Every Riot Is A Police Riot

Some thoughts on police murder in American, and the gravity of intent.

Every Riot Is A Police Riot
A portrait of Tyre Nichols is displayed at a memorial service for him on Tuesday, Jan. 17, 2023 in Memphis, Tenn. (AP Photo/Adrian Sainz)

Good morning, my friendlies.

Here we are.

Another Black person is dead, who should be alive, but who never will be alive again, a story so common that trying to deal with it feels like it carries the accumulated weight of all those that went before and all those who will surely come after.

The murdered person’s name was Tyre Nichols, and he lived in Memphis, and he should be alive, but he’s not, because he was murdered at the age of 29, robbed of about 50 years of his life, if you go by the current shrinking life expectancy of U.S. citizens, or 45 years, if you go by the current shrinking life expectancy of Black men in the U.S., which is lower than the average by 5 years or so.

He was murdered by police—by specific officers, yes, but also by policing itself. Policing, as we all know by now, if we are the sort of people who are willing to observe observable things, is a system that exists to deliver harm and violence and control, and does so, in every state and every city in our country. A Black man was recently murdered by the police at a spot near my house, for example, and his name was Patrick Lyoya. It’s probably happened near your house, too, if you live in my country, which is the United States. It’s something that happens. Maybe the one that happened near your house was also a case that received national attention, but probably not. It’s something that happens everywhere.

Tyre Nichols was pulled over for erratic driving, which is a moving violation that doesn’t carry the death penalty.

My understanding is that at some point he was running from the police. I personally find it reasonable for murder victims to flee their killers, but it is mentioned by the usual people, who always seem to know the reason why the most recent police murders were justified, who never seem to remember that fleeing the police on foot, while a misdemeanor, also doesn’t carry the death penalty, whether they are trying to murder you at the time you are fleeing or not.

There’s a video, as there usually is in cases of police brutalizing or murdering citizens that actually make the news. I’m told that its upcoming release was actually promoted by the networks and cable news channels. Maybe there was even a countdown.

They’re becoming big business, these videos. Lots of ads get sold, and so on.

I haven’t watched the video yet. Maybe I will at some point. Sometimes it strikes me as my duty, my obligation, to not look away, to not prioritize my own comfort over the awareness of what’s happening in my beloved country. Other times it strikes me as unseemly, as if my knowledge of what happened still requires videographic evidence, as if I need to rubberneck as another young Black man meets a grim end; a summary execution at the hands of the state for the crime of being near police officers in a moment when police officers decided killing was needed.

Instead, I did what some people suggested: watched video of his family talking about him, and videos of Tyre Nichols in life. I saw him skateboarding, attempting tricks, missing some, making most. He seems like a regular guy to me. He’s smiling, he’s happy. He’s full of life, which is something he isn’t anymore, and never will be again, because the police murdered him. His mother mentioned that he had a tattoo of her name, which touched her deeply. His family talked about his positivity, his love, his caring, and how much they will miss him, now that the police have murdered him.

I think about how it would be for me, if one of my children were summarily executed by agents of the state, and people in influential positions were piecing through the wreckage of my life to pull together shreds of evidence to try to make a conviction after the fact, to try to prove that my child had deserved her murder, that her killing was just as justified as all the other ones that had come before were, and just as justified as all the ones that will come after will be.

I think I would find that situation absolutely unacceptable. I don’t think I can predict what my actions would be in such a scenario. I don’t know if you could expect me to remain peaceful, nor do I think you’d be well-justified in saying I was the primary cause of the breaking of the peace if I did not.

But I haven’t watched the video yet.

I know what police murdering Black people on video looks like.

We all do.

I’m told the issue is that they haven’t received enough money and training.

People actually say that.

I’ve read descriptions of the video. How the police brutalized him at length. How they told him to comply while he was complying. How they screamed contradictory orders at him as they beat him ceaselessly. How they stood him back up and punched him, held him on the ground with their full weight concentrated in their knee into his back. How they slammed his head into the concrete. How they stood around afterward, huffing and puffing with the effort of beating the life out of a human body, as if they had been beating dust out of a particularly challenging rug. I read all that and I thought, “yes, that’s often what it looks like when the police murder a citizen. That is one of the more common ways it’s done, though not the most common way.”

One thing I didn’t think is that they didn’t seem well-trained. It sounds like they were very well trained indeed. They knew how to do what they did, and they did it very effectively.

Police kill citizens. It’s something they do. It’s something they receive immunity from our courts for doing, most of the time. And most data will show that if you are a Black citizen, then you are 2.5 to 3 times more likely to be murdered in any encounter with the police. And there is data that shows that if you are Black, you are going to get far more spins at the police-encounter wheel than a citizen deemed “white”— far more likely to be policed, in other words—pulled over, targeted for questioning, harassed, menaced, arrested, beaten, killed.

