Who’s Trashing Downtown Every Night and Why?

The corporate media and corporate politicians are paralyzed with indecision.  Which fake myth do we adhere to?  “Black people burning down their own neighborhoods” or “outside agitators”?  What if it’s both, and more…?

Media coverage of the past few days and nights of the multiracial uprising that is currently taking place in various forms in cities small and large across the United States has been confused and misleading, as usual.  Media coverage of such events is usually either confusing, misleading, or both, because of the influence of the media owners, and because of the implicit biases, insufficient resources, and/or ignorance of the journalists who work for them.  So, it begs for a bit of helpful clarification.

But, first of all, they keep saying these are the biggest urban disturbances in the US since 1968.  This sounds huge, and while it’s certainly impressive, the basic phenomenon taking place, and the various dynamics within it, are not new, not unprecedented, and, in fact, are very commonplace.

Most people, from my experience, never go to protests.  Among those who do go to protests, many people only go to one big one in their lives, if any.  At pretty much every big protest I’ve ever been to, which is a lot, I’m surrounded by people of all ages who tell me and others around them that they are attending their first protest.  Whatever got them out — a racist police murder, a massacre, an imperialist war, a massive bank bailout — they say they just had to come out this time, even though they never went to a protest before.  The hardcore protest-hopping crowd like me is a very select group, for a lot of different reasons.  We are not representative.

As a consequence, at every protest I have been to, there are participants who are under the impression that the tactics the protesters are employing were just invented yesterday, and that the militarization of the police is a new phenomenon.  In Ferguson in 2014 I remember hearing many local people of all ages saying things that made it abundantly clear that they thought large groups of riot police rioting in their town and making use of tear gas, stun grenades, and tank-like vehicles was something that had not been seen since the Civil Rights movement in the 1960’s.  They were under that impression simply because that was the last time anyone remembered tanks on the streets in Ferguson, and for many older people in town, that was also the last time they attended a large protest.

Before I start contextualizing the current situation, let me say that although me and many other radicals did certainly predict most everything that is currently taking place, I have no idea where this is going.  Predictions made by people like me are usually wrong.  If they’re right, it’s because they were obvious — everyone knows powder kegs eventually explode, but nobody really ever knows exactly when this might happen, or what will be the spark.  But the keg is now burning.  It may have started with one spark, but the lynching of George Floyd, although horrific, is only symbolic of what this is all about.  Justice in this situation most certainly does not begin or end with the sentencing of all four of those cops with murder.  They’re certainly guilty, but there’s a lot more of that to go around, at far higher levels of authority than the local cops, fascist as they may be.  (To anyone who was not literally born yesterday, living in the US today, who is aware of who the president is, this is a very obvious statement.)

The main question I want to focus on here is a burning question in the minds of the corporate media and for many regular people from all walks of life across the country — who is smashing, looting and burning buildings, torching police cars, and throwing projectiles at the riot cops all over this country?

The “Peaceful Protesters” Myth

It is probably the case that the vast majority of the people assembling during the day and during the evening to hold protest rallies against the tendency of the police in the US to lynch black people on a regular basis are not the same people who are engaging in some of the other aforementioned activities.  But it would be very wrong to put them all in this fake “peaceful protester” box.

What the media calls “peaceful protesters” are people who stand around in a public space with signs and make speeches.  They can be angry speeches, that’s OK.  This is what they call “peaceful protest.”  If they don’t have a permit, it might not be “peaceful” anymore, in the media’s eyes.  If the police attack peaceful protesters and a single person from within the ranks of the protesters responds in any way that can be construed as violent — such as if someone raises their hand to attempt to block a billy club that’s about to come down on their face — this will be labeled a “clash,” such as, “there are now clashes taking place between the police and the protesters.”

When people occupy an intersection and stop traffic, or block the entrance of a building, this is what people from within social movements generally refer to as civil disobedience, or direct action.  It is considered by anyone involved with a social movement anywhere to be solidly within the “nonviolent” category, and it is often referred to by its full name, “nonviolent civil disobedience.”  People like Gandhi and MLK popularized these sorts of tactics, which were pioneered long before, by other social movements that were also led by oppressed people, such as the labor movement, very much including the multiracial movements of tenant farmers and sharecroppers in the early part of the twentieth century.

The corporate media, however, will often start referring to protests as “violent” as soon as any law is being broken, such as traffic laws, when an intersection, highway, or building entrance is blocked.  This use of the term “violent” is very confusing for many, because it’s patently inaccurate, when people learn enough to understand what the reporters actually mean — if they are allowed to get to that point, which is generally not the case.  If people are looking to the media to understand what’s happening around them, this is very unhelpful.  One of many very unhelpful aspects of their coverage.

