As the global wave of demonstrations ignited by Donald Trump’s inauguration continue to burn, the world of social media has responded with the back-&-forth debate over what kinds of protest will be most effective or whether they are even justified. Some call for escalating resistance, while others argue Trump deserves a chance & still others insist the protests are altogether undemocratic — but, whatever they think about the protests, a vast majority seems to condemn any outburst of violence. In fact, the idea that violent protest is unjustifiable — in the United States, at least — is so widely accepted that it is hard to imagine a public figure questioning it ( let alone criticizing it ). Like the unwritten law requiring politicians to offer “thoughts & prayers” whenever a tragedy occurs, there is an unwritten law that we are supposed to condemn all violence at protests ( unless, of course, it’s inflicted by police or the US military ). For this reason, it is unsurprising that much of the so-called resistance was quick to condemn the people in black bloc who smashed windows at corporate businesses & set a limo on fire, along with various other shenanigans during the inauguration.
The Question of Violence
The organizers of demonstrations, of course, have strategic & political reasons to disavow the violent protesters — but why is the public so unanimous in condemning the destruction of property, while just a fraction raise their voices over the actual violence inflicted by police on unarmed demonstrators? Why are people unified against the breaking of lifeless windows but divided over whether the police ought to use actual tear gas & concussion grenades against unarmed civilians? The hard truth, it seems, is that a burning limousine is more outrageous to us than the fact that 87 human beings have literally been killed by police in 2017 or, in other words, the last 26 days.
The people obviously do not have any issue with violence in general — if they did, the current indigenous struggle at Standing Rock would look much different & we would have dropped fewer than 26,171 bombs on 7 different countries in 2016 alone. It must be a more specific kind of violence that offends us. The fact that peaceful demonstrations against police killings have been a source of public controversy tells us that violence by law enforcement has not yet earned the same unanimous disapproval. Neither has the violence of the death penalty, the violence inflicted on prison populations, or even police violence at schools — in fact, they are acceptable enough to be publicly funded.
So is war.
Should We Be Concerned About Broken Windows?
Though “violent” protests are fairly uncommon in the US & they have apparently caused just 1 death* since the year 2000, violent protesters are nonetheless condemned by more voices, more often than the US dropping bombs in countries we aren’t at war with & the use of deadly force against unarmed citizens. What does it say about our country’s sanity when windows being broken at 1 of the world’s 18,000 Starbucks locations inspires more finger wagging than 1,106 people killed mistakenly by US drone strikes in 2016?
From Ferguson & Charlotte to Washington DC, whenever & wherever property is destroyed by protesters, it is accompanied by commentators on both sides of the political aisle who ask why protesters these days aren’t more like Martin Luther King. They must not have been listening when, in 1968, King explained:
“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.”
The Privilege of Non-Violence
About the riots of 1967, King observed that “the violence, to a startling degree, was focused against property rather than against people” — and the same is true about the “violence” of protesters in 2017. “The focus on property,” he said, “is not accidental. It has a message; it is saying something.“ Those who quote the Apostle of American Non-Violence would do well to note that, without endorsing violence, he made it pretty clear that he was much less concerned with people destroying property than he was with understanding the repression & inequality that the destroyed property represents.
There is a difference between promoting creative, effective, & non-violent methods of resistance to oppression and telling other people who resist the same oppressors that they’re “doing it wrong.” MLK understood that. Discuss, persuade, & inspire with your actions but, whatever you decide to do, please don’t tell people how they are allowed to resist. We already live under a regime which tells people they must have permits to march in protest & must limit their dissenting to designated “free speech zones.”
They tell us exactly how we are allowed to defy them.
If We Don’t Save the World First,
There Won’t Be Limos to Burn, Anyway
There are so many urgent injustices & clear threats to the planet that must be profoundly resisted in 2017 — but the occasional limo fire just isn’t one of those things. Pipelines are threatening our water & the rights of indigenous peoples, democracy has been subverted by crazy rich people, & treacherous oil corporations are about to kill us all with our own planet for short-term profits — let’s form a committee to discuss the morality & efficacy of breaking Starbucks’ windows some other time….
*Note: The only instance I could find (since 2000) of someone dying as a result of violent protest in the United States was the fellow who, in my opinion, committed “suicide by cop” out here in Oregon, during the Bundy occupation of the Malheur National Wildlife Refuge. If you know of any other instances, please let me know & I shall amend the article accordingly.
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