Merion West

Understanding the Mind of a Rioter

(Emma Lee/WHYY)

This tendency to equate nuanced thinking and nonviolence with a lack of political conviction is typical of radicals.”

We often hear about peaceful protests erupting into violence, the implication being that rioters act on impulse or in response to unforeseen circumstances. Sometimes police are accused of provoking riots. The fact of the matter, however, is that violent riots are an intrinsic part of far-left protest culture. Indeed, there is a logic to rioting in keeping with what radical activists refer to as “diversity of tactics.” 

In its underground bestseller Days of War, Nights of Love: Crimethink for Beginners, first published in 2000, the anarchist CrimethInc. Collective speaks of “a perfect integration of the methods and desires of all who were present at the demonstrations [in Seattle and Washington, November/December 1999 and April 2000, respectively], from well-behaved sign-holders to black-masked corporate-window-display-smashing anarchists.” However, “[s]ome ‘peaceful’ protesters misunderstood how much more seriously their demands were taken thanks to the threat implied by the direct actions of the more radical participants.” Rioting, in other words, is an intimidation tactic.

Self-righteous and narcissistic, rioters not only feel morally justified in their actions, a feeling reinforced by apologists in politics and the media; they tend to see themselves as the vanguard of a large-scale social revolution, a radical transformation of society in the image of their ideology. In their mind, rioting catalyzes this transformation. Inverting the so-called Broken Windows Theory, the anarchist authors of Contradictionary: A Bestiary of Words in Revolt put it like this: “if only a few windows can be broken, revolutionary struggle is bound to break out.” Thus, moderate left-wingers who condemn political violence are often disparaged as counterrevolutionaries and reactionaries. Hence the infamous slogan, Liberals get the bullet too

Addressing “liberal do-gooders” who “object[ed] to the ‘mindless violence’” perpetrated by rioters during recent anti-police protests in Bristol, England, one commentator wrote (in a now-deleted Facebook post), “Oh you’ve got so many balanced opinions on what the right way to protest is, having never properly stood for anything in your lives.” This tendency to equate nuanced thinking and nonviolence with a lack of political conviction is typical of radicals. “You’re either with us, or against us” is the motto of those bent on forcing their will onto others.

“Well done Bristol,” commented a Bristol-based distributor of anarchist literature, reminding sympathizers that “the cops and the state are the biggest perpetrators of violence in our society.” This wild assertion serves as a moral justification for illiberal radicals to “fight back” and riot: “No justice, no peace,” as the slogan goes. According to this view, rioting is an act of self-defense, even if it is at the expense of third parties, such as local businesses and residents, who may not agree with the underlying analysis but are presented with a fait accompli. By the rioters’ logic, the ends always justify the means.

“Anger at police and government abuse has been quietly simmering, since the UK BLM demonstrations of summer 2020,” reports the Anarchist Federation, an organization of “anarchist communists and revolutionary class struggle anarchists” in Great Britain. “Whilst the streets were quieter, the racist and sexist policing has continued.” This is presumed to be self-evident and intended to justify the Bristol riots. Rioters, after all, merely released built-up anger. It is the system and the authorities that are to blame for such “social unrest.” The same logic has been used to defend the 2020 Black Lives Matter-Antifa riots in the United States, which left a wake of devastation, not just in terms of property damage but also in terms of social cohesion. 

It is important to understand that, for far-left radicals and would-be revolutionaries, riots are a tool to destabilize society and quite literally to dismantle established social and institutional structures. Nonviolence, on the other hand, is believed to maintain and reinforce these structures, which are regarded as inherently oppressive and exploitative.

In his 2005 book How Nonviolence Protects the State, the anarchist writer and activist Peter Gelderloos argues not only that nonviolent protest is ineffective, statist, deluded, and tactically and strategically inferior, but also that it is patriarchal and racist. “Nonviolence,” he writes, “refuses to recognize that it can only work for privileged people, who have a status protected by violence, as the perpetrators and beneficiaries of a violent hierarchy.” 

Since “women and transgender people are the primary recipients of violence in patriarchal society,” states Gelderloos, the principle of nonviolence deprives them of their right to self-defense. He furthermore alleges “that much of the violence faced by people of color around the world originates in the power structure that privileges white people.” This “should lend white people greater urgency in pushing the boundaries for the level of militancy that is considered acceptable in white communities.” Thus,[w]hite radicals must educate other white people about why people of color are justified in rebelling violently and why we too should use a diversity of tactics to free ourselves…and end these global systems of oppression and exploitation.” 

Today, this kind of hyperbolic and misleading rhetoric is ubiquitous even in mainstream discourse. There is a tendency to relativize actual political violence, such as riots, by contrasting it with abstract notions of structural or systemic violence. Indeed, as slogans such as white silence is violence indicate, failure to vocally and unequivocally support the ideological agenda of radical activist groups such as BLM is to be complicit in anti-black violence, according to some “anti-racist” agitators. At the same time, excuses are made for those rioting and destroying property in the name of “social justice.” Even looting has been defended as a form of direct action against wealth inequality.

While Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. is on record saying that “a riot is the language of the unheard,” he also argued—in the same 1966 interview—that “riots are self-defeating and socially destructive.” However, King’s warning carries little weight with rioting radicals who wish to abolish the liberal social order and for whom setting a police car on fire is an honorable deed. Seeing the glorification of violence against property and the police in these circles, one cannot help but be reminded of the famous line from The Dark Knight: “Some men just want to watch the world burn”; but they do so in the misguided hope that a new and better world will, somehow, rise from the ashes of the old.

Gerfried Ambrosch is an author and writer and holds a Ph.D. in literary and cultural studies. He can be found on Twitter @g_ambrosch

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