citylab | Ferguson, Baltimore, and now Charlotte: We sometimes see that local protests in response to police killings morph into riots. Why do you think this is?
Riots, though they do occur, are relatively rare. More frequent are peaceful protests and community meetings, but these of course don’t get the same coverage. Riots occur because these police killings just keep happening, no matter how many peaceful marches happen. It is, in every sense, maddening.
Many have tried to discredit the riots by pointing to the occasional looting that has occurred, claiming such actions by protestors are destructive to "their own communities." In Ferguson, a QT gas station became an iconic site of destruction during the protests. In Baltimore, it was a CVS and the payday lender ACE Cash Express. In Charlotte on Tuesday, it was a Walmart. What drives the animus against these institutions, which often seem to be large corporate chains, and why are they the secondary targets of anti-police brutality protests?
For poor black people in cities, the surveillance that they experience at stores and on the streets are of a piece. When they walk in a store they are watched. When they leave the store, their receipts are questioned. They might be ripped off, or not, but they are made to feel less like sovereign customers and more like suspects. Unwarranted police stops feel similar. Those who are watched feel disrespected, and constantly reminded that they are not in charge. Riots provide that sense of control, but at a terrible cost.
Middle-class white people rarely have these experiences, so it is hard for them to understand what Walmart and police could have in common.
You have written that "riots reflect fury not just at the police, but at the constraints of the ghetto’s retail economy, where the poor pay more." How do police uphold this “ghetto retail economy,” where the poor are deprived of the competitive market pricing present in better-off suburbs?
In places where there are few legitimate jobs, the underground economy makes up the difference. Payday lenders and pawn brokers are the tip of an illicit iceberg, of which the drug trade is a major part. Fighting this illegal economy has resulted in police becoming an occupying force. Policing an economy with a handgun, needless to say, is an impossible task.
Are there historical cases in which riots have been an effective tactic for police brutality reform?
Riots draw attention to these issues in a way that protests and op-eds do not. It is hard to say that riots lead to reform, but without the riots, these kinds of activities would easily slip forgotten into the news cycle. In that sense, they are effective. But too much rioting, and the goodwill of Americans will ebb.