While long supporting the right of Americans to protest injustices peacefully, I’ve also decried the use of violence, whether that be hurting other people without provocation (including both demonstrators and police), destroying property, or looting. I consider this immoral because you are hurting others, or destroying their property, with no justification. Further, it’s also ineffective, at least judging by the several studies cited in the CNN report below.
While violent protests may in some cases achieve their aim, there’s no control experiment here: who knows whether peaceful protests might be even more effective? In fact, I can’t imagine a situation in which scenes of protestors burning cars or police stations, beating up people without provocation, or looting stores could move people to rectify injustices more strongly than when seeing many peaceful demonstrations that are, for instance, occurring now. Indeed, many people have warned—and I think this is true—that violence turns off Americans in the middle, forcing them to support “law and order” politicians. Donald Trump has described himself as one of these, and who would want to sway people into voting for him again?
And who could claim, for instance, that if the lunch-counter protestors or Freedom Riders of the Sixties simply trashed Woolworth stores, or looted, they would have gotten the sympathy that they did from Americans. The sight of a peaceful black student sitting at a lunch counter, ad having a milkshake dumped over her head, is infinitely more moving than if the protestors were seen trashing the lunch counters and looting the stores.
However, the George Floyd protests have differed from the many peaceful protests that brought about the civil rights legislation of the 1960s. Going back, we know that nonviolence, filtered through Mohandas Gandhi’s satyagraha tactics, was pivotal in turning Americans against institutionalized segregation. Granted, many (but not all) of the protestors, unlike the ones of today, were trained in nonviolent resistance, and, indeed, were counting on brutal violent police responses to make their case, but none of that excuses the rioting, looting, and violence on the part of the protestors today. (Let me add here, as I have before, that I’ve seen many cases of violent responses by police to George Floyd demonstrators, and I deplore them even more, as the police are authorities.) Even without training, rioting is simply illegal, reprehensible, and cannot be condoned.
Nevertheless, at least in my view, the media has been quick (and correct) to protest police violence, but curiously silent on the violence of protestors. (Leaders like Barack Obama, John Lewis, and Atlanta mayor Keisha Lance Bottoms have, however, decried violence.) Yes, the media shows videos of that violence, but you’ll find criticism of that violence only from Trumpsters or other right wingers. Since nonviolence and civil disobedience are pillars of progressive liberalism, I want to defend them today, and criticize those who, explicitly or implicitly, try to justify violence.
You can see some of the justification in the article below, as well as in a discussion between Glenn Loury and John McWhorter (the justifier) that I’ll post later today.
Here’s the article (click on screenshot to read):
While naming and quoting civil rights leaders who don’t countenance violence, and citing studies that nonviolent protests are more effective than violent ones in changing people’s minds and actions, the CNN article, under the heading “Some are arguing nonviolent protest has not worked for black people”, also gives examples of those who seem to think violent protests are okay, including Nikole Hannah-Jones, head of the New York Times’s 1619 Project:
But some black intellectual leaders are offering a different — and startling — view of what has worked for black protesters in the past.
“But the fact of history is non-violent protest has not been successful for blk Americans,” Nikole Hannah-Jones, a Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist with the New York Times, said in a much-debated Twitter thread.
“The Civil Rights Movement was not non-violent,” she wrote, adding she believes black protesters courted violence by whites as a strategy.
“Peaceful protest did not bring about the great civil rights legislation of the 1960s,” she added. “Black people being firebombed, water-hosed, lynched, bitten by dogs, beaten to a pulp by police trying to march across a bridge is what brought the changes. Violence.”
I can’t help but think that Hannah-Jones is being disingenuous here, and on two counts. First, these were peaceful protests; it was the police response that was sometimes violent. She seems to be conflating the violence of the police with the violence of some of the George Floyd demonstrators. This appears to be a deliberate move. After all, surely Hannah-Jones is not calling for more police violence!
Second, as the article reports, fully peaceful protests have been effective in the past, including many of the ones led by Gandhi and, in our own time, the Montgomery bus boycott, which worked very well, and the kneeling of Colin Kapernick, which has led to sports teams rethinking their rules.
Another person who seems to justify the violence is, surprisingly, former NBA star Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, in an interview with CNN:
As US President Donald Trump vowed to return order to America’s streets using the military if widespread violence isn’t quelled, one NBA Hall of Fame player says that the rioting that is taking place all across the country is “the voices of people who have no voice.”
“These are people that have no other voice now,” Kareem Abdul-Jabbar told CNN.
“They don’t get the political power or the financial power to change the circumstances, so what are they going to do? The rioting is the voices of people who have no voice. That’s how they have made their presence known.
“I just remember seeing a sign that someone held up in Minneapolis that said, ‘Can you hear us now?’ I think that’s a very poignant statement.”
Yes, we can hear you now, but will America heed you now? Maybe it would heed you more if there were no violence or looting on the part of protestors.
I hasten to add that the protests did attract some who weren’t politically motivated to riot, loot or burn, including white anarchists taking advantage of the situation. But it would be disingenuous to say that none of the rioters or looters were “true George Floyd protestors.” Many of them were probably so agitated or full of rage that they turned on other people, buildings, or stores. This is tacitly admitted by Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, John McWhorter (later today in a video), and by anyone who tries to justify the violence as inherent in George Floyd protests. (I call this the “no true rioters” argument.)
But Basketball Hall of Famer Kareem Abdul-Jabbar defended the protests in a powerful op-ed for the Los Angeles Times on Saturday, writing that while he doesn’t want to see stores looted or buildings burned, the protests are the result of what happens when black Americans have been pushed to their tipping point.
“African Americans have been living in a burning building for many years, choking on the smoke as the flames burn closer and closer. Racism in America is like dust in the air. It seems invisible — even if you’re choking on it — until you let the sun in. Then you see it’s everywhere,” Abdul-Jabbar wrote.
Those who criticize the looting and fires, saying that those actions are hurting the protesters’ cause aren’t wrong, but they’re not right, either, the former Lakers star said.
Here’s another person tacitly defending violence:
Melanye Price has a message for people invoking King and nonviolence to condemn recent protesters — stop it.
They forget that 1960s activists endured arduous nonviolent training, says Price, a professor of political science at Prairie View A&M University.
Turning the other cheek to violence is “not instinctual,” says Price, author of “The Race Whisperer: Barack Obama and the Political Uses of Race.” She says critics talk about black people as if “nonviolence was genetically implanted in us.”
“People are using Martin Luther King as a weapon against them (today’s protesters). If King were alive today, we don’t know where he would be,” she says. “To use this cultural icon to be a hammer against these kids is completely unfair. Of course, these kids are not going to have good control of their emotions.”
I’m pretty sure where Dr. King would be were he here today: right beside Barack Obama and John Lewis. Price cannot distinguish a hammer from an admonition, a weapon from well-meant advice.
So let me sum up: The protestors’ cause is just and they have not just the right but the moral imperative to call out racism. The actions of the police that motivated the protests need to be scrutinized very closely by independent reviews aimed at restructuring how the police work. And the police brutality against some of the protestors—people who were doing nothing wrong—is inexcusable, and those cops need to be disciplined or tried (this is in fact happening now).
But not all of the looting, rioting, and violence on the part of the protestors was done by outside agitators. And any form of violence by the protestors, including physical harm to people, damage to cars, buildings and stores (including many stores owned by minorities), and looting, is not only counterproductive, but inexcusable and reprehensible. Yes, we might understand why people became violent, but understanding is not equivalent to excusing.