A picture of a young person on a BMX bike, April 27, 2015, his arms filled with looted cereal boxes. The caption on the original Instagram snap is mostly redacted. What remains reads “Baltimore shit” and “hate yall.” The person who has reposted this picture on Twitter wonders “Why would you take cereal” and attaches a series of emoticons indicating mortal disbelief. It seems like a good question. Why not take something more valuable, perhaps remarketable? Or why not something that expressed the riot’s state of exception, its curfewless joy — something like the tubs of ice cream some friends of mine wound up with in Hackney, summer 2011? The sense here is that an error has been made.
This sense corresponds to the axiomatic position of state, media, and the respectability politics that keeps state and media always in mind. Looting is not just a crime but an error, a tactical or moral failing. It is the act that delegitimates what might otherwise conjure some sympathy from the nebulous public and indeed the political class: the spasm of outrage erupting from an immiserated people. If only their refusal took a more properly political form instead of just jacking shit! Why, that’s just shopping on steroids, just — we are informed by self-serious theorists — capitalism’s ideology saying its own name through these benighted individuals greedily grabbing at goods the moment the opportunity affords. And, as our observer notes, not paternalistically but with wry puzzlement, paltry goods at that. Breakfast cereal.
This is a moment of levity, not the only one, in The 2015 Baltimore Uprising: A Teen Epistolary. It is the first great book to come from the last great riot in the United States. It has a simple concept: it gathers together tweets related to the rebellion that followed on the police murder of Freddie Gray on April 12th of last year, his spine severed while being given a rough ride in the back of paddy wagon, shackled and alone, the vehicle careening intentionally off course through Baltimore neighborhoods that would burn in the weeks to follow. Coma, and then death on April 19th, which is when the first tweet is dated: “Screaming Fuck The Police #Justice4Freddie.” Increasingly angry protests would yield to open riot on the 25th, a year ago today.
The collection begins with disbelief; a historical quiver over the fact that a phenomenon known from television — riots following the murder of a black person and the ensuing impunity for the killers, usually cops — had now come home. It is hard to compass the actuality of events and their scale, even if they are inevitable: “When shit happened in ferguson, we ALL said this would happen if it came here. Still seems so surreal,” someone tweets. The surreality, I might suggest, arises from the chasm between the political pacification of the United States over the last decades — of which the willing subjugation of soi-disant communists to the parliamentary process is only the most current expression — and the actuality of dispossessed and immiserated people standing up to armed officers in city after city. There is a sense of an opening, even if it is catastrophe that has allowed for it.
The collection captures, among other things, the strange euphoria of riot that can capture its partisans. A riot was once known as an “emotion,” still lingering in the French word émeute. It is a surplus emotion. In the first instance it is simply the surplus of participants; its significance is disclosed when the cops make their first retreat. Following the inevitable precursor of broken glass, this is the moment when the riot becomes fully itself, slides loose from the grim continuity of daily life. The ceaseless social regulation that had seemed ideological and ambient and abstract is in this moment of surplus disclosed as a practical matter, open to social contest. This feeling runs through the amateur reportage like a ripple of pleasure.
No doubt some fraction of Verso blog habitués will be delighted by the apparition of a teacher at a public high school in North Baltimore. A bearded gentleman, he was, to the delight of his students, captured by news cameras in flagrante. “Mr. Bleich was helping destroy one of the cars. I just saw him on the news,” goes one report. “Straight communist savage.” This is a title to which I aspire. But such actors, the book makes clear, are not at the center of the action in this city whose official rate of unemployment for black males 20–24 stood at 37%. The mayor floated the word “thugs” before shortly withdrawing that proffer. She blamed a small group of agitators, as mayors do. It was in truth a rather large group. There were burnings and barricades, marches and sprints, lootings in a haze of tear gas, in widely distributed areas of the city. There was a great deal of organic organization, contra the widely held fantasy of riots as pure disorder — a fantasy that bewitches both conservatives and socialists, the parties of order right and left. Some of the coordination made possible direct confrontations with the police. Students threw bricks at the cops, driving them into retreat on more than one occasion. The 1st Battalion from Maryland Army National Guard’s 175th Infantry Regiment duly arrived on April 28th to support the cops and defend vital infrastructure. That’s when you know things are really cooking, when you get to use the phrase “vital infrastructure.” But its also where the riot comes up against limits that are for the moment insuperable. The book ends along with the main action, on the 29th; the final entry reads, “The riots ain’t over.” If we can be certain of nothing else, we can be certain of this.
