Examining Protests & Rioting Through The Nib’s Political Comics

Karens protesting Target looting

Since the murder of George Floyd on May 25, much has been said about what constitutes a peaceful protest, a riot, or an opportunistic looting. Within weeks, non-Black citizens have found countless ways to critique, tone police, and implore that Martin Luther King Jr. would have never supported such chaos in the pursuit of human rights. We examine this all through the lens of two comics from The Nib: Keith Knight’s “Under Pressure” and Bianca Xunise’s “Solidarity Forever.”

Like many political cartoons, the joke requires some historical context. On March 5, 1770, a fight broke out between American colonists and British soldiers. The Americans, frustrated by the police presence, flung snowballs at them; in response, the soldiers opened fire and killed five colonists. Tensions worsened and taxes increased, and by 1773 the Americans realized that destroying British property was the only way to gain their attention. A group of young adults and teens boarded British ships and destroyed 342 chests of tea; it took them three hours, and by today’s standards the tea was worth over a million dollars. Benjamin Franklin saw this as a mistake, and tried to repay the British merchants. President George Washington was furious, and proclaimed that the protesters “were mad.”

History has since buried Washington’s fury over the loss of merchandise. Today, Americans teach the Boston Tea Party as one of the most honored and defining events of our nation, the moment we took a stand against tyranny and choose freedom. But here’s a funny thing; people tend to forget that while the details may change, history often repeats. Tea in the ocean feels silly today, a noble but harmless jape against capitalism. If the colonists looted Ye Olde Walmarte though, would we be less quick to praise? Would we say they should have hitched up their britches and marched peacefully, hand-in-hand, instead?

Probably. In fact, Martin Luther King Jr. faced similar criticisms in his own time, yet is upheld today as a sterling example of how to protest the “right” way.

Xunise’s satirical comic draws attention to this particular American hypocrisy. In the wake of Floyd’s death, citizens debated about the rights of the Targets, Chase Banks, and Wendys being defaced across the country. Discussions around police brutality segued into whether or not looting and rioting detracted from the overall message. Anti-Black Lives Matter protestors formed a human chain to protect Targets against looters. Their actions said that destruction of property was unspeakable, unprecedented, and un-American.

“All Targéts matter,” one distraught white woman says in Xunise’s comic. “Solidarity for Targét,” another says, suggesting that they see themselves more in the walls of a megacorp than in the lives of Black Americans.  Their colorful “Karens 4 Targét” sign and weepy expressions speak to the distress they feel over having to mobilize. They’d rather be doing better things, like “Rosé all day,” but protest they must to protect the American way of life.

The fact that all the Karens are white underscores their fake victimhood, and calls to mind countless other white women who have viewed themselves as oppressed by even the most benign actions of Black people, like Amy Cooper and Jennifer Schulte, aka BBQ Becky. It paints a stark divide between the anxiety white people feel over a store, versus the anxiety Black people feel because they’re overwhelmingly targeted by law enforcement.

Xunise’s use of bright pinks and greens, as opposed to the black often worn by Black Lives Matter protestors, reinforces the shallow frivolity of it all. Target is worth billions of dollars; Target does not suffer. (And in fact, global companies like Target thrive by killing local businesses.) The blaring green neon of the middle Karen signifies how concerns over capital are meant to distract from human issues. Property is not supposed to be valued more than humanity, and yet it absolutely is the higher you go up the social ladder. And so destroying it has always been the last, but tried and true, resort for getting the attention of those in power. Property destruction does infuriate the bourgeoisie, and so property destruction is what activists historically have had to resort to, when it was clear they had no other avenues for getting their voice heard.

Knight’s “Under Pressure” takes a more straightforward approach to this fact, quoting what George W. Bush’s Secretary of Defense, Donald Rumsfeld, said when troops invaded Iraq in 2003. “While no one can condone looting…one can understand the pent up feelings that may result from decades of repression…people who have had members of their family killed by that regime,” the comic reads. It’s a flawed quote out-of-context, but it that also pinpoints a truth about riots: sometimes change can be destructive, and anger can be understood.

A riot is the language of the unheard,” MLK Jr. said, an all-too-applicable quote that ends Knight’s comic. There’s a reason Knight juxtaposes the two quotes; like Rumsfeld, MLK Jr. did not explicitly condone rioting, but he did similarly point out during a 1967 speech at Stanford University that riots “do not develop out of thin air.” As MLK Jr. explained, “America has failed to hear” that “large segments of white society are more concerned about tranquility and the status quo than about justice, equality, and humanity … and as long as America postpones justice, we stand in the position of having these recurrences of violence and riots over and over again.” He ended by saying that “social justice and progress are the absolute guarantors of riot prevention.”

And so here we are. The reality is that non-Black people don’t know how cosmically traumatic it is to live in a country built on white supremacy, and where your ancestors were once themselves property. It is really not anyone’s place to critique how Black people’s grief may inconvenience their regular shopping routines, or how it may make them personally uncomfortable. As Knight’s comic points out, as terrifying and upsetting as it may be, protesting and rioting and property destruction have always been a part of America, and it built our country just as much as slavery did. We have to reckon with and fully understand both at this very moment if we want to move forward. In the meantime, Target will be fine.

Gretchen Smail

Gretchen Smail

Part time Bay Area journalist, full time loungewear enthusiast