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Schwartz: Philadelphia riots reveal racial bias toward white violence

Alex Schwartz, Assistant Opinion Editor

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As I watched coverage of the celebrations taking place in Philadelphia after the Eagles won the 2018 Super Bowl this past Sunday, I thought, “This is going to get interesting.” People on social media worried about whether the city would be able to handle its residents celebrating their team’s victory, and it seemed like a storm was brewing.

The revelry in the streets was cute at first — not much worse than St. Patrick’s Day in Chicago. But soon things took a turn. A convenience store was looted. A building’s awning collapsed. Many of the city’s lampposts were toppled. Chain store windows were smashed. Several traffic lights were torn down. People literally ate horse poop off the street.

While the behavior was relatively less Dionysian than the night the Phillies won the World Series in 2008 — when cars were overturned, fires were started, bus stops were destroyed and 76 people were arrested — the media at large seemed to laugh it off. Coverage of the riots painted them as innocuous, as if just a little destruction of public property in the name of local pride never hurt anyone.

A Slate article described the riots not as deplorable, but as “extremely Philly.” The Philadelphia Inquirer talked of policemen who were “eager to get in on the revelry themselves.” WHYY briefly talked property damage before focusing on how historic the win was for the Eagles. The Washington Post put out a fascinating expose into the psychology of post-sport rioting.

However, in Ferguson, Missouri, in 2014, most people said this kind of behavior was shameful. Police arrested 61 people for committing the same crimes as residents who high-fived police officers in Philadelphia. America told the Black Lives Matter movement that it shouldn’t resort to violence if it wants real change. Laura Ingraham compared Ferguson protestors to a “lynch mob.”

Public property in Philadelphia was damaged and destroyed. People behaved out of control. Yet, according to the public at large, they deserve to be violent in their joy. Why did we not afford Ferguson protesters, who used violence only because we would not listen to them otherwise, the same privilege?

There are a few striking differences between Sunday’s rioters and protesters throughout the country in recent years who have engaged in violent demonstrations. Philadelphia’s revelers were mostly white; BLM and many other social justice organizations are organized by people of color. Eagles fans weren’t protesting anything, and their behavior wasn’t inherently political.

However, had the Falcons won the 2017 Super Bowl and similar celebrations taken place in Atlanta, I imagine national reactions to the behavior of the city’s majority black population would be quite different than those we saw this year.

The coverage of Philadelphia is indicative of our societal attitudes toward violence, and how unequally we view it when different social groups engage in it. White, non-political violence is harmless, while nonwhite violence directed toward a cause is dangerous. Whether we’re underreacting to the former or overreacting to the latter comes down to your personal view of when (if at all) violence is an acceptable means to an end — but the point is that these reactions are imbalanced and racially motivated.

The public sees violence and anger as antithetical to protest and necessary for celebration. They make it OK for us to break things as long as we’re in a good mood but require us to be polite if you’re protesting injustice. This creates a world in which white, heteronormative institutions are encouraged to be violent, while marginalized people are expected to politely ask for escape from this violence.

Sunday’s events bring about a discussion of what violence is, who gets to engage in it and when it’s acceptable. The events in Philadelphia and Ferguson both included violence, but we should ask ourselves why our society is more scared of the latter than the former.

Alex Schwartz is a Medill sophomore. He can be contacted at alexschwartz@u.northwestern.edu. If you would like to respond publicly to this op-ed, send a Letter to the Editor to opinion@dailynorthwestern.com. The views expressed in this piece do not necessarily reflect the views of all staff members of The Daily Northwestern.

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