Rioters are ordinary people in extraordinary circumstances

On Saturday afternoon, 23-year-old Sylville Smith was shot and killed by a Milwaukee police officer while fleeing a traffic stop on the city's north side. His death sparked three nights of protests in the city. Some devolved into rioting. As vehicles, a bank, a gas station, a beauty supply store and an auto parts shop all went up in flames, critics looked down at the rioters — most of who were black and lived in the same neighborhood as the victim — and roundly dismissed them as "thugs."

"The thugs that caused this are certainly terrorists and must be held accountable," the Milwaukee Police Association wrote in a statement on their Facebook page Sunday.

It was a time-worn characterization. Aside from the racial valence of the word "thug," which reduces black rioters to physical embodiments of criminality, such statements highlight the double-standard in the way white and black rioters are talked about.  

In case after case, white youth who burn cars or destroy property after sporting events or pumpkin festivals are characterized less harshly: They're instead called "revelers," "celebrants" or, when the label applies, "college students."

More to the point, dismissing rioters as mere "thugs" ignores the social context and history in which rioting occurs. Sylville Smith's encounter with the police may be familiar to those who've watched other black men lose their lives the same way. But so, unavoidably, is the response.

Like Ferguson, Missouri, in 2014 and Baltimore and 2015, Milwaukee falls into a decades-long pattern of black neighborhoods erupting in unrest after years of systemic brutality. Prior to these examples, one would point to uprisings in Watts in 1965; Newark in 1967; Chicago and Washington, D.C. in 1968; and Los Angeles, again, in 1992, as emblematic of rioting by angry black "thugs" and criminals. The more generous interpretation is that rioters are oppressed, but delusional; they riot out of ignorance, not knowing how counterproductive their actions truly are.

The truth, however, is more complex. Black rioters aren't necessarily criminals or people predisposed to violence, but normal people forced to live under abnormal circumstances. And although riots have long been a go-to response when ordinary Americans — black or not — were forced to live in intolerable conditions, the conditions that qualified as "intolerable" had a different color palette before 1943.

Police at a gas station that was set ablaze during riots in Milwaukee, 2016.Darren Hauck/Getty Images

That's when everything changed. On June 20 of that year, a riot broke out in Detroit, ignited by a string of skirmishes between black and white teenagers and fueled by false rumors that whites had thrown a black woman and her baby off the Belle Isle bridge. On the other side, competing rumors circulated that black men had raped and murdered a white woman. The violence ended three days later, with 25 black people and nine white people dead.

Most of the 1,182 rioters were black, and most of that number who died were killed by police or National Guardsmen. When the chaos finally ended, Michigan governor Harry F. Kelly formed a commission to uncover the truth behind what happened: Who were these black rioters, he wanted to know, and what were their motivations?

That the governor felt this was necessary at all illustrates how differently Americans thought about rioting back then.

"Until the 1943 uprising in Detroit, most riots in the United States, from the 1863 draft riots in New York to the riots in Tulsa in 1921, to Atlanta in 1906 to Washington, D.C. ... among others, had been white attacks on colored people, often resulting in the burning of entire colored sections or towns," writes journalist and historian Isabel Wilkerson in The Warmth of Other Suns.

Protester march in Milwaukee.Darren Hauck/Getty Images

Riots, plainly put, were acts of racial terrorism — white people descending on black communities to brutalize, plunder and destroy them.

There was nothing mysterious about what motivated them, either. They were extrajudicial extensions of what white Americans had been doing to black Americans, in various forms, legally and illegally, since slavery: keeping them in their place through violence. Anything less would be "intolerable."

But Detroit was the exception and, in its immediate aftermath, a conundrum. White people couldn't grasp how or why things had escalated so quickly.

"This was the first major riot in which blacks fought back as earnestly as the whites," Wilkerson explains. "It was only after Detroit that riots became known primarily as urban phenomena, ultimately centered on inner-city blacks venting their frustrations on the ghettos that confined them."

Protester march in Milwaukee.Darren Hauck/Getty Images

So when the results of Governor Kelly's fact-finding commission came in after the Detroit uprising, they were predictably — and almost universally — damning. The rioters were violent "hoodlums," the commission members claimed — mostly young, unemployed, uneducated, "feeble-minded" and, notably, Southern. This was not a surprise, coming in the midst of the Great Migration, when waves of black "outsiders" were fleeing the South for factory jobs in the Midwest and East Coast. The shift made Southern migrants convenient scapegoats.

Few commission members disputed the characterization of black rioters as "hoodlums" — but one who did was C.F. Ramsay, the acting supervisor of the Michigan Bureau of Child Welfare. Unlike most of the researchers, Ramsay based his findings on actual interviews with the people who had been arrested, rather than just the police reports.

What he found was, according to scholars, "politically explosive": The rioters were overwhelmingly normal, everyday people — longtime Detroit residents and grown adults with jobs, families, no criminal record to speak of and expressed value systems that placed a premium on respecting authority.

"Ramsay concluded that the rioters were frustrated everyday residents," researchers Dominic Capeci and Martha Wilkerson wrote in the Michigan Historical Review in 1990.

A resident addresses police in Milwaukee, 2016.Jeffrey Phelps/AP

Why is this relevant? Because it shows you don't have to be a "thug," a "terrorist" or some other kind of "criminal" to participate in the kind of rioting we see in Milwaukee. All it takes is a steady flow of concentrated inequality to send the average person over the edge. Milwaukee, and Wisconsin more generally, has that inequality in spades.

According NPR, four out of five black children in Wisconsin live in poverty. The state has the nation's highest achievement gap between black and white students, and incarcerates black men at a higher rate than any other state in the country. In Milwaukee County, over half of all black men in their 30s and 40s have served time in jail or prison. Milwaukee itself — which houses the state's largest black population — has the dubious distinction of being the most racially segregated city in the nation.

"The unheard" are who riot in America, Martin Luther King Jr. said in 1966. And when they do, remarkably, they often get results: After the Ferguson uprising, a Department of Justice investigation was launched that found the police department there was engaged in a pattern of racist law enforcement. Similar practices were uncovered in Baltimore — just over one year after the April 2015 riots sparked a DOJ investigation into police practices there.

As a last resort, rioting has not just become a near-inevitable response to entrenched racial inequality — it is the only response that seems to consistently force those in power into action. But at it's most basic level, it's about having a voice.

"This is what you get," Sedan Smith, a young Milwaukeean who has since been identified as Sylville Smith's brother, told WDJT Saturday. "You get a lot of people that's hurt. And they can't vent the right way. They can no longer depend on the police to be there to protect us, like they say they going to do ...  And no, It's not going to end today. I can't say it's going to end tomorrow. I don't know when it's going to end."