By LaKeshia N. Myers
“A riot is the language of the unheard. And what is it America has failed to hear? It has failed to hear that the plight of the negro poor has worsened over the last twelve or fifteen years. It has failed to hear that the promises of freedom and justice have not been met. And it has failed to hear that large segments of white society are more concerned about tranquility and the status quo than about justice and humanity.”
These words were spoken by Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., in 1967.
King’s words were fresh on my mind last week during our assembly floor session where we debated a bill that would define “riot” in statute as well as provide penalties for individuals who incite and/or participate in a riot. I voted “No” on the bill—and for good reason. First, the bill defined a riot as, “a public disturbance that involves an act of violence, as part of an assembly, of at least three persons, that constitutes a clear and present danger of property damage or personal injury or a threat of an act of violence” (Wisconsin Legislative Reference Bureau, 2023). My colleagues widely referenced the protests of 2020, when statues we dismantled and storefronts were vandalized in the wake of George Floyd’s murder. They readily exclaimed that law enforcement groups were all on board with the legislation that would be aimed at saving property.
While they thought about property, I thought about people. The people whose lives are almost always at the heart of the protests. People who inherently carry the burden of fighting for their very existence and fight to hold on to their piece of “American pie” each and every generation. They are most often the people who would be prosecuted should a protest include any act of violence, and the truth of the matter is, they might very well be the perpetrator of a violent act done in the name of a worthy cause. But to me, “riot”, as defined by the legislation is par for the course of living in a democracy. It is the American way.
America itself exists because of riots. The Boston Massacre, Boston Tea Party, and Shay’s Rebellion—all can be classified as riots. The people who perpetrated the acts (in most cases) were prosecuted and tried (or killed) because of their participation. But the end result was that our country changed because they were courageous enough to stand up for what they believed in. It amazes me that now, because of Black Lives Matter protests and the subsequent violence that occurred we need harsher penalties. There are very few penalties for police and others who choose to wreak havoc on marginalized communities. Where was the outcry about saving property when Black churches were being burned? When the Greenwood District of Tulsa was being bombed and burned to the ground? When cities like Watts, Newark, and Miami were hurting?
I am not a proponent of violence, but I understand why it happens. I understand that there is a fine line that can be assuaged between “riot” and “protest”. The determination is most often based on whether or not we agree with the people making the noise. And that is the sad part. There is no “right way” to protest. Dr. King and his contemporaries dressed in their Sunday’s finest and were met with dogs and water hoses. In Ferguson, Missouri, some activists burned a police car and were met with tear gas. Same fight. Same result. Property damage is the cost of living in an ever evolving democracy.
Instead of creating new ways to stifle citizen outcry, we need to begin doing the real work to make our society more equitable and just. If we don’t just wait for the next riot, after all, it’s the American blueprint for Democracy.