White Riots

“White Riot” sleeve, 1977

Sometimes people who don’t know The Clash and don’t listen carefully to song lyrics mistake their “White Riot” for a white supremacist anthem. But when they sing about wanting “a riot of our own,” they don’t want a race riot. Inspired by the riot that erupted in 1976 at the Notting Hill Carnival, a Caribbean cultural festival in West London, the song is about about white people following the example of the black Notting Hill rioters. “All the power’s in the hands/ Of people rich enough to buy it,” Joe Strummer sings, “And everybody’s doing/Just what they’re told to.” Instead of docility, Strummer calls for “throwing a brick.” While the song played live unfortunately caused the trashing of a lot of clubs by overexcited fans, the song is about fighting for the rights of those who haven’t had the money to buy the power, white and black and any other color, across the globe.

January 6, 2021

The white riot going on in the U.S. right now isn’t about that. It’s the people who have the money to have bought the power–the Supreme Court, half of congress and state legislatures–who are throwing the bricks in this white riot. And it wouldn’t at all be a misunderstanding to think it’s white supremacist. The Federalist Society takeover of the Supreme Court, the depths of which we still haven’t plumbed (we still don’t know why Kennedy suddenly stepped down), is absolutely about keeping power for white people–men in particular–and wielding it against the bogeymen of the Great Replacement by nonwhites and/or LGBTQ people, non-Christians, socialists, abortionists, whatever latest distraction engineered by the Chris Rufos of the world and rolled out to keep the white men who don’t actually own the power distracted, in the great American tradition of racial capitalism. The decisions coming down from the Court are preparing the way for an authoritarian theocracy, defended by unlimited guns and bigotry and the destruction of the Constitution. And it’s a court that is as much stolen as bought, just like the presidencies that made it, as, without the extraordinary extralegal intervention of the Court itself in Bush v Gore and without the interference that gave Trump his presidency, the Court wouldn’t be what it is today.

Brooks Brothers Riot, Miami, November 22, 2000

And like the Brooks Brothers Riot that gave us Bush II, what’s happening now–the theft of the Court, the overturning of precedent and principles, the attempted stealing of an election–in the end is powered by the outrage of thwarted entitlement, by the rage that comes from feeling like the country you think is yours is being taken away from you by people you think it doesn’t belong to. It’s a top-down riot where the people throwing the bricks already have the power and have recruited a lot of throwers who don’t realize they’re dupes, and they’re going to knock it over and burn it down if they have to. And who’s to say they won’t win? If Bush v Gore worked, what’s going to stop them next time?

After The Clash broke up, Joe Strummer had a band called The Mescaleros, and they had a song, “Yalla Yalla,” that begins, “Well so long, liberty let’s forget you/ Didn’t show, not in my time/ But in our sons’ and daughters’ time/ When you get the feeling, call and you got a room.” This liberty–real liberty, not the adolescent freedom to swing your fist no matter whose nose it hits–has always been imperfectly imagined and never widely enough achieved in the U.S., but there have often also been people in its institutions, from congress to the courts to higher education, who have worked to acknowledge and overcome these structural and historical failures and to try to extend the freedoms to live and work and be to those who haven’t had them. It’s hard these days to imagine that history continuing. As the song goes, after “night falls on the grove,” “you can but dream.” But I’m going to go to sleep tonight with the chorus in my ears, carrying the hope that it won’t be until my children’s time that this latest white riot will be over. According to Strummer, yalla yalla means “come on, let’s go” in Arabic, and it seems to be a call not just to go out and be free but also to work for freedom. Let’s wake up tomorrow (later this morning now), be crushed by the horrible news of the latest decisions and heartened by the latest disclosures from the investigations into January 6, and let’s go.

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