On Finding Empathy, Not Approval, for Protests That Become Riots

usatpeacefulfergusWe’ve heard it on the news and in conversations, usually on-line, related to protests that turn violent surrounding the Ferguson Grand Jury Decision. And it’s a logical question, although often pathetically accented with ugly adjectives. And I’m sure many of us have said similar things in the past: Why are they destroying their own neighborhood? They’re only hurting themselves! What did that business owner do to them? Sensible, reasonable, logical questions. Questions that can be asked in all similar situations. But when we break down the wider actions to look at our own responses to stress and anger, it can appear very different. Relatable, if not agreeable. Understandable, if not worthy of approval.

A few months after leaving Brooklyn, I waited until my kids were napping in their rooms to punch in a the door of a cabinet that housed craft supplies like stickers and kiddie scissors and glue and doodle pads. I was still angry, even furious after punching in the door, but the wave of shame and the realization that I couldn’t hide the damaged built-in cabinet stopped me from hitting the flimsy one-step-up from particle board door again and again. I was feeling isolated and frustrated and angry and out of control of my life. In that moment of helplessness, I punched a hole into my own cabinet door. It’s still broken after five years. I purposely broke part of a house I had just gone into debt to move into. It didn’t make sense, but I did it.

Just a few weeks ago I was aggravated about a disagreement I can no longer remember, but the intensity of my frustration was palpable. It was something about not feeling a part of things and being ignored and wanting respect on my terms. So much so that I grabbed an oven mitt and smacked it several times on the countertop. Hard. The last swing was poorly placed and I walloped my knuckles on the sharp edge. My hand was swollen within two minutes and stayed swollen for almost a week. I’m thankful we had formica countertops and not some version of stone. Even so, in that moment, for a reason I can’t remember, I damaged my own hand. It was painful, and it could have been a lot worse. I could have easily broken my knuckles. It didn’t make sense, but I did it.

And I know of people who have damaged their own car doors and bumpers, kicked in garage doors, slammed screen doors off the hinges, thrown prized possessions, punched walls and even trees until their hands bled in frustration. I know of others who floor the gas pedal in anger and guzzle beer, wine, gin in desperation. I know of people who eat things and smoke things and ingest pills they know are killing them slowly when they are sad or hopeless or afraid or grimacing with anger. Harmful actions, all. And many of those emotions grew out of a more manageable roadblock than institutionalized racism. It’s not an excuse; it’s a reason. It’s not approval; it’s empathy.

So, even as I despair in the images of burning buildings. Even as I fear that the creative and peaceful and purposeful protesting may escalate to violence again. Even as I hate seeing some take advantage of the media attention worldwide given to the many — though not enough — people declaring that #BlackLivesMatter, I can’t wholly condemn the destruction of buildings and cars without first admitting that I have felt an ounce of the same fury for lesser reasons. And I’m willing to bet that you have too.

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About That Unique* Weblog

Adjusting to the car culture, dealing with leaving a career I love, and spouting off along the way.
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13 Responses to On Finding Empathy, Not Approval, for Protests That Become Riots

  1. Vanessa D. says:

    You really brought some perspective home to me with this. I remember once slamming the kettle repeatedly on the stove until I broke the burner. I don’t even remember why now, probably frustration over something minor, a momentary inconvenience. Certainly it wasn’t anything as important as the events of last week.

  2. Shannon says:

    I think the distinction that you make between empathy and approval is so, so important in pretty much every aspect of life, especially when you’re about to condemn something whose motivations you can’t ever fully understand.

  3. Nancy Lowell says:

    This piece really illustrates the irrationality of anger, and rage. Anyone who is human feels those things, and we all react in some ways, and I love that you include the substances we abuse as ways to deal with that rage.
    Sometimes it’s juts really hard to be a human.

  4. You’re right; it’s easy to get caught up in understanding others from a logical point of view, but sometimes being human isn’t logical. Good point.

  5. When we have empathy for others who are hurting, it makes the whole world a little bit better. I hadn’t ever compared my own violent outbursts to the larger violent outbursts of others, but you pointing out the similarities really had an impact.

  6. This is a wonderful and necessary post. Thank you.

  7. Tua says:

    That’s such a unique perspective of looking at the situation. I think after today when I watch people burning houses and hurting others, a little part of me will forgive their impassioned violence. Beautiful post, 🙂

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