But why are they not over? Why is the contemporary made in part from the fact their names are on everybody’s lips? Baltimore, Ferguson, Oakland, Tottenham, Clichy-Sous-Bois, and on and on, and this is just in the old capitalist core over the last few years. To answer these questions we would need to know what a riot is. This is a peculiarly confused issue. The great majority of opinions, even sympathetic, tend to identify the riot with direct violence involving people or property. In this they track the legal definition, long based on “tumult” and disturbance of the public peace. As is generally the case in instances when the received understanding of a social phenomenon aligns with state thought, there are good reasons to be skeptical. The most obvious is simply the voluminous record of violence associated with the riot’s other, the strike. Contemporary ideologies of strike, especially in the west, have come to associate it with a kind of ascetic refusal: downing of tools, walking the picket line, accompanying moral claim. This hardly accounts for the Coal Field Strikes of 1913–1914, which at some point became the Colorado Coalfield War and then the Ludlow Massacre; neither has it much to say about the textile strikes in Lyon, France in the 1830s that featured not just barricades but guerrilla fighting. These are the most minimal of examples; there are millions of others. The presence of violence will not much do to resolve the question of the riot.
But its relation to the strike will. While risings of the poor date to the invention of poor people, the riot does not really take on any consistency until the long antechamber of the capitalist epoch. Daily life is being transformed into market society, or market society is being transformed into the daily life of capital. The capacity for subsistence outside the market is broken by force; an increasing portion of the population must survive through acquisition of consumer goods. It is this act in particular, the compulsory purchase, that is the object of riot. Or one of them. As market society comes into being in England, for example, so does the national and international market. So then does the lure for merchants to transport staples out of the county seeking a higher price, even — especially — in times of famine. This is the other central object of riot, almost without fail, from the 14th century to the beginning of the 19th. Often it involves the blockading of shipments, and the seizure and public disbursement of grain. This form, the export riot, is even more common than the famous bread riot, wherein the baker would be compelled to lower his prices at peril of having his shop smashed and goods seized.
Both of these riots might involve workers — but they do not appear in their capacity as workers. They appear as people struggling for survival through the market (this is one of the reasons that these riots were so often led by women, charged with practical work of marketing, of managing the family’s reproduction). And it is here that we can start to formulate a basic definition of both riot and strike, suggested in E.P. Thompson’s epochal essay on “The Moral Economy of the English Crowd in the Eighteenth Century.” Riots are struggles over the price of market goods, strikes are struggles over the price of labor power. Both class struggles, but for different moments in the long trajectory of accumulation. In the great interlocking schema of capital, riots are fights for survival in the space of circulation, which includes consumption and exchange; strikes are production struggles.
This allows us to tell a story across centuries and regions. The repertoire of collective action is led by strikes where and when production dominates, industrial capital in particular. The repertoire is led by riots when circulation has the upper hand, before or after industrial revolutions — as in the mercantile economies which precede industrial expansion, and the eras of finance capital regnant when industry contracts. The earliest export riots in England, it cannot be surprising to learn, involved the forcible off-loading of grain from boats scheduled for France during the first financial crisis of the nascent world-system. These make a noticeable off-rhyme with the great 2011 port blockade of Oakland, 25,000 people strong and all too brief. But far more common in the early modern era was the obstruction of a road against the grain wagon headed elsewhere. It is hard not to see this in the pictures of blocked thoroughfares across the nation, the magical consensus for action after Michael Brown’s murderer was not indicted in the fall of 2014.
