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Whites Riot: That’s Not What Joe Strummer Had in Mind

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So, they’re at it again. In the aftermath of Ohio State’s (unexpected) victory over Oregon in the first-ever College Football Playoff Championship Game – is that what it’s called? There have been so many iterations of the college football championship it’s hard to know what’s what – students at OSU’s campus in Columbus, Ohio, were up to the kind of post-sports-championship hijinks we’ve come to expect. NBC News reports that a crowd of roughly 8,000 people “poured out of bars to celebrate” the win, converging on the football stadium, tearing down the goal posts, and lighting at least a dozen “trash bin and couch fires” (couch fires? Is that a thing?) before police dispersed the crowd with tear gas and pepper spray. Buzzfeed claims that “30 to 40 fires were started in trash cans and dumpsters,” which seems a little less end-timesy than couch fires, but, still …

From the pictures and videos that accompany the NBC News and Buzzfeed stories, the crowd appears to have been predominantly white … which explains why they’re described in the media as “celebrating” rather than “rioting”. But every time this happens – that is to say, every time sports fans, predominantly of the white variety, go on rampages after wining (or losing) various championships – many of us with a few gray hairs on our heads are reminded of the Clash’s seminal punk anthem, “White Riot,” which was released as a 7-inch single (that would be on vinyl, kids) in March 1977, and was later included on both the UK and the US versions of the band’s debut album, The Clash.

Now, I’m not going to lie. It’s a great song. Musically speaking, it’s more or less the Punk Singularity. It’s fast and loud and angry, with a great hook. And if you listen to it often enough, you start to realize that it’s actually got a goddamn good melody. It’s just about the perfect punk song. Musically speaking.

Lyrically speaking, though, “White Riot” might seem, at first blush … well … a little problematic. I mean, just take a look at the first verse:

Black men got a lot of problems
But they don’t mind throwing a brick
White people go to school
Where they teach you how to be thick

And then, of course, there’s the chorus:

White riot, I want a riot
White riot, a riot of my own!
White riot, I want a riot
White riot, a riot of my own!

Hold on, though. Not so fast. Once you know the background of “White Riot,” the song takes on a very different meaning.

As I’ve mentioned before, the inspiration for “White Riot” came when Joe Strummer, the band’s rhythm guitarist, singer, and primary lyricist, and Paul Simonon, its bassist and occasional singer, found themselves in the Notting Hill neighborhood in London’s West End in August 1976, just as rioting broke out between the primarily Jamaican residents of the neighborhood and the police, “after a long summer of simmering tensions fuelled by overtly racist policing.” As Simonon described in a recent interview on Spotify (“I Wanna Riot”), he and Strummer actually participated in the riots – until it occurred to them that, in Simonon’s words, “actually, really, it’s not our fight.”

No doubt, Strummer and Simonon sympathized with the cause. In fact, to underscore that sympathy, the Clash’s 1977 debut album also featured a cover version of Junior Murvin’s reggae classic, “Police and Thieves,” the song that was, according to The Guardian, “the soundtrack to the Notting Hill carnival in the summer it was released, 1976.” But Strummer, Simonon and the Clash hadn’t personally experienced and couldn’t really know precisely what Notting Hill’s primarily Black residents were dealing with (and, as the BBC noted, had had to deal with since the at least the late 1950s.).

At the same time, Strummer and Simonon respected what Notting Hill’s residents were doing: They’d had enough abuse, and so they were taking matters into their own hands. To participate directly in the Notting Hill unrest was, for white punk musicians unaffected by Britain’s racism, largely a hollow gesture, but it nonetheless made Strummer wish his own peers – other young, disaffected white kids like him – would likewise take direct action to fight abuse and oppression. And so he wrote:

All of the power in the hands
Of people rich enough to buy it
While we walk the street
Too chicken to even try it

And:

Are you taking over
Or are you taking orders
Are you going backwards
Or are you going forwards

Nearly forty years later, on this side of the Pond, African-Americans still struggle with racist police practices, some overt, some covert. And nearly forty years later, African-Americans have taken to the streets – all be it peacefully – and yet are still labeled rioters, thugs, and looters (even when those same protesters actually protect local businesses from looting).

As for white Americans? Well, yeah, forty years later they actually do riot on occasion. Over sports championships. Over the firing of a coach accused of covering up child sex abuse. Over – yes – pumpkin festivals.

Somewhere, the late, great Joe Strummer weeps.

David Von Ebers

An evil trial lawyer from Chicago, which makes me almost as bad as Barack Obama himself. Except, I am a Cubs fan, unlike our President, and so, as the kids say, I AM SHAME. I blog about legal issues, politics, sports, music (that long-haired rock 'n roll music all the kids are into), and, frequently, the interaction between any and all of the above. When I'm not busy undermining the Constitution or circumventing your freedoms, I run, watch too much sports on the teevee, and hang out with my long-suffering wife and three kids.

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