In recent months, we have seen calls for “peace” and “civility” aimed at the Black Lives Matter movement. The argument made is that violence and riots are not the proper way to achieve change. At its core, this argument asserts that “true protest” is not only nonviolent, but borderline passive. Such a claim could not be further from the historical truth.
Every major liberation movement, from the Civil Rights Movement in the 1960s to the Palestinian struggle to attempts to free colonized lands around the world, has had both violent and nonviolent elements. From King to the Black Panthers, from Mandela to the Jacobins, great figures and inspiring messages of struggle and triumph have echoed and resonated centuries after their movements ended. Many of these movements have been whitewashed over the decades and centuries, painted as simple “requests” for change without any violence or force involved, which the powers that be were kind and wise enough to grant.
As a non-Black ally of the Black Lives Matter movement, I hope to use this piece to reach my readers who are also non-Black allies. My goal is to help provide context to the violence/nonviolence debate, and to illustrate that it is not our position to define the means by which the Black community fights for justice and liberation, for, as Dr. King said, the greatest threat to Black liberation comes not from the Klansmen, but from the White Moderate, who would ask Black Americans to “wait for a more convenient season.”.
Violence and nonviolence do not have the moral distinction that we typically associate with them, a fact well reflected by the work of Malcom X, Frantz Fanon, Dr. King, and other great thinkers, activists, and heroes of change. Social movements have always contained both violent and nonviolent elements, both of which were necessary to achieve change. Our understanding of violence is often very one-sided.
With this in mind, we must first understand what violence and nonviolence are. The World Health Organization defines violence as “the intentional use of physical force or power, threatened or actual, against oneself, another person, or against a group or community, that either results in or has a high likelihood of resulting in injury, death, psychological harm, maldevelopment, or deprivation.” From this definition, we can gather that violence is not restricted to physical harm, but can extend to psychological and emotional harm as well. There are two key takeaways here: first, not all violence is equal, and power dynamics play greatly into the severity and degree of violent acts; and second, violence can and does include everything from individual assaults to economic sanctions that cause starvation to mass incarceration. Violence is not limited to individual interactions — it can be perpetrated against entire communities.
With this in mind, we must now ask the question; what is nonviolence? I would like to distinguish nonviolent resistance from passivity, as the two are often conflated. Passivity implies that oppression goes without response or resistance, and that individuals will simply ignore or accept acts of violence and terror that come against them. Nonviolence, on the other hand, is a response to terror, violence, and oppression that relies on tactics that do not result in physical harm, be it direct or indirect. These tactics include general strikes, mass protests, boycotts, and sit-ins, to name a few. Often, the violence that occurs at such events is from the oppressive group itself, usually through the military or police. The hope is that people will see the brutality of those in power and begin to consider joining the fight.
Now that we have at least a baseline understanding of these two ideas, let us turn to the issue of morality and effectiveness. Often, nonviolence is painted as the good or moral form of resistance, and violence is painted as evil and immoral. Additionally, nonviolence is often held up as the “effective” and “correct” way of protest, and violent resistance is made out to be “doomed to fail.” Dr. King’s explanation for a nonviolent campaign was, “We are outnumbered; we do not have access to the instruments of violence. Even more than that, not only is violence impractical, but it is immoral; for it is my firm conviction that to seek to retaliate with violence does nothing but intensify the existence of evil and hate in the universe.”
King argues that violent resistance would not be possible, because the masses do not have access to the same tools as the military and police. Second, he argues that violence of any kind is immoral, for it creates more evil in the world. King’s accessibility argument is an interesting one. It is worth noting here that the NRA, which is commonly associated with strong anti-regulation efforts for guns, took a stronger pro-gun-restriction stance during the era of the Black Panthers, in an effort to get firearms out of the hands of Black Americans. This not only demonstrates the inherent white supremacist nature of the organization, but it also shows that there was considerable fear around Black Americans being able to actually arm themselves and orchestrate an armed resistance against the systems and mechanisms of oppression.
A counter to this accessibility argument comes from Frantz Fanon, who argued in his work, The Wretched of the Earth, that:
Another thing is that they are convinced violent methods are ineffective. For them, there can be no doubt, any attempt to smash colonial oppression by force is an act of despair, a suicidal act. Because the colonizer’s tanks and fighter planes are constantly on their minds. When they are told we must act, they imagine bombs being dropped, armored cars rumbling through the streets, a hail of bullets, the police—and they stay put. They are losers from the start.
Essentially, Fanon argues that violent resistance is viewed as not possible because of fear, and because of the fact that for many, the idea of being able to overcome military force seems impossible. The last line, especially, illustrates Fanon’s belief that many act as though they have already accepted defeat. He argues that this mindset is what makes violent revolution unlikely, when in reality, he believes, it is necessary.
