By Joshua Clover / 25 April 2016
A picture of a young person on a BMX bike, April 27, 2015, his arms filled with looted cereal boxes. The caption on the original Instagram snap is mostly redacted. What remains reads “Baltimore shit” and “hate yall.” The person who has reposted this picture on Twitter wonders “Why would you take cereal” and attaches a series of emoticons indicating mortal disbelief. It seems like a good question. Why not take something more valuable, perhaps remarketable? Or why not something that expressed the riot’s state of exception, its curfewless joy — something like the tubs of ice cream some friends of mine wound up with in Hackney, summer 2011? The sense here is that an error has been made.
This sense corresponds to the axiomatic position of state, media, and the respectability politics that keeps state and media always in mind. Looting is not just a crime but an error, a tactical or moral failing. It is the act that delegitimates what might otherwise conjure some sympathy from the nebulous public and indeed the political class: the spasm of outrage erupting from an immiserated people. If only their refusal took a more properly political form instead of just jacking shit! Why, that’s just shopping on steroids, just — we are informed by self-serious theorists — capitalism’s ideology saying its own name through these benighted individuals greedily grabbing at goods the moment the opportunity affords. And, as our observer notes, not paternalistically but with wry puzzlement, paltry goods at that. Breakfast cereal.
This is a moment of levity, not the only one, in The 2015 Baltimore Uprising: A Teen Epistolary. It is the first great book to come from the last great riot in the United States. It has a simple concept: it gathers together tweets related to the rebellion that followed on the police murder of Freddie Gray on April 12th of last year, his spine severed while being given a rough ride in the back of paddy wagon, shackled and alone, the vehicle careening intentionally off course through Baltimore neighborhoods that would burn in the weeks to follow. Coma, and then death on April 19th, which is when the first tweet is dated: “Screaming Fuck The Police #Justice4Freddie.” Increasingly angry protests would yield to open riot on the 25th, a year ago today.