The “Black People Are Burning Down Their Own Neighborhood” Myth

As soon as a police murder or the acquittal of a killer cop lead to anyone setting fire to a building, the media will tend to shift into a different gear, where they start focusing on the popular response to the racist, elitist system, rather than on the problems that led to the response.  This happens, again, partly because this is what the corporate propagandists who own most of what remains of the press want to focus on, not just because it’s sensationalist and keeps eyes glued to the screen, but because it is consistent with their perspective, and that of most of their reporters, who were generally raised in totally different circumstances from most of the folks currently burning stuff down.

Thus, for different reasons, but amounting to the same effect, the media will talk about people burning down “their own” neighborhoods.  It’s unfashionable these days to refer to them as “animals,” which was a common refrain during the national uprising in 1991 that the media refers to as the “LA riots.”  Trump prefers the racially loaded term, “thugs,” which is just a slightly updated version of “animals.”

No rent-burdened renter who has been evicted multiple times, which is the case for millions and millions of people in the US, feels like the neighborhoods they live in are “their own” neighborhoods.  Most working class people in urban America are struggling to stay in “their own” neighborhoods.  They are constantly being evicted and driven out of “their own” neighborhoods.  Yuppies flip houses and sell them at impossible prices, and “their own” neighborhoods become quickly unrecognizable and unaffordable.  There is a massive rate of displacement and what can accurately be described as ethnic cleansing taking place in cities throughout this country, that has been going on for centuries now.  It has only been interrupted for periods of time through strong rent control legislation, which used to exist in states like New York and Massachusetts.  But multi-generational, real communities are fewer and farther between, because of the fact that housing is an investment for capitalists in this country, not a right, not at all.

So no one is burning down “their own” neighborhood.  To the extent that local people are involved with these activities — which lots of them are, let’s be very clear about that, and this is nothing new, not at all — the neighborhoods they are burning down are not their own.  They are owned by people that often feel like invaders.  However, these invaders may be “mom and pop” business owners, or “mom and pop” landlords.  The media will refer to any business as a “small business” if it’s not a big corporation.  But someone running a restaurant that serves food that many people in a given neighborhood can’t afford to eat, while easily fitting the media’s description as a “mom and pop” small business, is not often seen by local people as part of “their community” or as particularly distinguishable from a chain store like Target.  Either the “mom and pop” establishment in this instance, or the chain store, will have the same impact, of raising the cost of housing in the now more “desirable” neighborhood.

The “Outside Agitators” Myth

Traditionally, when there is a major protest that involves some forms of civil disobedience or other forms of direct action, so that business as usual is sufficiently interrupted to the point where the protests can’t be ignored, the media will adopt one of two tropes.  If it’s not people “burning down their own neighborhood,” then it’s some kind of “outside agitators” who did it.

The “outside agitator” is generally someone like me, who cares about society, and other people in it, so much that they want to leave their own homes and even their own home towns or states or countries, to go to another place to practice what is known as solidarity or mutual aid, depending on the situation.  It’s easier for the media to blame “outside agitators” when there’s a national or international meeting of the elite taking place, say a G8 or G20 meeting, and tens of thousands of people show up to protest against or try to shut down those meetings.  This scenario has been played out many times in the US, Canada, and many other countries, and I’ve personally been to many such events throughout the world since I’m more or less an outside agitator by profession.

From my experience, even at a big international event in Washington, DC or New York City, most of the people involved with the protests will be from the local area.  They may not be from the actual city the protest is taking place in, but most of them will be from a nearby state.  Locals, by a broader definition than the media likes to use.  So when they say that 20% of those arrested in Minneapolis were not from Minnesota, they don’t mention that of those 20%, the vast majority were from the state of Wisconsin, a short drive away.  (I don’t know this to be true, I’m just guessing based on past experience.)  Of course, if they came from further afield than Wisconsin to show solidarity with people in Minneapolis, this still does not make them bad people.

One of the wonderfully confusing things going on right now with media coverage and the reactions to events by politicians trying to spin the picture the way they want us to see it is they can’t decide on which false trope to fall back on here.  Is it people burning down their own neighborhoods, or are these outside agitators?  Obviously, it’s both — and so much more.

The outside agitator theory also becomes very hard to maintain in this situation, because they are everywhere at the same time.  Traditionally, outside agitators have to come from outside.  By outside, usually they’re talking about select groups of highly committed young anarchists going from supposed anarchist hubs like Seattle, San Francisco and New York City, to places where big, pre-planned events are taking place, such as the G20 meetings in Pittsburgh in 2009 or the Free Trade Area of the Americas talks in Miami in 2003, to name a couple random examples.  In the face of protests happening in every major city at the same time, the “outside agitators” now must have come from a nearby suburb, which doesn’t seem all that “outside” to me.