All of which is to say that it should not be much of a mystery why the age of riots has returned. On the one hand, capital has shifted many of its own profit-seeking schemes to circulation as industrial production has waned. On the other, in a graceful dialectical pas de deux, population has shifted as well into the spaces beyond classical production — either finding employment in the great expansion of service and informatic labor, or finding themselves surplus population more broadly, compelled to survive in the pitiless market via petty production and informal labor. We live in a time of circulation struggles. No wonder capital and its antagonists rediscover their unquenchable antagonism there. This is the riot, the circulation struggle par excellence.
We might now return to our comical figure with his boxes of cereal. Far from an exception, an error, a failing — he is historical truth on a bicycle. Looting, it is worth recalling, is a kind of price-setting too. It proposes the price of zero. And price-setting is what the riot always was. The seizure of grains by people who cannot otherwise survive in the market onto which they have been pitched against their will — everything descends from this. If you’re not looting, you are doing it wrong.
But for all the clarity of this historical continuity, it cannot deliver us from the particularities of the present. The most obvious difference between the pre- and postmodern circulation struggles is the contemporary primacy of the “race riot.” That term too easily forgets the great inversion that occurs sometime after the world wars. From the nineteenth century on, the racialized riots of the United States featured white mobs attacking not just African-American but famously Asian and Latin American groups — events among which the Zoot Suit Riots are only the best-known example. It’s not until the ‘60s that the phrase fastens its current meaning. There is something bizarre and perhaps obscene in the extent to which the political memory of “the sixties” is in the US dominated by the free speech and antiwar movements. This is not to diminish such projects, but rather to underscore the historical forgetting of the great rebellions of Watts, Newark, Detroit, Chicago, and hundreds of other uprisings. Almost 160 in 1967 alone, black America’s 1968. And these are in turn inseparable from the forces that drove black exclusion, the political economy of social death: automation, weakening profits, and the Last Hired/First Fired policies that ejected vast numbers of African-Americans from the urban industrial jobs which had drawn them during the great migrations.
This is the underlying surplus on which riots rest: a racialized surplus population, unable to be absorbed into the circuits of production. The management of this population looks like ghettoization, hyperincarceration, increasingly brutal policing — “the state-sanctioned or extralegal production and exploitation of group-differentiated vulnerability to premature death,” in Ruth Wilson Gilmore’s practical definition of racism. Such practice drives pitilessly toward the incendiary events from which the flames of riots seem to burst. And in this regard, the circulation struggle and the race riot are one. Among other things this provides an eloquent demonstration of Stuart Hall’s great dictum, “race is the modality in which class is lived.”
This is not the only way to think the particularity of the present, the way that riot has returned with a difference. The world of 1700 is not the one we now inhabit. The fundamental changes are manifold, down to the structure of states and economies as such. The economy was once near, with most subsistence goods produced nearby. Conversely the state was far, so to speak; modern policing did not exist. Now the situation is reversed. Everything is produced elsewhere; there’s a cop around every corner. The idea that one could make one’s way via the sacking of the shopping district is absurd on the face of it; you might get subsistence goods for a week, two, a month, and then what? The cereal bearer in this way captures both sides of the matter: the truth of the riot, and its limit.
But as with all such dialectical reversals, there is another reversal in store. The limit of the riot bears the riot’s potentialities within it. Survival, reproduction of the immiserated classes can no longer be obtained in the market — can longer even be imagined there. It is this that our anonymous tweeter knows. And it is because of this desperate situation that we can imagine circulation struggles breaking their attachment to the market, turning toward struggles over reproduction beyond wage and price. It is here we encounter the figure of the commune, the tactic which is also a form of life: social reproduction beyond wage and market both. That is the dream that the riot dreams. Not violence, tumult, the war on property, temporary power over the market — those aspects that panic the bourgeoisie right and left in their city halls and Brooklyn brownstones. But to break free from these, to escape the schema of production and circulation altogether. This course passes through the riot; it can do no other. The Baltimore Commune, let’s say: to look back at the riots is to peer forward toward such a thing, to advance on that showdown.