The Riot Ideology, Reborn

Fred Siegel
The Riot Ideology, Reborn
Baltimore, Ta-Nehisi Coates, and the new racial politics
Autumn 2015

The death of Freddie Gray ignited Baltimore’s spring 2015 riots, which pitted police . . .

In the summer of 1966, Attorney General Nicholas Katzenbach warned that there would be riots by angry, poor minority residents in “30 or 40” American cities if Congress didn’t pass President Lyndon Johnson’s Model Cities antipoverty legislation. In the late 1960s, New York mayor John Lindsay used the fear of such rioting to expand welfare rolls dramatically at a time when the black male unemployment rate was about 4 percent. And in the 1980s, Washington, D.C., mayor Marion Barry articulated an explicitly racial version of collective  bargaining—a threat that, without ample federal funds, urban activists would unleash wave after wave of racial violence. “I know for a fact,” Barry explained, “that white people get scared of the [Black] Panthers, and they might give money to somebody a little more moderate.”


This brand of thinking, which I have called the riot ideology, influenced urban politics for a generation, from the 1960s through the 1980s. Perhaps its model city was Baltimore, which, in 1968, was consumed by race riots so intense that the Baltimore police, 500 Maryland state troopers, and 6,000 National Guardsmen were unable to quell them. The “insurrection” was halted only when nearly 5,000 federal troops requested by Maryland governor Spiro Agnew arrived.

In the years since 1968, Baltimore has proved remarkably adept at procuring state and federal funds and constructed revitalization projects such as the justly famed Camden Yards and a convention center. But Baltimore never really recovered from the riots, and the lawlessness never fully subsided. What began as a grand bargain to avert further racial violence after 1968 descended over the decades into a series of squalid shakedowns. Antipoverty programs that had once promised to repair social and family breakdown became by the 1990s self-justifying and self-perpetuating.

In the wake of the 2014 riots in Ferguson, Missouri, and the 2015 West Baltimore riots, a new riot ideology has taken hold, one similarly intoxicated with violence and willing to excuse it but with a different goal. The first version of the riot ideology assumed that not only cities but also whites could be reformed; the new version assumes that America is inherently racist beyond redemption and that the black inner city needs to segregate itself from the larger society (with the exception of federal welfare funds, which should continue to flow in). This new racial politics is not only coalescing around activists claiming to speak for urban blacks—represented publically by groups like Black Lives Matter—but is also expressed in the writings of best-selling author Ta-Nehisi Coates. And Baltimore is once again center stage.

The West Baltimore rioters of 2015 didn’t call for more LBJ-style antipoverty projects but for less policing. In a “keep off our turf” version of belligerent multiculturalism, the rioters see police as both to blame for black criminality and as an embodiment of bourgeois white values. The old riot ideology referred to mostly white urban police forces as occupying armies; the new version sees even Baltimore’s integrated police force, under the leadership of the city’s black mayor and (until recently) a black police chief, as an occupying army. Withdrawing the police from black neighborhoods is the only acceptable solution.

In his memoir The Beautiful Struggle, Coates described how his father, a former Black Panther and full-time conspiracy theorist, drove his son around West Baltimore “telling me again the story of the black folk’s slide to ruin. He would drive down North Avenue and survey the carry-outs, the wig shops, the liquor stores and note that not one was owned by anyone black.” Whites had “plundered” what belonged to blacks, his father explained, as they had done with once-great African kingdoms. Coates, who lived in fear of black street toughs as a teen, sees the police as a greater threat to black well-being than the drug “crews” and gangs roaming the streets of West Baltimore today. His vision, in part, is to free gang-ridden areas from the malign grip of white standards and aggressive policing. Coates has adopted his father’s view that “our condition, the worst of this country’s condition—poor, diseased, illiterate, crippled dumb—was not just a tumor to be burrowed out but proof that the whole body was a tumor, that America was not a victim of a great rot but the rot itself.” Not even a hurricane of violence, says the new riot ideology, justifies a vigorous police presence in black localities.

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