Why do we applaud rebellion in film, but not in Baltimore's streets?

If black rioters were imaginary and fighting a dystopian society, they would be heroes.

Over the past few years, Americans have spent millions of dollars to enjoy fictional rebellion. Combined, "The Giver," the "Hunger Games" series, and the "Divergent" series — all novels turned films — have amassed over $2 billion globally. In addition to their financial success, they have accumulated enormous fan bases, especially among young people.

All of those stories deal with protagonists attempting to overthrow oppressive dystopian societies. Often, particularly in the case of the latter two, the characters accomplish their goals through violence, destruction and outright murder. So why do we admire these rebellious fictional characters while viewing those in Baltimore and Ferguson with contempt?

When Katniss ("Hunger Games") shot an arrow into some highly complex (and likely very expensive) equipment in "Catching Fire," the audience didn't think less of her for destroying someone's property. In "Divergent," when Tris hurled a knife into the villain's hand (film version only), no one shook their heads and said "She's going about this the wrong way." Yet when black people throw rocks at police officers who routinely terrorize and even kill members of their community, the public is quick to demonize the victim and defend the oppressor.

In all of the fictional stories mentioned above, there are (at least) two requisite elements that make audiences root for the rebellious protagonist. First, there is an obviously unjust and unbalanced social structure that threatens the life of the protagonist and her loved ones. Second, the people taking drastic measures to overthrow those societies are depicted as heroes.

I posit that the reason audiences fail to see the similarities in fictional uprising (which we love) and what occurs in real life, is the absence of that second element. Excluding the most ignorant and racist in our country, Americans generally get a sense that there is a problem with the unjustified killing of innocent black people by unsympathetic police officers. While they may not fully comprehend the scale of implicit bias, they understand that black people are more likely to be treated unfairly by the criminal justice system. So we can check off the first element.

As for the second, black rioters have been called plenty of things by the mainstream media; "heroic" is not one of them. Instead of being depicted as people who are doing what little they can do to bring attention to injustice, they have often been cast off as looters, criminals, "thugs" and miscreants taking advantage of the political climate.

Broadcast journalists contrast the rioters with Martin Luther King Jr. (white people's favorite civil rights leader) and criticize rioters for failing to adopt MLK's supposedly superior method of passive protest. All of this rhetoric is used to firmly embed in the minds of Americans, both black and white, that there is nothing noble about those participating in the riots — that what we are seeing on television is not the type of righteous revolution we associate with the civil rights movement — it's mere buffoonery.

Yet, King himself — who said much more than the blurbs that populate your Facebook feed — believed that looting functions as a type of "emotional catharsis." Knowing that our society cherishes property above people, looters attempt to "shock the white community" by abusing the property rights whites hold so dear. Since people in urban neighborhoods do not have an opportunity to make the type of grand revolutionary gestures we applaud on the big screen — like exploding Parliament in "V for Vendetta" — they settle for damaging what they have ample access to, like liquor markets, police cars and convenience stores.

On that note, headlines continue to inflate the deleterious effect rioters have had on their community — referencing the supposed "200 minority-owned businesses" that have been "destroyed" in Baltimore. What they fail to mention is that a far larger number of businesses were not damaged physically but by lost revenue resulting from the mayor's week-long 10 p.m. curfew. To place that blame solely on the riots is to ignore the oppressive apparatus that sparked them.

To be clear, we live in a world of laws; and those laws should apply equally to everyone.

But if black rioters were imaginary, they would be heroes. As long as they present a real-world threat to the comfort of white supremacy, force us to face long-ignored truths and embarrass the nation's more compliant black population, they will continue to be typecast as villains.

Christopher R. La Motte is a Howard University Law School graduate. His email is crlamotte@gmail.com.

Copyright © 2017, The Baltimore Sun, a Baltimore Sun Media Group publication | Place an Ad
39°