The Usefulness of Anger in Justice Work
Hawa Allan on Transforming “Vulnerability into Power”
Anger is always abetted by an origin story. Yes, some perceived threat causes a person pain, thereby giving rise to anger to camouflage such pain. Then, such a person directs her ire toward the external provocateur. But anger is also always initially directed by the meaning made of a given situation. Anger, in other words, casts blame. The story fabricated to justify anger is like carrier fluid, suspending both “victim” and “perpetrator” in their fabulated roles. Just as there are different kinds of anger, there will be competing narratives bandied about to justify or denounce it.
I might decide that I am justified in sharply rebuking someone who I feel has disrespected me, but the person on the receiving end of my reprimand might call me aggressive, recasting him- or herself as a victim of my bullying. I might also perceive another person’s venting about some unfairness as a tantrum, and see that person’s moral claim to righteousness as egocentric complaining. Even someone’s expressed annoyance at a nuisance can be magnified by the observer into some menacing aggression, overshadowing whatever the stated reason for the anger.
The gaslighting—the inflation and minimizing, the transference and projection—all of these don’t only come into play when raging at the interpersonal level. They are also factors when crafting a story of collective rage. And the name fastened to the expression of collective rage tells its own story, each one casting its own victims and perpetrators.
On July 24, 1967, President Lyndon B. Johnson made a proclamation under the Insurrection Act regarding “the conditions of domestic violence and disorder” in the city of Detroit. In the predominantly black area of Virginia Park the prior day, local law enforcement raided an unlicensed after-hours club hosted at the office of a local civil rights group, then arrested more than eighty patrons they found inside. While awaiting transport outside the club, the police and detainees drew the attention of onlookers, whose number continued to grow. The gathered crowd, however, did not disperse when law enforcement left with their arrestees, and instead started looting an adjacent store.
Thereafter, looting and arson spread rapidly throughout the city, prompting governor George Romney to call forth the state National Guard at the request of Mayor Jerome Cavanaugh. The riots nonetheless continued to escalate, and Romney requested that Johnson also supply federal troops, which the president granted in the form of 4,700 paratroopers from the 82nd and 101st Airborne Divisions. The federal deployment, though, was begrudging on the part of both Romney and Johnson, because the governor, due to his own presidential aspirations, was loath to admit the riots in the city had intensified to a level beyond his control. Johnson, meanwhile, remained generally averse to federal intervention of any kind. Accordingly, in a public address responding to his deployment of federal troops, Johnson noted that the action was taken with the “greatest regret” and assured that “[p]illage, looting, murder, and arson have nothing to do with civil rights,” but were “criminal conduct.”
Anger can take different forms. Annoyance is the petty kind, irritation at a minor disturbance. A tantrum is the immature kind, a self-centered outburst at not getting one’s whims fulfilled. Justifiable anger is the righteous kind, the moral outrage generated by some injustice. And aggression is yet another, the expressed anger of a bully who seeks to distract himself from deep-seated feelings of inadequacy by attempting to dominate others. Similarly, the words used to describe collective expressions of rage imply whether the anger that underlies them is well-founded or unwarranted.
A “riot,” for example, means a “violent disturbance of the peace,” and implies that those who collectively vent their anger in this way are perpetrators. The much-feared violence associated with so-called race riots—the kind associated with mostly black rioters in cities as opposed to white mobs wherever they may roam—is generally directed at property, not necessarily people. So, within the narrative constructed around such race riots, “peace” has come to mean the sanctity of private property, which remains undisturbed when peace reigns. Property is the victim preyed upon by rioters, who perpetrate crimes ranging from theft to vandalism to arson. The race rioter, then, becomes synonymous with the looter and with the flamethrower. And the cavalry that is called forth to restore “peace and order” is, essentially, on a mission to protect private property.
After five days with the presence of federal troops, the Detroit riot subsided, leaving forty-three people dead, over one thousand injured, and more than two thousand buildings destroyed. The riot was, in the end, the most violent and destructive in “the long hot summer” of 1967, when riots broke out in fifteen cities across the United States. The riot was also the city’s largest since 1943, which also involved federal military intervention. By 1967 there was a greater population of black Americans in Detroit than fourteen years before, on account of successive waves of migration from the South into northern cities.
