the past months, is a sign not of the moral failings of the individuals involved—even if a storefront was smashed in the process—but of our democracies’ failure to address recurrent wrongs and attend to the violence they routinely produce.

Among certain demographics, Minnesota is generally considered to be a desirable place to live, thanks to its good schools and housing, its regional transportation network, its several corporate employers, and its vibrant artistic community. As scholar Samuel L. Myers Jr. put it, however, it is also “one of the worst places for blacks to live,” because of what he calls the “Minnesota paradox.” Although Minnesota fares exceptionally well according to many indicators of economic and social well-being, African Americans living in the state are worse off compared to those living in almost every other state in the country. This gap has its roots in a history of racially discriminative policies, and it becomes starker in Minneapolis. As an article in the Washington Post put it, racial inequality in Minneapolis “is among the worst in the nation”: a typical Black family earns less than half as much as a white one; the homeownership rate for Blacks is one-third that of whites, such that only about 25 percent of Black families own their homes—one of the lowest Black homeownership rates in the country—whereas the rate for white families stands at 76 percent, one of the highest.

Poverty amid plenty is a powerful source of resentment, as we have seen with other urban uprisings in the US and elsewhere (for example, Cincinnati 2001, Ferguson 2014, Baltimore 2015, London 2011, Paris 2005, and Stockholm 2013, to take examples from countries considered to be developed and democratic). But the inequalities do not stop at economic and social indicators. Minneapolis police have a long history of racism, which adds another layer of hardship for Black people. The rate of police use of force against Blacks in Minneapolis is seven times the rate against whites. Police brutality is common and is not disciplined. More than 2,600 civilian complaints have been filed against Minneapolis police officers since 2012, but only a dozen cases saw disciplinary action, with 40 hours of unpaid suspension being the harshest punishment. Derek Chauvin himself, the police officer who took Floyd’s life by sitting nonchalantly on his neck for almost nine minutes, had received at least 17 complaints during his 19 years in the force—almost one a year. He received two letters of warning regarding one case; the other 16 were closed without any disciplinary action taken.


When Police Are the Problem

By Michael Mirer

These cases of police violence followed by impunity reflect a broader pattern across the country, as the data collected by Mapping Police Violence show. In 2019, there were only 27 days on which police did not kill anyone. Between January 2013 and June 2020, police officers in the United States killed 8,263 people, and in 99 percent of these cases, the involved officers were not charged. Of those killed by the police since 2013, 28 percent were Black, even though Black people make up only 13 percent of the population. Compared to white people, Black people are 1.3 times more likely to be unarmed, yet three times more likely to be killed by the police.

This racialized pattern of police violence across the country can help us understand how what happened in Minneapolis resonated strongly in other places, producing the largest urban uprising in US cities since the 1960s. Although the extent and intensity of the uprising was exceptional, its context was similar to the conditions—stark inequalities and aggressive, racist policing—that produced the large uprisings earlier in the 21st century, in Cincinnati, Ferguson, and Baltimore. The uprisings were all responses to these problems, which are produced by policy choices rather than limited to the isolated or occasional actions of rogue police officers.

The rage that erupts in urban uprisings is not an impulsive reaction to singular cases of bad practice; it is a response to systematic exclusion and oppression, which extend beyond police violence and into all areas of urban life, including housing, employment, social encounters, and political worth. None of this suggests a causal relationship between insurrections and the pathological disposition of those who participate in them. Yet references to “scum,” “criminals,” “feral youth,” “people with a twisted moral code,” and “marauders and marginals” are repeatedly made by politicians in power during the uprisings, as we have seen not only in the United States, but also in other countries that have increasingly experienced such revolts since the turn of the century.

During the first two weeks of the Floyd uprising, President Donald Trump described the hundreds of thousands of people who took to the streets as “radical left bad people,” “rioters, looters, and anarchists,” “dangerous thugs,” “hoodlums,” “criminals and vandals,” and “angry mobs,” suggesting that the people who participated had no idea why they were doing this, that they were simply following the crowds. Although Trump is a loose cannon and would be expected to say the most peculiar things, this time he deployed a common and mainstream trope in denouncing urban uprisings: angry people who are allegedly not aware of why they are doing this and, instead, are rejoicing in a mindless frenzy of destruction.

The rage that erupts in urban uprisings is not an impulsive reaction to singular cases of bad practice; it is a response to systematic exclusion and oppression.

The outbursts of rage that mark urban uprisings are related to the structures and dynamics of society and to how people see their place and future in it. When they feel excluded, and are reminded of their exclusion on a daily basis in their urban lives, what we get, these uprisings suggest, is a profound sense of disenfranchisement and resentment, to the point that people engage in acts that indicate they have little or no stake in their community. Rather than insisting on participants’ individual pathologies, it would be more politically progressive to look at the sources of their resentment. It would be a mistake, it seems to me, to let the spectacle of episodic looting and burning overshadow the deeply entrenched and routinized violence that so many nonwhites, Blacks in particular, suffer on an everyday basis.

There are two possible, not mutually exclusive, interpretations of the increasing frequency and expansion of urban uprisings and other forms of protest, one bleak and the other promising. The bleak version suggests that our urban lives are characterized by widening inequalities and increasing hardship for disadvantaged groups, while wealth and power remain in the hands of a few. With no effective policies or procedures to address the grievances rising from this polarization, uprising and protest become key to expressing resentment and staging public appeals for justice and equality. This leads to the more promising interpretation: that people have had enough. This is evidenced by the unprecedented expansion of the Floyd uprising beyond Minneapolis, not just throughout the US, but around the world.

This global spread of revolt and protest was truly exceptional, suggesting that the grievances brought into sharp relief by Floyd’s murder had a wider resonance across cities and communities in the US and the world. A Floyd mural was created even in war-torn Idlib, Syria. This spread, coupled with palpably deepening support for the Black Lives Matter movement, is a promising sign that more people are now more aware of and sympathetic to the grievances of the oppressed, and are willing to do something about it. They are angry for a reason, and their rage is justified.

The demonization of the masses as unreasonable, angry, violent, and easily manipulated goes back to a now largely discredited sociological tradition that has its roots in 19th-century France, with Gustave Le Bon’s ruminations on crowd psychology. This depiction of crowds also betrays an even longer history of unease about emotions in Western philosophy, where the alleged emotionality of the crowd signals irrationality as opposed to reason, threatening the ideal of the rational individual. But emotions have a rich cognitive and intentional content, and reason is not some pure power free from them.

If the people participating in the uprisings are angry, their anger does not imply being irrational or without sense. To the contrary, it involves judgments and beliefs about what matters in life. Such judgments are based on certain beliefs and values—such as justice, equality, or freedom from oppression—which are all at play in urban uprisings.

Perhaps more importantly, however, expressing anger—or its more intense form, rage—can be an assertion of subjectivity and equality that allows the oppressed to establish themselves as moral and political agents making judgments about and responding to wrongs. As Toni Morrison’s narrator in The Bluest Eye thought about the dehumanized Black girl Pecola:

Anger is better. There is a sense of being in anger. A reality and presence. An awareness of worth. It is a lovely surging.

Featured image: Say Their Names—Benson, NE. Photograph by Shelby L. Bell / Flickr