A Riot Can Be a Memorial

A Riot Can Be a Memorial
Photo:AP Photo/Bebeto Matthews

On Thursday, hundreds of people gathered in the city of Minneapolis to honor the life of George Floyd, the Black man who died last week after a police officer kneeled on his neck for nine minutes. Among the celebrities and other public figures who attended George Floyd’s memorial service were Kevin Hart, Tiffany Haddish, T.I., Tyrese Gibson, and Ludacris, as well as Sen. Amy Klobuchar, Rev. Jesse Jackson, and Al Sharpton, who delivered the eulogy.

This image is unsettling. And not just because of how dystopic it is to see people wearing medical masks covering their noses and mouths at a memorial service. It rings uncomfortably hollow to witness celebrities, politicians, and other public figures who have largely failed to speak up effectively (or at all) about the nationwide protests that have broken out since Floyd’s death deciding to make an appearance at his memorial service. It is remarkably bold, or perhaps just clueless, for celebrities like Tyler Perry to be emphasizing the need for “peaceful” protest at this moment, not so silently using that rhetoric to shame the protestors who are looting and rioting. As Jezebel staff writer Ashley Reese wrote, “the idea that looting is opportunistic folly negating the fight for justice is patently absurd. Improving one’s life with some creature comforts in the face of state violence—in the face of state forces that can make living comfortably a challenge—is an act of political resistance.”

The disconnect between the millionaires who are able to pause their lives and travel to formally pay their respects to George Floyd’s casket, versus the organizers out on the streets who are paying their respects by trying to funnel that pain into tangible action, is glaringly obvious. People are so desperate to stop the immense violence Black people experience at the hands of law enforcement that crowds of thousands are attending daily protests across the country in the middle of a global pandemic to express their outrage. A pandemic that, naturally, has already disproportionately been killing Black people. And yet the vast majority of celebrities will simply not stop lecturing us on the way we express our rage, as if it actually makes a difference in how law enforcement treats us.

Over the past couple of weeks, I’ve seen countless people quote Martin Luther King, Jr., when talking about the protests and riots across the country. The common refrain is this specific line, which King said more than once during his lifetime: “A riot is the language of the unheard.” It seems as though many take this to mean that riots are solely (or primarily) an expression of anger, of outrage, of desperation. But I’ve begun to think of riots as not just an outburst that emerges from the violence of marginalization and discrimination, but also an expression of immense and otherwise unfathomable loss. Riots are as much about collective pain as they are about anger. Aren’t these protests a way of mourning? Aren’t these riots a memorial of sorts, a way of ensuring this moment will not be lost, that the collective horror at the death of George Floyd (and those of Tony McDade and Breonna Taylor) at the hands of police will enable us to build a world where Black people get to experience some semblance of justice? It’s beautiful, to witness the ways Black people manage to turn our grief into positive action, to use our pain to fight for a world that is less cruel to us. These days, we’re doing our mourning in the streets.

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