Reactions to police violence in Ferguson one year ago, and countless American cities since then, have typically started with the assumption that civil unrest is the wrong response. Even figures sympathetic to the protesters, like President Obama, called for “constructive” responses to the non-indictment of the police officer who killed Michael Brown. The “negative reaction… will make for good TV,” Obama said the night the decision not to indict was delivered, but “throwing bottles and smashing cars” won’t solve anything.
Killer Mike and El-P, the hip-hop due Run The Jewels, made the counter-argument succinctly in a video for the BBC. “Riots work,” Mike said. “Ferguson was over 60 percent as a black community. They had less than 60 percent representation in politics, far less. Post-riots they have two new black city council members, they have actual advocates in the community now, the police chief retired. If it’s argued that riots worked in Ferguson, abso-fucking-lutely they did.”
A year after Ferguson, police violence and racism in the criminal justice system are central issues in the media, and among Democratic candidates for president. Even Republican candidates have had to respond to questions about racial justice that they would typically never touch. The general unrest, confrontations with police, and sometimes property destruction in response to police committing murder with impunity has driven these issues to the forefront of American politics and inspired reform efforts that likely never would have existed otherwise.
And the movement against police violence joins many others in history that have seen success from disrupting the normal workings of the world. As Killer Mike and El-P note, that includes the Boston Tea Party, which is both an episode of political property destruction and a celebrated moment in American history whose perpetrators are heroes in our history books. There is also an economic argument that rioting makes police violence less likely by imposing costs on the business interests that police and local governments are very interested in serving.
Run The Jewels and Killer Mike and El-P in their solo work often focus on political issues like police violence, the war on drugs, surveillance, and mass incarceration. They happened to be performing in St. Louis, Missouri the night the Ferguson non-indictment was handed down, inspiring Mike to give an emotional speech in tribute to Michael Brown, expressing fear that the same fate could befall his own young children.
In the song Early, the rappers describe the experience of being subject to police harassment and violence:
I said “Man, I’m tryin’ to smoke and chillPlease don’t lock me up in front of my kidsAnd in front of my wifeMan, I ain’t got a gun or a knifeYou do this and you ruin my lifeAnd I apologize if it seems like I got out of line, sirCause I respect the badge and the gunAnd I pray today ain’t the day that you drag me awayRight in front of my beautiful son”