‘Violence isn’t the answer’

16 minute read


For Folks who think Racism exists and needs to be dealt with, But Violence Is Never The Answer. Longest so far, and with the fewest concrete sources. I can’t find many good statistics.

Regular ground rules. Peace, love, non-judgemental discussion. US-centric lens. Links to everything at the bottom. TW physical abuse/violence.

I’ll start by being the first one to say that violence absolutely sucks. It is horrendous that violence is happening at “peaceful” protests. It is very, very sad that some small businesses have been destroyed in such a way that they may never recover, potentially putting a POC or a family out of business and into a desperate situation. And it is a complete travesty that occasionally, innocent bystanders are hurt and sometimes even actively targeted. Nobody likes that. Nobody is happy that buildings are burning and people are being hurt. It sucks.

I will here share an article that was shared with me, describing an incident in which the statue of an abolitionist, unionist colonel (who died fighting for the Union in the Civil War) was torn down, and in which Democratic senator Tim Carpenter was assaulted by protestors after taking a video of them.

This is an obviously horrible incident, and one which I imagine those involved regret. So, we wonder, why did this happen? How did it comes to this? “Why can’t they protest peacefully?”

To answer this we need a brief history lesson. Black Lives Matter (BLM) started in 2013 after the murder of Trayvon Martin (17) and subsequent acquittal of George Zimmerman. The organization (movement?) gained recognition after the Ferguson demonstrations following the shooting of Michael Brown in 2014 — the origin of the chant/slogan “Hands Up Don’t Shoot.” Since then, BLM has orgnanized thousands of protests across the country, including some that either disrupted my day or that I took part in in Boston between 2015-2017.

People have been protesting peacefully since before the Ferguson riots, (2014) and before the Baltimore riots (2016). Peaceful demonstrations have flooded liberal cities before, and some smaller areas have suffered property damage from them in the past, and, critically, things are not changing nationwide.

One can look at the data and say “more white people are being killed by police than black people” but I’m sure we all understand that because of demographic makeup of the US, proportionally that means far more black people are being harmed by police than white. I am pretty bad at statistics, but I believe this means that the way a Bayesian might explain this is “Given that a person is black, it is more likely for them to experience police violence.” Correct me if I’m wrong, though.

We can also say “but the trend is going down!” Which is fantastic, but that means in 2019 there were still 28 unarmed black folks killed by police. Why in the world is that number not 0? This also fails to account for incidents of police violence (not killings by police), as well as officer accountability (99% of incidents of police killing a black person resulted in no charges let alone a conviction).

So, hopefully now we can sit on the common footing that police brutality against black folks IS a problem, and despite years of protest there has been no result (or at least not enough of one that addresses the systemic issues at hand).

I will ignore the “what about MLK” argument and instead point to articles describing his arc towards nonviolent resistance (which began with violent resistance) and how his historical message is sometimes distorted for white comfort / “we’re past that now” rhetoric. There are dozens of articles on this but here’s the one I read.

I’m gonna be honest and maybe a shitty liberal here and say it’s really hard to find exact facts and figures and examples of “riots” working for change on a systemic level. I know that in Ferguson the police chief changed and a bunch of new laws were passed. In Baltimore, from what I can tell, it looks like the riots led to a complete lack of policing and some very catty comments by the police departments [link] as well as a rise in violent crime. Looks like suffragettes used violence [link] and women have the right to vote, so that’s nice. And I can find plenty of academic experts who study civil disobedience and violence who suggest that property destruction is a good way to instigate change.

Here’s what my reading of these sources suggests to me, with a sympathetic view towards the protests:

“A riot is the language of the unheard” is an understated MLK quote. When the media does not pay attention to your cause when you protest peacefully, if you break a few windows then suddenly it’s national (or international) news.

The entire basis of MLK’s non-violence tactic was provoking openly (proudly) racist police chiefs and officers to attack them. It was this state-sanctioned violence against non-violent protestors that garnered widespread support for the Civil Rights movement. We see similar factors at play now, 50 years later, when we see the incredibly violent police response against overwhelmingly non-violent protests.