And, as with the conditions leading up to the Detroit riots of 1943, many black residents still suffered from the collective burden of shortages of affordable housing—exacerbated by redlining and restrictive covenants that maintained racial segregation—as well as underemployment, as the city’s famed automotive industry was already in decline, with many existing factories moving jobs out of the city into the suburbs.
Such underlying causes were set forth in a report subsequently provided by the National Advisory Commission on Civil Disorders (the Kerner Commission) appointed by Johnson to investigate the rash of riots that started in 1965 and erupted during 1967’s long, hot summer. That the riots under study followed the legislative successes of the civil rights movement—the Civil Rights Act of 1964 and the Voting Rights Act of 1965—is a testament to the fact that, in the case of race-related reform, changes in the law did not immediately translate into societal progress. The Kerner Commission’s report offered scholarly support for this lived reality, stating in its oft-quoted summary:
Disorder did not erupt as a result of a single “triggering” or “precipitating” incident. Instead, it was generated out of an increasingly disturbed social atmosphere, in which typically a series of tension-heightening incidents over a period of weeks or months became linked in the minds of many in the Negro community with a reservoir of underlying grievances.
Whether caused by rejection, loss, injury, or the risk of any of these, the sense of having been aggrieved or finding oneself in danger gives rise, first and foremost, to pain. Anger, in this way, is deceptive. The accelerated heart rate, the tensed muscles, the quickened breath—all common effects of cortisol and adrenaline coursing through the body—arise seemingly on cue in direct response to some external provocation. The physiological effects of anger may feel like immediate feedback to an actual or perceived threat. However, say psychologists, anger is a secondary emotion. Anger does not, as it might seem, spontaneously arise in response to external stimuli. Anger rather emerges from a primary feeling of pain, physical or emotional, that was initially triggered by such stimuli. Anger is the second domino in the chain of emotional arousal.
So it is pain, then, and not the external stimulus itself, that sparks anger—a transition that can seem to occur so quickly the physiological switch can lurk below the level of one’s awareness. And yet one’s experience of pain cannot be seen or touched, and may be prone to dismissal or even denial.
An emphasis on systemic causes that underlie riots was a departure from the narrative that proliferated among white Americans at the time. A 1967 poll cited by Lindsey Lupo in Flak-Catchers: One Hundred Years of Riot Commission Politics in America, for example, “showed that more often than not, whites believed the riots to be caused by ‘outside agitation,’ ‘Communist backing,’ or ‘minority radicals’ rather than by the ‘socioeconomic circumstances confronting blacks.’” Such widespread beliefs were not reflected in the Kerner Commission report, which in its summary warned that the United States “is moving toward two societies, one black, one white—separate and unequal.” To the extent any blame was placed, the report’s summary targeted “white racism.”
That said, as Lupo discussed in Flak-Catchers, the riots might have represented growing impatience among some black Americans with the tactics of nonviolence. As a growing countermovement emphasized the right to self-defense, “many insurgents ultimately came openly to espouse violent insurrections as a viable tactic in the ongoing struggle.”
Anger is a defense mechanism. Anger helps the one suffering from it to summon sufficient energy to protect the Self by confronting the Other. Anger, also, distracts from the feeling of pain that underlies it, thereby transforming a sense of helplessness into control and vulnerability into power. Anger draws a border—not only between self and other, but also between what is acceptable and unacceptable, tolerable and intolerable, desirable and undesirable.