You know; the things police do.

(Shooting seems to be the most common way. I think I didn’t mention that earlier.)

Policing is a different thing, a different experience, if you happen to be Black. We all know this now, if we are the sort of people who observe things, if we are people who listen to uncomfortable truths from people with direct experience of those truths.

And that makes a lot of us want to get rid of policing.

A lot of people upon hearing this desire, say things like, “but if the police weren’t there, who would keep us safe?”—which reveals to me that for a lot of people, the news of yet another Black person murdered by police gives them a certain sense of safety—or at least does not complicate their supposition, that the police exist to keep them safe.

And maybe so. Maybe the police do exist to keep them safe.

It’s not all they exist for, that’s for sure.

According to Tyre Nichols’ family, when he died in the hospital from his many injuries, he was unrecognizable.

Imagine that. Not being able to recognize the corpse of your child.

Does hearing about that make you feel safe?

It does, for many people. I can’t fathom it, but I can observe it.

It’s a very common story. but there is something that is a little different in this case, which is that the police that murdered Tyre Nichols were all themselves Black. And I’m told that this proves that our national ritual of police murdering Black people cannot be systemically racist in nature, though I’ll note that the police immediately faced consequences in this case and don’t seem to be enjoying the same lockstep support from their unions as most cops receive after murders—another departure from the norm—which suggests to me that Black cops might not enjoy the same immunity within policing as do other police, which I wouldn’t say disproves systemic racism within policing.

And I’m told that this shows that the growing awareness in our nation that policing is a racist enterprise is simplistic and reductive, and more complex than that. But still the cops stopped a Black person, as they were statistically far more likely to do, and then they murdered him, as was statistically far more likely to happen, and I’d argue that  people who seem to think that this is some sort of matching game in which Black cancels out Black—using the identity of the perpetrator to erase the identity of the victim—represents about the most reductive and simplistic approach imaginable.

So we’re told that it’s complicated, and then given simplistic analysis.

And we’re told that it’s a tragedy, and then given excuses to not even consider solutions.

More than anything else, I'm told that the most important thing in the wake of this latest in an unbroken string of brutal state-sponsored murders of citizens, as citizens very understandably gather in protest of this unacceptable situation, is that the situation does not become violent.

You heard right: Tyre Nichols was unrecognizable when he died, but the situation hasn’t gotten violent yet.

It's a telling response to a string of brutal state-sponsored murders of citizens by police. Specifically, it's telling us that many people see violence as their exclusive property, and that they consider the police to be institutionally entrusted with its proper administration on their behalf.

To say "the situation must not become violent" is to suggest that an endless string of state-sponsored murders of citizens by police does not represent a violent situation; that the application of violence so far has been appropriate, or at least undisruptive to the normal order.

Which I think fully exposes the collective priorities in our society around policing.

To get at what I mean, I will now say some obvious things about streets.

A street has direction.  What I mean is, it leads from one place to another. It leads from the same place today as it did yesterday, and to the same place today as it did yesterday, with the same stops along the way. Where our streets start and where they lead reflect our community’s historical priorities, regarding which places are important for people to be able to easily travel, and which are not. We didn’t decide on these priorities, you and I, but if those configurations benefit us, then we benefit. If they disadvantage us, then we are disadvantaged. You might say we’ve inherited this configuration.

We probably didn’t put those streets there ourselves, but they are still our streets.

If we want to make a street longer, we can extend it, but it will still lead out further in the same direction. If we decide a street no longer leads to a useful destination, or if we realize the destination is no longer useful, or even harmful, we’d need to greatly modify the street we have, to the point that it would begin to seem like a different street entirely.

I’d conclude from all of this that the direction of a street represents a series of decisions with easily observable priorities and intentions, as do that street’s destinations.

Put it this way: Streets are built. No street ever reached a destination by accident.

Like I said: obvious.

I will now say some obvious things about human priorities:

They tend to have a momentum. They act upon reality and create effects. Those effects bend reality toward that priority, making reality more aligned with that priority, making it easier for that priority to further bend reality toward itself.

And so, like the streets, human priorities, too, have direction, and a destination, and they are not arrived at by accident. If you want to understand the deepest and truest intentions of a natural human system, observe where they go, by tracking what actually happens—and observe what configurations are made to them, and what configurations are not.

Maybe better that to say that human intentions have direction is to say that they have gravity.

Let’s talk about roofs and rain.

Let me tell you about my situation.

I have a roof over my head. Perhaps many of you can relate. Not everyone can.

My roof is great. It does a lot of roofy things. Keeps the sun off my shoulders, for starters. Keeps rain off of my stuff, which is great. It’s sort of a slanty situation, and it’s covered with shingles that are tough and resilient and waterproof. Those things can take a beating. My roof is the best, honestly. I’d miss it if it weren’t there.