On the morality claim, the argument that violence spreads evil is disputed by Fanon and others, including the 20th century French philosopher Jean-Paul Sartre. Violence, Fanon argues, is a cleansing force, as long as the targets of the violence are well-chosen. For example, a military base or a police department (as was the case during the liberation of Algeria from the French) would be an institutionally powerful target for violent action. In this way, it is possible for violence to serve as a tool to overcome power imbalances. Targeting buildings, or other symbols of institutional power, serve not only as symbols of reclamation of power and control to the movement and the world, but also demonstrate to the oppressive group that the movement knows where the power lies and is not afraid to strike it directly.
In the Civil Rights movement, the Black Panthers were pivotal in securing the right to self-defense in the Black community, and in pushing back against the violence of the police. In every major movement and uprising, violence has been a necessary element for liberation and freedom. Sartre argues that a strictly nonviolent uprising will not be capable of succeeding, as it concedes the right to use force to the oppressor, which, he argues, is a way of justifying the power of the oppressive group. I would argue that oppression is inherently evil, and as a result, violent revolution, if necessary, can and should be considered a moral means to achieve change. I would like to point out that even Dr. King did not have the whitewashed philosophy that many attribute to him today. While he preferred to avoid violence as his strategy, he was not a complete pacifist. As early as the 1950s, records show that he owned several firearms for the defense of himself and his family, and after the bombing of his house in the mid-1950s, he applied for a concealed carry permit. Additionally, he argued in a 1967 speech that rioting served a purpose:
The riots are not simply a reign of terror or a splurge of crime, though both elements are partially present. They are also a wildly emotional protest and a desperate attempt to display the utter desperation that has engulfed many Negroes. The vast majority who actively participated were remarkably discriminating in avoiding harm to persons, venting their anger by appropriating or destroying property. There is an ironic purpose in this choice; to attack a society that appears to cherish property above people, the worst wounds to inflict on it are those to property.
That violence does not necessarily need to be shunned as a tactic, and those riots could never match the violence levelled against Black Americans:
There is probably no way, even eliminating violence, for Negroes to obtain their rights without upsetting the equanimity of white folks. All too many of them demand tranquility when they mean inequality … Nonviolent action in the South was effective because any form of social movement by Negroes upset the status quo. When Negroes merely marched in Southern streets it was close to rebellion. In the urban communities marches are less disquieting because they are not considered rebellions and secondly, because the normal turbulence of cities absorbs them as merely transitory drama which is ordinary in city life…Let us say boldly that if the violations of law by the white man in the slums over the years were calculated and compared with the law-breaking of a few days of riots, the hardened criminal would be the white man. These are often difficult things to say but I have come to see more and more that it is necessary to utter the truth in order to deal with the great problems that we face in our society.
We come now to the argument that “if protestors simply acted more nonviolent, they would have more supporters.” I would like to propose a counter-argument. When Colin Kaepernick took the knee to protest police brutality, he was viewed as a traitor, blacklisted from the NFL, and told to protest “the right way.” When Muhammad Ali refused to be drafted in the military during the Vietnam War, he was called a traitor, had his titles and boxing license revoked, and told to “stay in his lane.” When Martin Luther King Jr. called for a nonviolent revolution against the forces of racism, war, and wealth, he was assassinated. When Malcolm X called for justice “by any means necessary”, he was assassinated. When Fred Hampton argued that Black Americans had the same right to arm themselves under the 2nd Amendment as White Americans, he was assassinated. The pattern here is the same: regardless of the means, or how “nicely packaged” the message of resistance is, the message is met with similar anger, hatred, and violence.
If nonviolent action is not the correct way, and protesting in the street is not the correct way, then what is? It is clear to me that the issue is not, and has never been, the means of revolution. The issue has almost always been the revolution itself. I have not found that any of the critics of violence in movements today would argue that the American Revolutionary War should have been nonviolent. Those in power wish to keep their wealth, their status, and their control. Movements never achieve what they want by simply asking. The path to a just society, and an equal world, will not be won by asking. As non-Black supporters of the Black Lives Matter movement, it is key for us to understand that regardless of how oppressed groups fight for justice and liberation, they will always be told by some that they are doing it “the wrong way.” Protests and uprisings against systems of power and oppression always come from within marginalized groups, and we must work to uplift and support the work of freedom fighters today. This means donating to bail funds, providing protection in numbers on the streets, and uplifting the messages that are already out there. It means educating yourself, your family, and your friends. It means standing up and pushing back when it is most uncomfortable, for that is when it is most important.
Instead of asking why people won’t stop rioting, we should be asking why they have to in the first place. Violence is not inherently evil, and nonviolence is not inherently good. We must start asking ourselves how much of our beliefs reinforce the power of those at the top, which of our ingrained beliefs merely serve to prevent us from creating a world that is just, kind, and fair. It is time for us to stop asking for peace, and start asking for justice.