It is completely inappropriate to equate loss of life to loss of property. I really don’t think you’ll be able to convince me otherwise. People are protesting because they are in danger of being killed, and that fact has been demonstrated over and over and over and over. It is true that property is being destroyed and that is bad, but suggesting this is an eye for an eye is, in my personal opinion, almost wilfully ignorant. Lives are at stake. Businesses can recover but lives cannot be regained once lost. And for the businesses that struggle for years afterwards or that put someone into bankruptcy, I do feel sincerely sorry. It’s horrible that that happened. It really flippin’ sucks that it’s honestly like a trade-off between getting people to care about lost lives, and physical property.

When people talk about “violent” BLM protests, they are almost exclusively talking about property destruction. Statues being torn down, windows being smashed, “looting.”

I think it is impossible to prove who is doing the “looting.” I am sure there is at least one protestor who has stolen something, and at least one bystander taking advantage of the chaos. Neither side can prove how many protestors instigate breaking things and how many bystanders calculatedly carry hammers without relation to the cause. I’m sure we’ve all seen enough videos of people carrying BLM signs smashing windows, and people carrying BLM signs stopping others from entering stores and stealing things. We can’t interview people for their motivations, so I think the “looting” issue comes out in the wash. Protests lead to police being unable to access areas which leads to bad actors stealing stuff. This happens, but it seems like it’s impossible to prove who is responsible.

The fact that items are being stolen is NOT grounds to dismiss the hundreds of thousands of people who are peacefully demonstrating.

Even if it were entirely BLM protestors looting/causing damage (which I do not believe is true at all, but EVEN IF IT WERE), property destruction is how you get media attention. The smaller nationwide protests that have been going on for the last 7 years (and more before that, but 7 years since BLM began organising) have NOT resulted in large media attention, this has. Media attention is how you get recognition, is how you get followers, is how you get the sympathy of the group in power, is how you get change.

As far as I can tell (granted, my google-fu is not great), BLM leadership has NEVER advocated for violence against individuals, except a few times where it seems like leaders have condoned (or at least explained?) violence in self-defence. This seems like a pretty peaceable position for a group that has been described as a terrorist organization by the highest leader in the land. So, while individuals may perpetrate bad actions, I think we must look to the tone of the leaders a movement if we want to characterise what that movement “stands for.”

It appears that counter-protestors are way more likely to incite personal, human-targeted violence and actively come looking for a fight than BLM protests themselves. That’s the media I’m seeing, I can find absolutely ZERO statistics on it, but it’s certainly feeding a rising sense of fear-for-personal-safety that protestors may be experiencing. Any statistics on this are welcome.

And some more nuanced thoughts that have been more difficult for me to grapple with:

Mob mentality is real. I think a statue of a Good Guy™ was torn down in a frenzy. Same with the Ulysses Grant statue in SF. People have pent up anger and work themselves into a state where they do not think clearly and rigorously about how all their actions will be received and portrayed by the press. SF and Milwaukee obviously don’t have statues of confederate generals, but they do have statues of white dudes who were probably not the nicest guys (I cannot find any statistics on statues of people being slave owners/white/“bad” so I’m going with the general sentiment and tendency of society to idolise rich people, and that historically rich white people often have ill-gotten gains by today’s standards). In the heat of the moment, I think it makes sense to assume the statue of a white guy you’re tearing down was probably a jerk. I strongly doubt rigorous intellectual debate was had before either of these statues were torn down. (On reading more about Col. Hans Christian Heg, I actually think he might have been pretty down with a bunch of black people rising up to assert their freedom to not be systemically oppressed by toppling a statue of him, but that’s completely beside the point).

Unprovoked physical violence is wrong. That Sen. Tim Carpenter was attacked is a major mistake and a complete travesty. I think assault is wrong, I’ve watched the video he took, and I think he was attacked out of the blue. I hope the perpetrators are tried appropriately. I look forward to learning more about this incident and potentially changing my mind about it, but the video evidence looked damning to me.

Considering the large number of (and attention towards) counter-protestors showing up and inciting violence at peaceful demonstrations, I am not surprised that a group of protestors who see a white guy standing away from the crowd, near a vehicle, was seen as a potential threat. More generally, I am not surprised that protestors view white folks (particularly men) on the fringes of the protest with suspicion. Unprovoked physical violence is wrong, AND I see why it happened, AND that does not excuse it.