Let me tell you another thing about my whole roof situation: I have a gutter lining the edge of my roof. I know. Aren’t I a fancy lad?

There is a certain gravity to things that land on my roof. When rain falls on my roof, because of the slanty situation, it runs down and off the roof, and because of my gutter, it collects rather than runs off, and because the gutter is connected to a downspout, which is set up in a very straight up-and-down sort of way, gravity carries it right down the downspout into an underground trough that guides the water into a ravine behind my house, where it feeds a local stream at the bottom, and then it’s off to the races for that rain, from a water perspective.

There was an intention with my roof when my house was built, as regards what should happen with water that lands upon it. To see that intention, I just have to observe what happens when it rains. I didn’t build my house. The intention wasn’t mine, originally. You might say I’ve inherited it. To maintain that intention, I need only maintain my current situation.

Changing it would require work and disruption and expense.

Let’s say I told you I had new intentions regarding rain. Let’s say I told you that what I really wanted was to capture that rain in a large barrel, to use it in my garden. But let’s say after I told you that, I didn’t change the configuration of my gutters and downspouts, to add the barrel. I think you’d have to conclude that I didn’t actually intend to do that, or at least that my intention wasn’t a serious one.

Why? Because I hadn’t done the work of configuration. I hadn’t accepted the work and disruption and expense.

Or, let’s pretend I have a neighbor on either side of my house. This will be easy to imagine, because I do have a neighbor on either side of my house.

Now: let’s say that my gutters didn’t lead into a ravine, but directly into their back yards, flooding them every time it rained. Let’s say that over time this made an impassable swamp of their property.

Let’s say they complained to me about this.

Fair enough!

Suppose I pointed out to them that I didn’t build the gutters, so it was not my intention for that to happen. Suppose I pointed out that I didn’t make it rain, and that weather was just the way things are, and rain had nothing to do with me. Suppose I said I recognized that my gutter situation was imperfect, and that I intended to improve it, by making the gutters bigger and more efficient, and able to direct even more water into their back yard more quickly than before. Suppose I asked them why, if they hated getting flooded, they chose to live in houses with back yards that flooded so often? Suppose I insisted that they were being radicals, to suggest that I modify a structure that had been present from the very foundational design of my house.

Or: suppose I made a more earnest effort. Suppose every time it rained, I sent my children up on the roof of my house to hold large funnels connected to a hose, which routed some of the rain into the ravine. Suppose I went to my neighbors, bearing charts, proudly showing them that water routed into their yards had been reduced by 0.2% year over year, and touted myself at the next block party as having the greatest gutters in the world, and vowed to decrease runoff by 6% over the next 30 years.

I think my neighbors would have to make some accurate assessments about my true intentions, when it came to drainage, and flooding, and them.

Gravity would prove my intent, every time.

You can’t argue with what happens to rain when it falls. You just watch where it flows, and then you know.

But let’s move this from individual intent to collective intent.

Suppose my neighbors, dissatisfied with me, went to the authorities, and the authorities said, yes, it’s a problem, and no, it’s not legal configuration for residences, but then did nothing. Or suppose they issued me a fine of twenty-five American cents every time it rained, to be assayed monthly until I spend the thousands of dollars to fix my gutters, a fine I paid almost absent-mindedly, from change I keep in a plastic mug in a spare cupboard. Or suppose instead of assaying me the fine, they simply beat my neighbors up and sent cars around to sit in front of their houses when they were home and follow them when they left.

I think eventually my neighbors would probably find themselves faced with the choice to either accept constant manufactured flooding, or else to demolish my downspouts and gutters. Suppose they did that, and I decided that situation was something they had done to me, and pressed charges. Suppose the authorities agreed with my complaint and my analysis and prosecuted my neighbors for wanton destruction of property. Suppose they waved at me as they drove my neighbors off in their squad car.

I think we would have to make some assumptions about the intentions of our systems of authority as regards my neighbors and me. I think we’d have to acknowledge some disparity between how they—and, therefore, our human system—regarded them, and how they—and, therefore, our human system, regarded me. And—if we sincerely didn’t want such disparities—we’d sincerely wonder why and how, and how to fix it. And if we didn’t care, we wouldn’t wonder. And so you’d know our intentions—our real ones, based on what actually happened whenever the rain fell, as rain tends to do.

If I had a different intent, I’d reconfigure the system. I’d tear down my gutters and build new ones, or at least try.

If our systems and authorities had different intent, they’d make me, or at least try.

But I don’t.

And they don’t.

And so we all know.

Thank you for reading The Reframe. This post is public so feel free to share it.

This is why determining the political affiliation of each instance of violence or riot or even political alienation is a distraction, by the way.

There’s always a jockeying whenever property gets damaged in a riot, to determine who started the fire, and who is to blame for the destruction.

