“It is not enough for me to stand before you tonight and condemn riots. It would be morally irresponsible for me to do that without, at the same time, condemning the contingent, intolerable conditions that exist in our society. These conditions are the things that cause individuals to feel that they have no other alternative than to engage in violent rebellions to get attention. And I must say tonight that a riot is the language of the unheard.”
-Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., The Other America
On the night of Freddy Gray’s funeral, violence erupted in Baltimore. The revolt was immediately condemned by everyone, from media organizations, to civil rights activists, and even by President Obama himself—with all parties referring to the rioters as “thugs,” and the violence as senseless and counterproductive.
We can set aside the clear double-standard of how rioting is depicted depending on the skin color of those involved; or the absurdity that most seemed more concerned about the destruction of property than of black lives. We can ignore the central role that Baltimore’s police department played in escalating the events of that night, which were neither random nor unprovoked—and paradoxically, the role that actual “thugs” and gangsters played in maintaining the peace. We can even set aside that the Gray family has condemned the riots. Because while the illegal arrest and extrajudicial execution of their son was the catalyst for the current unrest, the protests are about more than just their personal loss.
Beyond the firewall of rhetoric about the crisis in Baltimore lies a stark reality: there is no social change without coercion. Authoritarians do not step down because people are saying mean things about them on Facebook or Twitter; social elites do not relinquish their privilege simply because they saw people walking down the street, arms locked, singing kumbaya. One has to speak to power in a language it understands. It must be made clear that there are consequences for ignoring dissidents, that a return to the status quo is not an option. Shy of this, there is no change.
Violence is always unfortunate, especially insofar as it is indiscriminate. However, these outbursts must not be reflexively dismissed—if for no other reason than because it is violence which enables non-violent resistance.
The Paradox of Non-Violence
“Do not think that I came to bring peace on the earth; I did not come to bring peace, but a sword.”
Jesus of Nazareth (Matthew 10: 34)
Pacifists are dependent upon violence in a number ways: aggression against protestors helps transform local demonstrations into mass movements, or to provoke external intervention on behalf of a cause. Public arrests and wrongful imprisonment of civil rights activists and leaders, powerful images or video of violence against protestors, and at times, even martyrdom (sometimes self-imposed)—spilled blood is the lifeblood of social movements. Notice, the focal point of the current protests are the deaths of unarmed black men at the hands of law enforcement.
Realities such as these were not lost on organizers such Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., who often staged episodes of civil disobedience in the most hostile or dangerous areas, with the implicit intent of generating a heavy handed response from the authorities or local community in a highly-public and well-publicized setting—thereby advancing sympathy for, and awareness of, the cause. Pacifists gain moral high-ground precisely by refusing to return violence in kind—a feat which is impossible unless and until they are confronted with unreasonable force.
Non-violent movements also become more effective at bargaining through contrast with violence committed by outliers sympathetic to the cause. Episodes of rioting or looting create a credible implicit threat: if pacifistic movements consistently come away empty-handed, their leaders may lose credibility—but the bourgeoisie stand to lose a lot more than that.
Mobilizing waves of the disenfranchised to assemble at seats of power underscores this threat further: right now, the angry mob at your doorstep is committed to non-violence. But should they grow disillusioned with pacifism, they may return with torches and pitchforks—and under the sway of revolutionaries who will not be placated with piecemeal reforms or patiently strive to accumulate small concessions, nor will they turn the other cheek in the face of repression. That is, it is violent movements (or other forms of coercion) which motivate elites to engage at all, even if progressives and pacifists are their preferred interlocutors.
And finally, for those movements aimed at legal reforms, the essential goal is to divert the coercive apparatus of the state for alternative means, to co-opt the state’s supposed monopoly on legitimate use of force. For instance, when schools were mandated to be integrated, police and National Guard were deployed to enforce the law. The very presence of these security personnel entails a threat of reciprocal violence–indicating that those who try to harm black students, or prevent them from attending white schools, will themselves face sanctions, imprisonment, injury or even death. While certainly justifiable (perhaps necessary) in this and many other instances, it is problematic to deny the role of threats and coercion play even when trying to work “within the system.”
In light of these nuances, it may be misleading to call movements non-violent at all. It may be more accurate to say that progressives and pacifists enjoy a different relationship to violence than their revolutionary counterparts, or to the systems and institutions they are ostensibly resisting and seeking to reform. And they are often empowered to keep their own hands clean precisely because someone else’s are red. Accordingly, sanctimonious condemnations of violent protest are often misguided and misplaced.
“I do believe that, where there is only a choice between cowardice and violence, I would advise violence… I would rather have India resort to arms in order to defend her honour than that she should, in a cowardly manner, become or remain a helpless witness to her own dishonor.”
Violence is only one type of coercion—and in many, perhaps most, circumstances, it will not be the best means of realizing social objectives. However, there is a broader incoherence at work in most these discussions, particularly the notion that the aims and methods of civil disobedience must be amenable to the prevailing order (that is, the criticism is not usually about the necessity or efficacy of violence in this particular context—but rather, that violence is distasteful). This is to completely miss the point of revolt. An uprising should not be comfortable for those in power; its leaders should not be beloved, but feared, by those with a vested interest in the status quo.
In order to upend business as usual, for instance, companies need to know that even if the laws don’t hold them accountable, if they act egregiously they will face boycotts, smear campaigns, logistical disruption, employee strikes, and at times, even vandalism and looting.
Cops need to know that if they abuse their position they will go to jail themselves. And if the system won’t deal with it, the community will: officers will face decreased public cooperation and increased hostility—rendering their jobs ever more difficult and dangerous until they change the way they operate.
Politicians need to know that protestors’ demands will not fade away, but will be forced onto the agenda one way or another. If leaders remain tone-deaf they will be voted out of office or be otherwise deposed.
Because so long as the status quo remains viable, change is not. To the extent that social elites believe that protestors can be safely ignored—that they will eventually return empty-handed to their jobs, to their schools, to voting the same people into office (or better yet, not voting at all)—they don’t have a reason to care. And they won’t.
And so while there is perhaps room to criticize unfocused violence, activists should not reflexively condemn the Baltimore riots. Instead, they should be using them as leverage–granting additional depth and urgency to the refrain, “No justice, No peace.”
“I think America must see that riots do not develop out of thin air. Certain conditions continue to exist in our society which must be condemned as vigorously as we condemn riots. But in the final analysis, a riot is the language of the unheard. And what is it that America has failed to hear? It has failed to hear that the plight of the Negro poor has worsened over the last few years. It has failed to hear that the promises of freedom and justice have not been met. And it 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. Social justice and progress are the absolute guarantors of riot prevention.”