It's Not Rioting, It's Punishment
Updated: Jun 13, 2020
How do we conceptualize rioting, looting, and other forms of civilians' political violence? For one, we can compartmentalize it using the same mental representation we have for other illegal actions, such as theft or assault. This follows the rational that looting, for example, is nothing more than a massive scale theft, and should be treated accordingly.
However, this approach, intuitive as it might be, is socially blind and politically biased. Evoking the formalistic legal approach serves here as a way of dismissing the social context and reducing a political act to a crime; as if the riot is a disruption of an otherwise safe and healthy society.
But what if it's the other way around?
No, I'm not suggesting here that a riot is the language of the unheard or that it should be commensurated with other forms of violence such as "the looting of black bodies" or the "imperialistic looting of native lands." Those are all interesting, important, and thought-provoking arguments, yet they also fail to see political violence as what it is. Instead, they justify it using critical theory, corrective justice, and distributive justice arguments. The problem with those arguments is that they assume that political violence is a wrong that must be explained and justified ex-post. I argue that political violence should not be discussed as a wrong at all.
A more adequate frame of reference would be the most prevalent form of political violence in our society - state punishment through the criminal justice system. The state has the power to punish -- to exert violence -- as a response to crime. We accept this (very brutal) violence because we believe it is just: Jonathan Simon argues (in his future book project, that I got a sneak preview of) that state punishment is accepted and founded on the base of myths. These myths are meant to provide us tools to rationalize and accept the fact that we deprive people of rights, liberty, and even life, as a matter of routine. Simon urges us to challenge those myths and debunk them. If we succeed at doing that, we face the possibility of reducing the scale and aggressiveness of the current penal system. Another benefit, I hope, is that we can recognize that punishment and the penal system are not interchangeable -- Punishment might be nothing but "a reaction of passionate feeling, graduated in intensity, which society exerts through the mediation of an organized body over those of its members who have violated certain rules of conduct." There can be punishment regardless of the distorted U.S criminal justice system.
Thus, de-mythifying state punishment can allow us to rethink our practice of punishment while maintaining the notion of moral boundaries in society. We can be abolitionists that recognize the need to have a penal code.
Another thing that de-mythifying punishment allows us, is to realize that most forms of political violence are forms of punishment. The state, normally, has a monopoly on punishment, but it never holds the monopoly on responding to the crossing of moral boundaries. When people revolt against injustice they are executing punishment.
Yes, it's punishment without due process, but it is also the punishment of the social order, of the state, not of civilians. When the democratic process fails to punish politicians and policymakers for breaking society's moral boundaries, punishment finds a way still to exist.
This framework allows us to reckon with what really is at stake -- our society's moral character, which has been corrupted. We should pay close attention to political violence because it tells us that the political process is broken.
Punishment always finds a way. we might disagree with its form (as we should - the need to punish doesn't legitimate all forms of punishment) but we should not be dismissive of its social importance.
To be clear - I argue for a theoretical framework. Riots are better understood, I think, as a form of punishment, rather than a form of protest. This allows us to pay attention to what's important about them, rather than their downfalls.