Rappers Say Riots Work — But Backlash Could Hamstring Democrats

Police Shooting Missouri

-Image Credit: Associated Press

The hip-hop team known as Run the Jewels — El-P and Killer Mike — believes the riots that tore apart the communities of Ferguson and Baltimore were good for America because that is the best way to bring about positive social change.


A new study by Omar Wasow, an assistant professor in the Department of Politics at Princeton University, shows El-P and Killer Mike are more correct than even the rappers believe. But, Wasow concludes, the effect of rioting is exactly the opposite of what Run the Jewels believes.

“Riots work,” Killer Mike told the BBC. “Ferguson was over 60 percent as a black community. They had less than 60 percent representation in politics, far less. Post-riots they have two new black city council members, they have actual advocates in the community now, the police chief retired.”

He said, “If it’s argued that riots worked in Ferguson, abso-f**ng-lutely they did.”

Killer Mike and El-P happened to be performing Aug. 9 in St. Louis, Mo., the night a grand jury returned with its decision not to indict Darren Wilson, a Ferguson police officer, in the shooing death of Michael Brown.

The liberal online publication Think Progress reported that inspired Killer Mike to make an emotional tribute to Brown on stage, telling the crowd he was “kicked on my ass when I listened to that prosecutor.”

“I would like to say rest in peace to Michael Brown,” the rapper said as the crowd began cheering. “I would like to give all thoughts and prayers to the people who are out there peacefully protesting.”

Killer Mike paraphrased Martin Luther King Jr. when he told his audience, “And I also give thoughts and prayers for the people who could not hold their anger in, because riots are only the language of the unheard.”


Riot “the unheard” did. They burned down more than a dozen buildings following the grand jury decision. St. Louis County Police Chief Jon Belmar told reporters that night, “Unless we bring 10,000 policemen in here, I don’t think we can prevent folks that are destroying a community.”

Months after Ferguson was wracked by violence following the grand jury’s decision, a neighborhood in Baltimore burned in April due to a riot prompted by the death of a black man, Freddie Gray, while in police custody.

President Obama branded those rioters as “criminals and thugs” who were “destroying and undermining opportunities and businesses in their own communities.”

They might have also been costing the Democrats any hope of putting Hillary Clinton in the White House in 2016.

Princeton’s Omar Wasow believes the Ferguson and Baltimore riots, if the impact of the 2015 violence is similar to what happened in 1968, will work for Republicans and conservatives far better than for liberals and Democrats.

The 1968 election was nothing but bad for Democrats.

Richard Nixon defeated Hubert Humphrey by running a campaign based on restoring law and order. Not only did it spark the “Silent Majority” conservative movement, Nixon’s campaign destroyed the so-called New Deal Coalition of the Democrats that had served them so well in presidential elections.

The problem for progressives, then and now, is not that the violence fires up the hard-core conservative talk radio world, inspiring Republicans and independents to race to the ballot box to vote for the GOP. It is more that the riots turn off Democrats.


Wasow examined county-level voting patterns and found “black-led protests in which some violence occurs are associated with a statistically significant decline in Democratic vote-share in the 1964, 1968 and 1972 presidential elections.”

Wasow said the riots of the 1960s made all the difference in the world to the 1968 presidential candidates, Nixon and Humphrey.

“While the mid-1960s multiracial Democratic coalition was fragile, moderate white flight from the Democratic party might not have been inevitable and that,” Wasow added, “but for the joint effect of violent protests and widespread, easily triggered anti-black sentiment, campaigns built on ‘law and order’ might never have carried the day as a winning strategy to build new, winning right-of-center coalitions.”

Wasow found nonviolent black-led protests actually had the opposite effect of the 1968 riots. If there had been more of the former, rather than the latter, the Watergate might have never been more than just another hotel in the District of Columbia.

“Examining counterfactual scenarios in the 1968 election,” Wasow wrote, “I estimate that fewer violent protests are associated with a substantially increased likelihood that the Democratic presidential nominee, Hubert Humphrey, would have beaten the Republican nominee, Richard Nixon.”

Fast-forward to 2015 and then, of course, 2016. Is there any hope that, as Wasow put it, the “subordinate few (will) persuade the dominant many?”


Yes, but it won’t be by burning the town down. And it certainly won’t happen by alienating white voters.

Wasow pointed to Bayard Rustin, described as a critical influence on Martin Luther King, Jr.’s use of nonviolence and a key organizer of the 1963 March on Washington. Rustin argued, “[T]he country’s twenty million black people can[not] win political power alone. We need allies.”

“The future of the Negro struggle,” Rustin said in 1965, “depends on whether the contradictions of this society can be resolved by a coalition of progressive forces which becomes the effective political majority in the United States.”


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