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Understand Protests As 'Acts Of Rebellion' Instead Of Riots, Marc Lamont Hill Says

Protesters kneel and raise their arms if front of a row of police officers as they gather peacefully to protest the death of George Floyd at the State Capital building in downtown Columbus, Ohio, on June 1, 2020. (Seth Herald/AFP/Getty Images)
Protesters kneel and raise their arms if front of a row of police officers as they gather peacefully to protest the death of George Floyd at the State Capital building in downtown Columbus, Ohio, on June 1, 2020. (Seth Herald/AFP/Getty Images)

America is bracing for another night of protests over police brutality and the death of George Floyd a week ago after a white police officer knelt on his neck. 

On Monday night, four police officers in St. Louis were shot, and the police chief in Louisville, Kentucky, has been fired after a business owner was killed when police and the National Guard fired shots during some chaotic moments.

 The unrest continued after President Trump announced he would send the military to states where protests needed to be quelled, despite calling himself an “ally of all peaceful protesters.” 

Political and cultural commentator Marc Lamont Hill says it’s important at this moment to make the distinction that these protests are rebellions and not riots. 

“It’s really important when we look at these uprisings around the country that we don’t dismiss them as simply random violence or foolishness, that there’s no political sensemaking happening on behalf of the people doing the work out here in the field. These are political responses,” says Hill, who is also a professor at Temple University. 

“These are people who are responding to structural injustice,” he says, “and they’re doing it through organized actions around the country.” 

Dismissing protesters as rioters “dehumanizes” the people who are taking “coordinated” actions to fight injustice, Hill says, and he is hopeful that speaking out in this moment will bring about change.

“At the core, this is a principled, righteous resistance,” he says. “This is a marvelous militancy that’s going to lead to some real social change, I do believe.”

Interview Highlights

On what is different about this current moment 

“I think there are a couple of things. I think sometimes it’s just a sense of collective exhaustion. In this case for example, you have the state neglecting its most vulnerable citizens with COVID-19 for months. And then people are home. They are drained both financially and emotionally. There’s an extraordinary medical toll that’s been taken on so many people. And then that’s combined with the death, the killing of Ahmaud Arbery in Georgia. And then we were enjoying our Memorial Days or trying to, and you look and you see Christian Cooper being harassed at Central Park. And then you hear, within hours, about the death of George Floyd. And with each of those actions, there’s a collective sense of we’re vulnerable, we’re subject to random violence, we’re unprotected by the state and we’re having increased likelihood of premature death. And when you see all of those things sort of occurring, it’s easy for people to say, ‘We have had enough.’ 

“The second piece of it, though, is the spectacle of it all. When you see these things on video, when you see these things in full public view, I think it increases the pain and the sense of action. This is what happens when we see Mike Brown’s body lay in Ferguson for four and a half hours. It’s what happens when we watch Rodney King get beaten by the [Los Angeles Police Department]. Watching it produces a different response in terms of the collective body politic responding to it.”

On what justice would look like in the immediate future 

“It’s a great question because in some ways it’s an impossible question that justice itself can never prevail at a moment where black people are subject to death on the streets, where random white citizens or law enforcement officers can take away our lives, and act as judge, jury and executioner. So because these people are dead, because Breonna Taylor is dead or Ahmaud Arbery is dead, there is no sense of justice. There’s nothing just about that outcome. 

“But what we can do is produce the best form of imperfect justice that we can. In the case of George Floyd, I think the arrest of the other officers is what most people on the streets are calling for. They’re calling for accountability in other ways. Now, as an abolitionist, for me, the prison isn’t the ultimate way that we should be imagining justice. But in the short term, the fact that there’s no accountability for three people who watched him die is one of the reasons why you see this on the street. 

“But the other thing here is it’s important to say is that it’s not a quid pro quo situation where, oh if you arrest one more person, we’ll stop being angry or will stop rebelling because this isn’t the product of one incident. Again, if black folk rebelled every time there was an injustice or a bad shoot or a wrongful incarceration or wrongful death, we’d do nothing but rebel. This is about structural injustice over a period of time that begins when a black folk arrive here in America. So the outrage you’re going to see will be quelled some by greater moves toward justice, but you also have to, as they say in the hood, hold this L. You know, like we’ve been under enough pressure for so long that you’re going to see some of it vent out.”

On Trump’s threat to deploy troops to quell the protests

“[The president] is being very intentional in the language that he’s using. A week ago when he said, ‘When the looting starts, the shooting starts,’ he was intentionally invoking the exact language of the police chief of Miami who was very unabashed in his commitment to using police brutality to quell young people from engaging in civil rights actions. So he’s dog whistling to the white supremacist wing of his base as a way of getting a certain kind of commitment from the nation to use violent force against those who are rebelling. 

“So now that he’s calling in the force of the National Guard to quell resistance unfortunately, it saddens me, but it reminds me of the ’50s and the ’60s, and those moments where civil rights actions were resisted through federal intervention in many ways. It’s stunning to hear the president use that language or it should be stunning to hear the president use that language. Of course, it’s not given what we’ve seen, but that’s why this is a rebellion once again. The state is trying to push back. And it sends the message finally that the state would rather watch this country burn, this government would rather watch the nation burn in many ways than to simply yield justice for those who have been harmed.”

On lessons from the past that can inform this current moment 

“The lesson is when we fight, we win. What we see in Detroit, for example, in ’67, you know, there’s a lesson in that. What we saw in ’92 in [Los Angeles], there’s a lesson in that. What we saw in Ferguson in 2014, there’s a lesson in that. And each of those places, those battles on the ground led to concrete results. The conversation about body cameras, for example, regardless of how you feel about them, or civilian review boards, those emerged because of the struggles of 2014. LA in ’92 produced a conversation about police brutality that we simply have not seen otherwise. 

“Each of these moments creates something else, including the idea that if you want a peaceful alternative, a nonviolent alternative, then you have to learn to listen to the folk who are catching the most hell before we get to this point. So I don’t want anyone on the ground or anyone watching the people on the ground to believe for a moment that these acts of resistance are for naught, that they’re not yielding some sort of justice, some sort of fruit. They’re not perfect. They’re strategic and ethical choices we can make, and we can go back and forth about what’s happening on the ground.”

Ciku Theuri produced and edited this interview for broadcast with Kathleen McKenna. Samantha Raphelson adapted it for the web.

This article was originally published on

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