This is a post I first started thinking about writing after the protests in Ferguson last year, a post I should have written then. Why I didn’t, I’m not entirely sure; but I do know that I should have and I didn’t, and for that I am ashamed. Because whatever the reason, it’s inexcusable. In these moments, silence is inexcusable, silence is consent. Now, just a few months later, history is already repeating itself, and I will stay silent no longer. As an American, as a human being, I cannot.
“Thugs”, “animals”, “revolutionaries”, “heroes”; who gets these names? Who gives them? A young man with a broken spine is all but forgotten in the smoke of a single burning CVS. Cries of anguish go up for vehicles in flames and smashed store windows, resounding judgment raised against the citizens “destroying” their city, drown out the lamentations for a city destroying its citizens. Outrage fills social media that people could ever react violently to anything, much less to the wounds caused by oppressive, harmful historic socio-cultural systems whose predatory claws dig into the flesh of today’s prey even still. These claws don’t drip the tax dollars of the wealthy colonists denied representation in their governing bodies, they drip the blood of young people killed on their own streets. They drip mothers’ tears.
This boggles my mind: this inability to empathize with a populace under an untenable status quo, coming from a country founded by a populace under an untenable status quo. America was birthed through violent revolution. I’m sorry if this fact comes as a surprise to you. The celebration of a revolutionary spirit is such a huge part of the American identity—apparently only if it no longer threatens the new, current status quo. That is, if you’re white (and cis and straight and male).
Revolution is such a darling of the American imagination; we adore it when found elsewhere, especially France (maybe it’s the red, white, and blue?). The French Revolution has spawned countless works of art that have appeared in many incarnations, including the exceedingly well-known Tale of Two Cities and The Scarlet Pimpernel. Our very favorite revolutionaries, however, come to us from Les Misérables. Plot twist: Les Mis is not actually about the French Revolution. I’m willing to bet the average viewer is not aware of that fact; I know for the longest time I wasn’t. It’s actually about the June Rebellion. Regardless, their rousing melodies from the musical adaptation have forever cemented them in our minds and hearts. But what do we think of their violent uprising?
We champion it. We rally for our Friends of the ABC, our heroes, without even knowing what exactly they’re rebelling against (my apologies to the reader if you were in fact well-read on post-Revolution French political turmoil such as the July Revolution and June Rebellion before you saw the show). Because of our national historic imagination, we connect their struggle to our textbook/storybook tales about our own Revolution, all those warm, fuzzy conceptualizations of things like the Boston Tea Party (with its destruction of property and disruption of business), Paul Revere’s night ride, and the gunning down of redcoats. America likes these rag-tag idealists because they remind us of ourselves like we like to think we used to be: audacious, full of moxie, and white.
This empathy and celebration falls short for the revolutions of people of color around the globe and throughout time. It sure as hell falls short for the people of color within our own country right now. An easy way to block empathy is dehumanizing and othering: calling rioters “animals”, for example. This is ignorant and idiotic in its implication that destruction of property is something that only occurs during protests and riots of predominantly Black populations. It only serves to stoke the self-perception of those who would categorize into “inferior” and “superior” races, who would deny that the chaotic potential within human nature that some may term “animalistic” exists in everyone. If you had any doubt about the accuracy of that notion, allow me to direct to you any number of moments that may have been washed from our collective memory by the selective amnesia of white privilege.
Ah, but these are just “students” or “fans” getting a little “carried away”, not “thugs” or “criminals” wreaking havoc. Much like the Friends of the ABC were just “students” and “zealous”, not “murderers”. It’s all in the wording. Both Javert and the women of the barricade refer to them as “schoolboys”, giving a sense of childlike innocence (albeit in a condescending way from Javert). Their acts of violence, from destruction of private property to form their barricade to the stockpiling of weapons and ammunition with the intent to kill, never get them termed anything worse than “revolutionaries”, not “insurrectionists” or “cop-killers” or even “soldiers”. “Soldiers” is a perfectly accurate term—soldiers have organization, soldiers have strategic planning, soldiers kill. More than a bubbling over of civil unrest combined with typical, entropic human social behavior, Enjolras and co. actively plotted, made preparations, and succeeded in killing some of their opponents, even if they died in the process.
Is the audience ever told their actions are unwarranted? That “violence is never the answer”? Definitely not; the ABC students are seen sympathetically as heroes and later martyrs, literally extolled in song over and over, from their introductory “Red and Black” to the iconic “Do You Hear the People Sing?” to the somber reminiscing of “Drink With Me”. Time and again actions similar or often much worse than those seen in Baltimore the past few days are lauded as the acts of heroic revolutionaries, not the work of “criminals” or “thugs”. Perturbed by a youth throwing rocks in Baltimore? What are your feelings about fan-favorite Gavroche, the plucky child soldier killed with trying to gather more bullets so his compatriots could keep on killing? The framing of the narrative is everything, and we see how unevenly those in rebellion are portrayed based on the situation (e.g. the color of their skin). The very same actions performed by one group of people that are championed as heroic, even necessary, are deemed criminal and wrong when performed by a different group. This media presentation and interpretation of events goes hand in hand with the conflation and ignoring that erases the reality of peaceful protesting that rivaled the violence and destruction that was the practically exclusive purview of most news reports.
So before you call rioters “thugs” or “animals” or when you see them referred to as such, I want you to stop and think of a few things: Would I call these people these particular loaded terms if they looked more like me? And what would I do in their place? If we cannot face and acknowledge the chaotic natures in our own beings, we are lying to ourselves. Coming to terms with what we know we are capable of deep down, many of us with privileges not shared by those in rebellion that make life all the easier for us, should only make it easier to understand and harder, if not impossible, to cast stones of judgment and condemnation. Empathizing is not participating and it is not even condoning or supporting; it is looking honestly at those pieces of humanity that connect us all and realizing we all share the same human nature. If you can identify with the revolutionary French student soldier shouldering his gun and taking aim at an enemy, if you can cheer him on and weep for his demise, you have it within you to empathize with the citizens of Baltimore.
So if you’re flinging names (I hope that no one reading this is), stop. And if you see or hear it happening, call it out. Now. Don’t be like me. Don’t wait.
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I agree strongly with your sentiment, problem is the Rioting going on now isn’t a Rebellion, none of this violence is actually hurting the people oppressing them and at the end of the day will only old the Government justify it’s police state. I have empathy for them, but I still think they’re being stupid and comparing their actions to the American or even the failed French Revolution is far from accurate. During Ferguson this kind of rioting mostly wasn’t going on, the media just wanted it to sound like it was.
Tale of Two Cities and The Scarlet Pimpernel were actually quite critical of the French Revolution.
I often get annoyed at people thinking Les Miserables was about the original French Revolution, it’s not even about one of the “successful” revolutions.
The hypocrisy of contemporary Americans not approving of modern Revolutionaries isn’t limited to POC, there was no sympathy from “middle america” for the predominately white 60s revolutionaries either. More recently we saw the same with the Occupy Wallstreet movement, the Protests in Madison Wisconsin, and the Tea Party movement, all predominately White and represent both sides of the political aisle, all got vilified as anarchists by the mainstream media.