The word “rebellion” recasts collective demonstrations of anger as a defensive reaction. Similar to its close cousins “uprising” and “revolt,” “rebellion” shifts the moral authority to “rebels” courageous enough to openly defy some unjust authority. However, a rebellion—by definition an “open, armed, and usually unsuccessful defiance of, or resistance to, an established government”—is typically doomed from its spirited start. That is unlike a “revolution,” which refers to the forcible overthrow of a government or social order in favor of a new system. Revolutionaries, then, are always victorious; their revolutions only correctly labeled as such once their battles have been won (and they have gained the power to make and enforce law against would-be rebels and rioters). While there is some distant hope that today’s rioters might become tomorrow’s revolutionaries, amid this miraculous transformation the rioter’s anger also transitions from a feeling that is, at best, questionable into one that is justified.
On April 5, 1968, amid riots that broke out following Martin Luther King’s assassination, President Johnson issued a proclamation under the Insurrection Act declaring the need to restore “law and order” due to the “conditions of domestic violence and disorder” in the District of Columbia. Johnson soon dispatched about one thousand National Guardsmen and over eleven thousand federal troops to quell the rash of looting and arson in the district. However, Johnson, as U.S. president, technically did not have to invoke the Insurrection Act in order to federalize the D.C. National Guard or deploy federal troops in the District of Columbia, because the district is not a state and, rather, is subject to direct federal administration. Unlike the states, where—except in certain events specified by Congress—the governor is the commander in chief of the state National Guard, in the District of Columbia the president is the Guard’s immediate commander and does not have to submit to the same protocols established to maintain the separation of power between the state and federal government.
Regardless of Johnson’s lawful authority in this regard, and the widespread riots that erupted across the country following King’s murder, he was reportedly very reluctant to deploy federal troops in the District of Columbia, just as he was to do so in any of the states. Johnson was a strong adherent of federalism and respected the power of state officials to exercise their authority over local matters—a stance that, accordingly, made the Texas native generally opposed to federal intervention in state affairs, especially the military kind. Johnson, as Clay Risen discusses in A Nation on Fire: America in the Wake of the King Assassination, had not only refused to “send anything but indirect assistance to the California National Guard” in response to the 1965 Watts riots; he also “resisted, for too long, the need to send troops to Detroit” amid the 1967 riots in the city.
Johnson’s reticence notwithstanding, after discussions with Mayor Walter E. Washington, the president ultimately did decide to deploy federal troops under the close advice of Cyrus Vance, his former secretary of defense, who had devised a federal riot-response plan during the Detroit riots of 1967. In line with Vance’s plan, federal troops deployed would use the minimum amount of force necessary to restore law and order; they would not fire any weapons unless required to save a life. As Risen writes, federal troops in the district carried written rules of engagement to help reinforce this intention, for example stating “I will not load or fire a weapon except when authorized by an officer in person to,” and “I will not discuss or pass on rumors about this operation.”
Although these rules of engagement were meant to deter any injuries or fatalities meted out by federal troops—whose foreboding presence was broadcast far and wide through media outlets—Vance’s approach nonetheless left an unfavorable impression in the minds of white suburban spectators, a number of whom had fled the District of Columbia for Maryland and Virginia when the riots first flared. “A recurrent image from the riots,” writes Risen of the D.C. riots, “recounted in newspaper reports and beamed into suburban homes on the nightly news, was of police officers standing by while rioters went wild.”
This impression was likely aggravated by the presence of Stokely Carmichael in the District of Columbia, where he was living at the time, when he heard word of King’s death. A civil rights activist who converted from the kind of nonviolent civil disobedience characterized by SNCC to a proponent of armed self-defense, Carmichael, as chronicled by Peniel Joseph in Stokely: A Life, had launched into action as a “rare guerrilla general,” instructing his SNCC comrades to inform local businesses that King had been killed and trying to persuade black residents to remain calm. Carmichael’s media representation, however, amplified his already inflammatory reputation as a “violent” agitator. During a press conference after King’s death, a journalist asked him if he was “declaring war on white America.” Carmichael, later highlighting the need for black Americans to arm themselves with guns, responded: “White America has declared war on black people.”
Excerpted from INSURRECTION: Rebellion, Civil Rights, and the Paradoxical State of Black Citizenship. Copyright (c) 2022 by Hawa Allan. Used with permission of the publisher, W. W. Norton & Company, Inc. All rights reserved.