Or, when there’s a shooting or some other form of violence, to identify the identity of the shooter to determine which ideology is to blame.

All of this deliberately excises the gravity of intention, deliberately refuses to look at the system in order to focus on the individual.

The reason there are riots and assassination attempts and school shootings and dangerously alienated young men is that people aligned with blameless supremacy have insisted on enforcing a world that consumes human beings with violence, which makes riot and political violence and gun violence and sexual assault and social alienation and chronic loneliness inevitable—which means that every act of political violence, every gun massacre, every alienated young man ready to act violently within a world of violence, is the result of that blameless supremacist insistence on a world where such things are inevitable.

It is caused by an empowered supremacy, who built systems optimized for abuse. The cause of the abuse is supremacy and those who defend and maintain it, no matter who commits the abuse.

It’s extraordinary, really, how brutal police are willing to be, the lengths to which they are willing to go, the nationwide solidarity they are willing to show, in order to deliver to Black citizens—the protection of whom is their ostensible jobs—the clear message, "we are at war with you."

Even more extraordinary how patient Black citizens have been, staying so peaceful, despite having been given the message "we are at war with you." Even more extraordinary how aggrieved police and those who align with them are, when citizens finally agree "yes, you are at war with us” and take to the streets.

Even more extraordinary how quickly mostly comfortable people are to abandon the cause of the protesters for the violence of the protest, as those aggrieved cops riot and create chaos and violence in retribution for the suggestion that they should change.

All of it shows me what happens in America when it rains. It’s a bloody map drawn on the solid pavement, tracking the gravity of our intentions.

Police exist, ostensibly, to keep the peace, but they have demonstrated a violent and ongoing scorn for peace. It strikes me that it's those the police wage war upon who believe in peace enough to demand it at the risk of their bodies and lives.

So: the peace won't be broken by protesters this week, or any other week, no matter what happens. It's been broken all along. Protest simply breaks the peace in ways comfortable people like me can't ignore.

Policing is a failed institution, if what you want is an institution that keeps peace. Police behave and talk and carry themselves in society exactly as if they think they were hired to wage war, not keep peace.

If a protest becomes violent, that is the failure of our ostensible peacekeepers. If police are unable to meet riot with any means beyond violence, that is a double failure. If they never even make the attempt, that is utter failure. No matter who starts it, every riot is a police riot, because policing in America created this unacceptable situation, which is extremely violent, and the police violently resist any attempts at reconfiguration, and every riot is caused by people who would rather defend or even expand this unacceptable violent system than pay the effort and disruption and cost that might attend fixing it.

Let’s say that again. Every riot is a police riot.

Every riot is a police riot.

We comfortable and unthreatened people can stand in undistracted solidarity with those they harm. If we truly want a world without violence, we’re going to need to do so. Or, if we don’t, we can find a reason to abandon them, which is the common story.

If we want to prevent riots, or violence in the streets, we must not make our support for those demanding justice contingent on the absence of riots or violence around their demonstration—even though we might hope for demonstrations to remain peaceful. We must remain aligned with justice even if (or when) those who demand justice succumb to the supremacist inevitability and find their demand consumed by riot, as the police always ensure it will.

Know this: If your support for justice’s demand is contingent on peacefulness, you incentivize those opposed to justice to create violence—and they will. They do.

Here’s what I know:

My mission shouldn’t be to insist that the reaction to this unacceptable situation remain non-violent as a contingency of my support, but to recognize that the situation has already been unacceptably violent for decades and centuries—a violence made inevitable by systemic power—and commit to an unshakeable solidarity.

My mission shouldn't be parsing the increasingly muddied report of violence, to assign blame to fellow citizens rising up against systemic generational oppression. It should be recognizing that all violence belongs to this ostensible peacekeeping institution, that insists on war.

My mission shouldn't be to list ways I'm not like Tyre Nichols’ killers (I should hope there are many), or George Floyd’s, or Patrick Lyoya’s, or Sandra Bland’s, or Philando Castile’s, or any of the others of thousands stretching back into the past, looming up in the future. My mission should not be finding reasons to self-exonerate, and therefore not have to change. My mission should be to locate ways I benefit from a society that made these murders inevitable, and demolish them, and to accept the expense and disruption and effort that comes with it.

My mission should be to reconfigure the gravity of our intent.

And keep doing that, until something else happens when the rain falls.

Defund the police.

A.R. Moxon is the author of the novel The Revisionaries, from Melville House, which is available in most of the usual places and some of the unusual places, and co-writer of Sugar Maple, a musical fiction podcast from Osiris Media, which goes in your ears. He was a duo known as Stealer's Wheel when he recorded this Dylanesque pop bubble-gum favorite from April of 1974 that reached up to number five, as K-Billy's Super Sounds of the Seventies weekend continues.