I was reading a real estate blog, when I noticed a story about a community garden. The garden had been planted on a lot that had been empty for 25 years. The lot started out 1992 occupied by a structure, which was destroyed by arson during the civil unrest that followed the Rodney King verdict. The blog described the structure as having been destroyed in the 1992 Uprising. This is a term that I keep hearing more and more. When the riots happened, they were called riots.
If you believe that words have whatever meaning we want to give them, then there’s no controversy over this issue. People can use any word to describe any thing, up can be down, left can be right. But if you believe words have a shared meaning that is not up to any one person’s interpretation, then you might be interested in which word fits this situation more. Merriam Webster defines uprising as “an act or instance of rising up; especially: a usually localized act of popular violence in defiance usually of an established government.” It defines a riot as “public violence, tumult, or disorder.”
Changing the description of something is often a political act rather than a descriptive act. We may sympathize with the racial grievances of some of the rioters. Some people may agree that the Rodney King jury got it wrong. But we all know, since childhood, that two wrongs don’t make a right. Legitimate racial grievances can’t be resolved through violence. They can’t be resolved through arson, like the one described in the article. They certainly can’t be resolved by looting, which only victimizes the rioter’s own community.
I can’t help think about what happened to Reginald Denny, who was pulled from his car, beaten, robbed and hit with a brick. The man who did it, Damian Williams, was a gang member. The other men involved in the attack were a convicted robber and two drug addicts. Damian Williams would be convicted, released from prison early, and then go on to murder a man.
Uprisings are more noble than riots. Some black journalists have described an uprising as “a group of people saying ‘enough is enough.'” Uprising includes definitions that describe its purpose as overthrow of the political order. Liberal opposition to President Trump is often described that way. The use of the word uprising to describe noble behavior is the reason that it is being applied to the riots. It reflects a retroactive attempt to burnish the image of the rioters from thugs to tragically failed revolutionaries. Hijacking the facts to fit a political theory is dishonest, especially when the facts include death and destruction.
It makes me especially angry to think that we might be turning these rioters into heroes in some kind of anti-racist class struggle. That could not be further from the truth. You can’t fight racism by committing crimes. Indeed, many racists probably saw confirmation of their racists views during the riots. American history is full of examples of successful non-violent movements against racism. Non-violent protesters are heroes. The people that attacked Reginald Denny and burned down all those buildings are villians in this story. As time passes, we shouldn’t forget that.
Six people died from arson during the riots, out of 53 total deaths. The article I read does not say whether this community garden was built where one of those people died. But those people who view the riots as an understandable or even justified response to racism, should read this list, containing a short accounting of each of those deaths. The riots were nothing more that the sum of each of these crimes. We do a disservice to these victims when we try to polish or politicize that fact away.