The Street and the Rift
An excerpt from Riot. Strike. Riot: The New Era of Uprisings by Joshua Clover.
The logic of circulation struggles has seen no more spectacular instance than that of November 24–25, 2014, when riot spread to city after city from a suburb of St. Louis, following a moment of intolerable violence, of the fatal management of racialized populations, beginning in the way riots begin in the age of riot prime, not out of nowhere but out of everywhere. The place of this riot is the street, the street where Michael Brown was murdered, the street where people gathered to await the news that his killer would not be indicted, the street where people met up afterward. The street where anti-police violence cleared space for the looting of commercial venues, and allowed for evasions toward other targets. And eventually the freeways, on a continental scale, shutting down junction after spur throughout the Interstate Highway System, the built landscape of circulation, once the largest public works project known to history. And yet this should not be reduced to spectacle, to representation. The blocking of traffic, the interruption of circulation as an immediate and concrete project, registered nothing so much as the unquenchable desire to make it all stop. The freeways and thoroughfares were the closest matter to hand of it all, of the antihuman totalization and thingification of the world. The matching scenes from around the nation convey an uncanny sense of coordination, of organization without an organization.
The riots would be driven to national expansion not just by the impunity of the police officer but by a series of intervening killings across the country, cop on person, links on an endless chain. Even more remarkable and more suggestive than these riots’ spatial leap, however, is their initial duration. It is in this that the true novelty of Ferguson lies.
After Michael Brown was shot to death by Darren Wilson, the local riots began almost immediately and lasted for more than two weeks. The measuring of riot is an inexact science; nonetheless, this sequence would seem to have outlasted any of the similar cases already discussed, from Detroit, Newark, and Chicago through to the present. Anyone who has been to Ferguson will recognize how extraordinary is this fact. A small incorporated city just north of St. Louis, its population is about 20,000, down from a peak of 30,000 around 1970 before deindustrialization had its way. There is not a fortnight’s worth of things to burn. There is no plaza to be occupied, but the complicity between street and square persists. On the commercial strip of West Florissant Avenue, epicenter of the riots, people burned down the QuikTrip market and used the lot as their plaza until it was sealed off by the state.
The racial transformation of the city has been striking even as it has followed an increasingly common course, going from about three-quarters white and one-quarter black in 1990 to nearly the inverse by 2010. The traditional U.S. structure of white flight that once rendered inner cities holding areas for surplus population has mutated to resemble the European and global model of banlieues and bidonvilles that gather surplus populations in rings around cities.
Phil A. Neel offers a clear account of how these demographic shifts and the geography of the attenuated landscape provide the terms for the “suburban riot,” whose locus classicus is in the decentralized and demandless uprising of Los Angeles in 1992.4 Neel locates an additional coordinate toward explaining the difficulty of containing the riot: the absence of a mediating class of black leaders dedicated to order in the name of community. This is a telling expression of what is in truth a much larger structural shift.
It is a nearly universal convention of riot prime, of the rebellion, the uprising, that shortly after it bursts forth and experiences a victory either substantial or apparent, it divides into two impulses. These are sometimes openly antagonistic, sometimes overlapping and colluding. The first impulse is toward a kind of populism, an attempt to swell the ranks by mobilizing public sympathies, using to its advantage media coverage and other discursive apparatuses. It is drawn ineluctably toward some version of respectability politics and generally toward the moral suasion of passive civil disobedience and nonviolence in general. It intends to develop a political force, sway opinion, win concessions. Eventually it will be drawn without fail into the electoral arena, subordinated as plank or caucus of party politics. If this political fraction is early on called upon to justify the disorder of riot, it takes up the affirmation of Martin Luther King Jr. that “a riot is the language of the unheard.” This has an immediate appeal; it would be difficult not to hear in any uprising the wail of the immiserated. And yet it presents an underexamined symptomology, presupposing that the inchoate cry of riot must in truth have some as yet undeciphered meaning beyond itself, and moreover that this meaning-making is its primary aspect—those other unfortunate aspects one sees on the news are disavowed in the universal humanist appeal to recognize the suffering of the other and even forgive the excesses in its expression. Within this understanding, even the demandless riot is transcoded into being itself a demand, something that could be satisfied by the current order if it could just be understood. Negotiation becomes a transhistorical truth.
The second impulse finds in the riot something beyond or before communication. It turns less toward a polity than toward practicalities, turns toward the material in both low and high senses. These practicalities might include looting, controlling space, eroding the power of the police, rendering an area unwelcoming to intruders, and destroying property understood to constitute the rioters’ exclusion from the world they see always before them and which they may not enter.
This division is as old as riot itself and is not clean- edged. There are practical aspects to discursive acts, and conversely the broken window or burned shop is inevitably a kind of communication. Nonetheless the rift is evident, socially lived by participants, and repeated largely without fail. This would also prove the case in Ferguson, where each night of the riots would feature both peaceful marches that largely followed police prescriptions, and less orderly actions that included arson and firing on police officers. While the factions worked in collaboration during the first few days, or perhaps had not yet fully formed, they came to be increasingly at odds, particularly after a large number of national clergy arrived in Ferguson to amplify what they took to be the lessons of Dr. King.
But it is here that a historical shift lurches into view, one of primary importance. Since the Civil Rights movement (and before it the “first generation” of the feminist movement), the side of legal frameworks, moral suasion, and respectability politics has effectively hegemonized the debate fairly swiftly after each uprising. This has been the case in no small part because said approach could offer real, if limited, gains. Such outcomes no longer seem plausible. The success of the discursive strategy was premised upon a certain degree of social wealth, taut labor markets, a continuity of profit worth preserving even if it meant relative sacrifices for capital.
One could perhaps imagine demands in the present that would, if met, alter in substance the circumstances of the excluded. But the swelling ranks of the excluded is the same fact as the inability to meet such demands—the two faces of crisis. Just as the U.S. can no longer deliver accumulation at a global level, and thus must order the world-system by coercion rather than consent, the state can no longer provide the kinds of concessions won by the Civil Rights movement, can no longer purchase the social peace. It is all sticks and no carrots. The Baltimore riots following the murder of Freddie Gray in 2015, whose duration and intensity would be met by the National Guard and a nine-day state of emergency, only affirm this situation.
Because of this, the rift can no longer be so easily closed. The prolongation of the riots and of their fury is doubtless a measure of social pressures building around racialized policing and around the immanent violence applied to the management of surplus populations in general. It is also a measure of the fading appeal of moderation and optimistic compliance. This approach still retains some charisma, as the ongoing institutionalization of the Ferguson and Baltimore uprisings within the containment of Non-Governmental Organizations attests. At the same time, the argument that the bottomless violence and subordination is structural, and cannot be resolved either practically or theoretically through redistributive participation, grows ever harder to refute.
Barring unforeseeable changes in underlying social organization, the rift will grow wider and stay open longer. This is how the drive toward absolutization appears at a practical level. If we understand each like instance as a rift of increasing duration, the number of rifts open at any given time will increase as well. It is foreseeable that a cascading series of them—initially but not exclusively oriented by racialized struggles—will succeed in preserving their own existences while drawing forth other struggles to take their main chance against a spreading disorder, a disorder that now seems to belong not to riot but to the state, to what had previously been itself a violent order. Against this great disorder, a necessary self-organization, survival in a different key. One need not think this likely to think it more likely than a renewed socialist program, even one given new trappings for a purportedly new economy.
4 Phil A. Neel, “New Ghettos Burning,” August 17, 2014, ultra- com.org.