The Content and Color of a “Riot”

Any notion that the United States was in a “post racial” society ended last summer. Preceded by the killing of Florida teenager Trayvon Martin in 2012, the high profile murders of unarmed black civilians returned with the shooting of Michael Brown. Then the deaths of John Crawford, Tamir Rice, and Eric Garner led to further public outrage with many commentators wondering if a basis for a new civil rights movement was emerging.

Whether or not this is the case remains to be seen. Certainly the killings have motivated significant portions of the American population. Chants like “Black Lives Matter,” “Hands Up! Don’t Shoot!,” and “I Can’t Breathe!” were heard from protesters around the country staging die-ins, blocking traffic, and challenging municipal leaders to end institutional racism.

Five members of the St. Louis Rams showed solidarity with the protests by entering a game with arms raised. Cleveland Cavilers’ LeBron James, as well as many other basketball players, also showed solidarity by wearing “I Can’t Breathe” t-shirts. These actions were often met with angry criticism by various police officials and commentators.

Many detractors argued such an infusion of politics and current events into a sporting event violated an apolitical space. Such demonstrations should be had off the field and court. To subjugate audiences to such actions was “unprofessional” and risked inciting further civil unrest. This was coupled with pseudo-racist claims of people like Geraldo Rivera who argued instead of wearing “I Can’t Breathe” t-shirts, perhaps African American athletes like James should wear clothing that said “Be A Better Father To Your Children.”

Underlining this reasoning was a very basic racist assumption. Blacks were, if not completely responsible, at least partially to blame for the killing of so many unarmed civilians. “Black on black crime,” lack of motivation for economic betterment, unwillingness to improve predominantly African American communities, and out-of-wedlock births contributed to a cultural climate, commentators argued, requiring an increased police presence. And not just any police presence. A presence which reflected a militarized force that shot first, asked questions later, and was seldom (if ever) responsible for misbehavior.

Of course these criticisms of athletes commenting on politics ignores the social contribution organized sports have played in American history. As many sports historians will argue, it is precisely the wide appeal and mass diffusion of sports that have made the events perfect places to push racial boundaries and make political statements. But of course, when athletes are criticized for partaking in these actions no real historical background is required. It is simply an attempt to silence dissent and prevent discussion.

This tension between seeing organized sports as arenas reflecting larger social and political issues, and arguing for a maintenance of an apolitical space is further reflected by the recent Ohio State University victory over the University of Oregon.

Following the Buckeye’s win droves of fans flooded the streets of Columbus. Setting close to 90 fires, injuring 3 people, and destroying property at OSU by tearing down a goal post, the reporting in the media was considerably different than what had been seen in Ferguson only a few months before.

ABC News ran a headline stating, “Ohio State Football Revelers Set Fires, Tear Down Goal Post.” It went on to state, “Some police officers used pepper spray to clear an estimated 5,000 revelers from the streets, while canisters of tear gas also were deployed.”

Or as Cleveland.com reported-

Northeast Ohio Media Group has demanded an apology and is considering legal action against Columbus police after a staff photographer was pepper-sprayed in the face during the revelry that followed Monday’s Ohio State football championship win.

Or the Columbus Dispatch

Among the most significant damage: Hundreds of revelers broke into Ohio Stadium shortly after 2 a.m. and pulled down a goal post, university officials said. No one was arrested.

The omission of the word “rioter” in these reports is telling. When people took to the streets last year to protest the non-indictment of Darren Wilson (the Ferguson officer who shot Michael Brown) the media did not use any such Orwellian speech. People did not set “social activism fires.” Protesters didn’t just “get out of hand.” Cops did not pepper spray people during “social activism.” No. Those who looted, those who set fires, those who destroyed private property were “rioters.” They were “rioting.” And depending on what news outlet one watched such illegal behavior was seen as implementing the entire movement.

Perhaps the best example came from FOX News reposting a story from the Associated Press. “Police made a handful of arrests early Tuesday after using tear gas and pepper spray to disperse some Ohio State students and football fans following the Buckeyes’ win.”

In this instance, the attempt to disguise “rioters” was completely masked by referring to the actors as “fans” and “students.” The story continued by saying, “Some officers used pepper spray to clear revelers from the street, while canisters of tear gas were also deployed.”

Sporting events that lead to such mob violence are not unprecedented. In April of 2014 police clashed with students at the University of Kentucky following the school’s NCAA defeat. Fires were set, city property damaged, and as the Daily Mail reported, “One student at the college was pictured being led away with blood streaming down her face after being struck by a liquor bottle thrown with abandon.” In 2011, a riot in Vancouver following the Boston Bruin’s Stanley Cup victory over the Vancouver Canuncks, led to the injury of nearly 140 people.

Also in 2011 Penn State students fought with police, and destroyed property following the firing of head coach Joe Paterno. As one story worded it, “The demonstrators congregated outside Penn State’s administration building before stampeding into the tight grid of downtown streets. They turned their ire on a news van, a symbolic gesture that expressed a view held by many: that the news media had exaggerated Mr. Paterno’s role in the scandal surrounding accusations that a former assistant coach, Jerry Sandusky, sexually assaulted young boys.”

Demonstrators angry at a perceived injustice. Not rioters.

To be fair, sports riots and their news coverage are not always masked in such language. Sometimes reports refer to such actions as “riots”, but the double standard is nonetheless present.

A critique of comparing Ferguson to sports riots could include one was a celebration that got out of hand. No one intended for the “revelry” to happen. Also, the “revelry” was motivated by celebration, a feeling of joy, not anger. So the incidents aren’t really all that similar.

This argument, that the “revelry” was unplanned and motivated by “joy,” is perhaps the most sinister argument I have heard on social media when I first pointed out the discrepancies in reporting. Beneath this lame attempt to explain away why our media treats one incident as “rioting” and the other as “revelry” is the assumption that white sports fans are not malicious. This is opposed to their black counterparts who apparently are ready for violence, destruction, and mayhem at a moment’s notice.

Whites get a pass in such situations. They become detached individuals free floating from isolated incident to isolated incident. No need to question the overall social relation the police represent. No need to understand the social mob mentality that leads to a riot after a sporting event. These are just “bad cops” or “revelers” who got out of control. This ability to reason toward an understanding of a social event on an individual basis evaporates when the faces we see in the crowd are overwhelmingly black. When the bodies of the “mob” become African American the language of “reveling” and “celebrators” disappears.

We are left with “rioters” and “criminals,” which is a natural extension of the “thug” discourse that preceded it. By studying sports history, specifically the behavior of fans, historians are given a front seat into the double standards applied to society. The disconnect of a “reveler” and a “rioter” does not arise from the motivation of particular behaviors. It is not the result of the severity of property damage. Instead, it is a circuit of discourse completing its revolution.

Pondering such differences leads to many uncomfortable questions. Perhaps the most pressing is, what do we say about a society more outraged by “rioting” over the murder of unarmed civilians and the failure of our justice system to do anything about it, than “rioting” by sports fans over nothing more than a game designed for amusement? It is a question, regardless of whether or not we are seeing the rebirth of a civil rights movement, historians need to ask.

Wesley R. Bishop is a PhD student at Purdue University. He studies the history of the American labor movement, social reform, and cultural representations of the working class. He can be reached for question, comment, or debate at bishopw@purdue.edu.

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