You may hear the phrase “tone policing,” which is defined as a personal attack anti-debate tactic in which one criticises the perceived emotion or presentation of the debater’s arguments instead of the content of the arguments presented. Some counters to this include “it’s not white folks place to tell POC how to react to oppression” or “it’s distracting from the fact that we are demonstrating against inequality.” To be honest, I disagree with the former. I do not believe we should break out the guillotine. I do believe we should give people a chance to educate themselves, and recognize the role we have all played in ongoing oppression. I do believe everyone should get a chance to make it right, and therefore, I can imagine (but have not seen) tactics that one could call “protest” or “reform” but which fundamentally go against my personal philosophy of non-violence. To me, this mentally lands near my fundamental opposition to the death penalty, too.

However, the second argument holds a lot of weight. To me, the simplest response to tone-policing is just my opinion: you should not be more concerned with how people are protesting than you are about what they’re protesting. This is NOT TRUE in the general case. In THIS case, people are not systematically going out and attacking randos who disagree with them; they are gathering peacefully AND property destruction occurs (re: above: I don’t think we can definitely say whether or not or to what degree protestors themselves are responsible for property destruction). And in THIS case people are protesting for their right to not be systemically disenfranchised, which includes feeling safe in the presence of police, but also goes beyond that to address wider racial societal issues.

All these things taken together, what I see is an incredibly blurry picture. I do not for a second believe that the movement would be this big, that we would be talking MINIMALLY about sweeping police reform (if not entirely new models of community safety), that so many white folks would be educating themselves on the history of systemic racism and how best to dismantle it, if there were no “riots.” We learned about these protests from the media, from viral videos. From the arguments about it and the discussions and the accusations flying from both sides. Yes, peoples lives and livelihoods have been destroyed. That’s exactly what’s gotten us talking.

Every single person would like if this were not the case. Every protestor would love if police were already held accountable for their actions, and that they had learned about systemic disenfranchisement more holistically and earlier. I wish that voter suppression wasn’t a thing and that the US instituted gun control and that militarised police were such a foreign concept that they weren’t even in conversation.

I wish the US didn’t stack the cards against black folks from the very start and that everyone had equal access to clean water and higher education and financial opportunity. Of course, I wish that were already the case. I wish that it had been this way from the start.

I think we all wish that things were different. We all wish violence could be avoided. Nobody likes going out and putting their bodies and lives on the line for justice, so we have to ask ourselves, why are people doing it? Either all these protestors are evil, no-good, taking-advantage-of-distraction, mal-intentioned hooligans, or they’re between a rock and a hard place. If we don’t believe all these hundreds of thousands of people are just riotous thugs, then we must ask ourselves: why is this happening?

The punchline: it would be great if violence were never the answer, but in practice property destruction and money are how to make people listen and care to the powerless.

Where do we draw the line at “justifiable violence?” I have no flippin’ clue. But I do know that my previous answer of “violence is NEVER justified” was informed by entire life of never experiencing physical violence from those who were meant to protect me. I still believe unprovoked violence against people is wrong, and my research and media bubble both suggest that’s also the zeitgeist of the movement as well. But over the last weeks, my view on property destruction has changed. I don’t have all the answers, but I think it’s pretty undeniable that without property destruction, this movement would have died just like it has every other time we’ve heard about the death of an unarmed black man begging for their life. It sucks that we need property destruction to get people to care (enough to take action) about systemic violence against black people, but given that we do, my personal calculation is that it’s a fair trade-off.

Links: Assault of Tim Carpenter: https://www.cnn.com/…/madison-arrest…/index.html Data on police violence can be found here: https://mappingpoliceviolence.org/nationaltrends Link for MLK article: https://time.com/519…/10-historians-martin-luther-king-jr/ Baltimore riots I just used wikipedia (but I checked the sources): https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/2015_Baltimore_protests… Suffragettes: https://www.theguardian.com/…/the-role-of-violence-in… Property destruction and instigating change: https://www.newyorker.com/…/how-violent-protests-change…