The fact is, the city of Minneapolis has thousands of people in it who probably identify explicitly as anarchists.  There are many other cities in the US that have a high concentration of radicals.  Minneapolis has been one of them for a very long time.  The radical tradition in Minneapolis is a multiracial one, like this uprising, and includes prominent people from every major ethnic background, very much including white, black, brown, Asian and indigenous resistance in many forms.

Within the ranks of all of these communities, and within the ranks of radicals within all of these communities, there are many different opinions on effective strategies.  While many people understand how folks might not differentiate between burning down a locally-owned upscale restaurant and a big chain corporate store, many would be critical of burning down anything, ever.  And those who think burning down buildings is a good tactic might distinguish between these two targets, intellectually.  Where radicals of all backgrounds tend to unite is around the understanding that oppressed people will tend to rise up, and those uprisings will tend to be messy, especially in the absence of a radical labor tradition, and in the absence of any kind of viable third party option to the two capitalist, imperialist ruling parties who are largely responsible for the terrible disparities in society in the first place.

The “You’re Just Being Paranoid” Myth

In their efforts to confuse people and manage the situation from their corporate elite vantage points, the stenographers of CNN and NPR will rarely mention that local, state and federal police forces have a long and terrible history of infiltrating, undercutting, planting evidence, sowing division and otherwise destroying social movements in any way possible, including killing activists and then blaming others for the killings.  Dozens of leaders of the Black Panther Party and the American Indian Movement were systematically killed by the authorities at various levels of power, and no one has ever been brought to justice for these many crimes against these immensely popular organizations.  If you familiarize yourself with the public record on the FBI’s Counterintelligence Program or Cointelpro — which has never ended, to be sure — you will find they have committed every crime imaginable, both very overt and extremely underhanded, to cause movements to implode or explode, depending on what works best.

So, are FBI agents and undercover cops among those who are attacking the police and burning down buildings across this country?  While we may not yet have any concrete proof of this, we can assume, based on massive amounts of concrete proof of past activities of these so-called law enforcement agencies, that their agents are involved with many of the most egregious cases of small or ethnically-owned businesses being burned down.  This has been their modus operandi for a very long time in order to sow division.  You would have to be completely ignorant of recent history to think it’s not happening now.  Yet on the off-chance anyone might suggest on a mainstream media outlet that this sort of thing is probably happening, they would likely be lampooned as a conspiracy theorist.

Currently, it appears right-wing actors who may or may not also be cops are trying to start a “race war” by targeting certain buildings for arson attacks and by firing into crowds of protesters.  This adds another level of complexity to the situation, obviously.

Collateral Damage

In a war, many innocent lives are lost.  If you have ever known a person who participated in a war that they even thought was completely just, you will find just one more person who is traumatized by the things they have seen, and the innocents who have died in the course of the conflict they participated in.  If you meet someone who participated in a war that they realized at the time, or later, was unjust, this trauma will tend to be even more intense.

In an uprising like what is currently taking place, this is no different.  When you set about to burn down a police station, this is a difficult task that involves many challenges.  Without going into all the details, suffice it to say that if you’re burning down a building, neighboring buildings might also catch fire, whether you wanted them to or not.  If the fire department were assisting the arsonists, as with a controlled burn of a forest or building, to make sure nearby trees or houses didn’t catch fire, it would be different, but that’s not the situation here.  If it were the military accidentally bombing the wrong house, or a hospital, or a wedding party, as the US military has so often done in recent years in so many parts of the world, they’d just say oops, it was collateral damage.  But if a small business gets torched by accident, or on purpose, by people in the course of an urban rebellion, then it’s a different story you’ll hear from the media and others that these wackos are burning down very nice nonprofit centers that no sensible person would want to harm.  The collateral damage angle, though obvious from a logistical standpoint, will rarely be mentioned — as rarely as the possibility that a particularly destructive action might have been carried out by an FBI agent posing as a protester, despite the abundant evidence of this kind of systematic behavior over the course of past decades.

In Conclusion

Rebellions, uprisings, and revolutions have some things in common, regardless of the outcome:  they are messy, they are dirty, they smell bad, people get hurt, people get killed, buildings get burned, and a lot of innocent people suffer.  They don’t happen unless conditions were completely untenable to begin with.  And as they grow, for some there are rays of hope amidst the flames.

David Rovics is a songwriter, podcaster, and part of Portland Emergency Eviction Response. Go to artistsforrentcontrol.org to sign up to receive text notifications, so you can be part of this effort. Another Portland is possible. Read other articles by David, or visit David's website.