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April 29, 2015

Reasons for Riot

MLK riot“A riot is the language of the unheard.” (Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.)

It is hard to explain a riot — whether it is something we see in the streets of Baltimore or in our own homes. When passion and emotion reach a boiling point, chaos and confusion are practically inevitable. A riot, by definition, is tumultuous. Our eyes often don’t know where to focus, and our minds have difficulty interpreting what we’re seeing.

It’s important to remember that riots do not happen in a vacuum. There is almost always some underlying reason, or even an entire web of mitigating circumstances that led to the outburst. What appears to be a problem from our perspective is often seen as a solution to a deeper problem from the perspective of the one throwing off restraint. The problem they are attempting to solve may have little to do with the inciting incident and more to do with something that has been simmering below the surface for some time.

Perhaps they are frustrated and feel like they must act out in order to get some attention. We’ve all seen that in 5 year-olds or 15-year-olds. Many of us have been guilty of it in our 30s and 40s. Very few things in life are as maddening as the feeling of being unheard and unnoticed. We all want to believe that we have a voice. If an individual or a group of people feel their voice is muted for long enough, it may be understandable when their frustration erupts into disorder.

This is not to say that riots are justifiable. Dr. King rightly condemned riots as “self defeating and socially destructive”. There is a difference between a protest and a riot. As Dr. King proved, peaceful and articulate restraint will inevitably win the war, even if it appears to lose several battles along the way. Still, riots may be understandable among people who feel they must fight to gain what is rightfully theirs using any means necessary — particularly if they have been given the idea that violent means are socially acceptable and effective.

The solution, then, for those of us who would pursue peace, is to begin listening to one another. Truly listening. Not merely listening so we can expose the flaws in another’s position, but listening to understand. Listening to learn. Listening to share. Whether it is a person who comes from a different belief system, a different culture, or your own child, letting another person know that you care and you’re listening to them can go a long way towards calming unrest.

We must also do what we can to remain both calm and connected with people on the “other” side. This is no easy task, of course. It is far easier to do one at the expense of the other, but it is only by remaining both calm and connected that we can work towards lasting change. There may be other things that need to be accomplished, but they will only be accomplished if we have achieved our goal of remaining both calm and connected.

There are no easy solutions to a riot or the circumstances which led to it. The time for believing the remedy is as simple as better education or personal responsibility is over. Our society did not get into this situation overnight; we will not get out of this overnight. But we can get through this. We can emerge a more perfect union if we are willing to listen, to learn, to empathize, to walk together. By changing our part of the system, we may find ourselves changing the system itself.

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