The Calculus of Riot

Brass Tacks

The Civil Rights Movement has come to a juncture where its friends, both black and white, will have to make a choice: should race riots be encouraged or even condoned as one of the Movement's legitimate weapons.

The temptation, of course, is to avoid the decision. Riots, people say, are the result of revolting conditions-- they are the price for 200 years of white supremacy. Riots, the argument continues, will knit Negro communities together and will make Black men realize the depth of the struggle they must fight. Finally, riots start spontaneously; they are not planned weeks in advance by a handful of "highly trained agitators in some underground hideout." In conclusion, riots appear to be an unavoidable phenomenon dictated by the conditions which have come before; they are like any other natural disaster, only they are man-made.

The rhetoric of riot is easy. It's not hard to go into the poorest section of Roxbury and amass a sympathetic audience by enumerating Whitey's misdeeds over the years. It is easier, in fact, to do that then to construct a Black Movement based not on racial hatred but rather on political, economic, and social progress in the Negro community.

The Civil Rights Movement should now make the cost-benefit analysis of riot, before it embarks on a campaign which will irrepairably rend the fabric of American life along racial lines. The possible benefits which riots produce for the Movement are the following:

They call attention to the depth of the problems that large portions of the Negro population still experience in our "Great Society." Riots let the complacent elements of our society know that there are still people who are discriminated against and who live under impossible conditions. Riots show that the legitimate channels of discussion are often either fictional or clogged; they prove that Negroes are still willing to risk their lives in order to be heard.

They allow a small-scale redistribution of the wealth while Poverty Program funds are still being debated in Congress.

They make Negroes conscious of their condition and unite them into a single force.

They may ultimately be used as bargaining power, just as the strike is used by the Labor Unions.

They help release the centuries of hatred that the Negro has harbored for the white.

They demonstrate one possible aspect of Black Power.

On the other side of the ledger, riots will incur the following costs upon the Movement:

They will inevitably turn public opinion against both Civil Rights and Poverty legislation.

They will provoke untold reprisals by outraged whites throughout the United States.

They will continue to increase all forms of racial hatred and discrimination.

They will continue to do most of the damage to Negro property, business, and life.

They will sap the constructive energy of the Movement by focusing all activity on winning a violent victory.

They will do incalculable damage to the whole progressive movement in the United States and will swing many moderates to a Rightist position.

Everyone will make his calculation differently--will see different costs and benefits--but it is essential that the effort be made before the riots become a commonplace practice. To my mind, it is clear that riots are a defeatist tactic because they will inevitably be squashed. It would be better to recognize at this early stage that the Negro can not win a military victory in the United States than to discover this reality years from now after much senseless bloodshed.

Riots are race riots and not the revolt of the masses against the Industrialists. Many people are confusing the two today because often the Negroes who are rioting are also part of the lower class. But riots are aimed against the entire white population with no distinctions made; they are not part of the radicalization of our society, as some claim, but rather are part of the division of our society along racist lines.

It is now up to members and leaders of the Movement to decide whether riots can ultimately lead them towards their goal or whether the violence unleashed in the streets of Detroit will turn against them in the end. Members of the Movement all over the United States must learn that their future lies not in burning but rather in building.