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Cities across the country have been riled by demonstrations in response to the police killing of George Floyd for the past week. Scenes of broken windows, burning vehicles, as well as police using tear gas and other tactics, have become a daily fixture of news coverage.
The ongoing unrest has reignited a debate that has divided resistance movements in the U.S. for at least the past half-century: Do violent protests advance the causes that inspire them, or undermine their messages?
For many, the enduring lesson of the civil rights movement in the 1960s was the power of nonviolent protest embodied by Martin Luther King Jr. But many activists disagreed with King and preferred a more aggressive, and at times violent, approach.
That same dynamic has been observed during the current demonstrations. While protests have been mostly peaceful, some individuals have engaged in looting, property destruction and isolated incidents of direct violence.
Why there’s debate
The ideal of peaceful protest is grounded in the belief that violence is never the answer, even in response to violence inflicted upon black people by police. “If we want our criminal justice system, and American society at large, to operate on a higher ethical code, then we have to model that code ourselves,” former President Barack Obama wrote in a blog post on Monday.
Beyond the moral implications of physical aggression and property destruction, there are those who argue that these are strategic errors. Images of fire and broken windows tend to become the story of protests, rather than the message that inspired the demonstrations, they argue. There’s also evidence that violent protests can shift public opinion away from causes they may be otherwise sympathetic to. “I'm absolutely convinced that a riot merely intensifies the fears of the white community,” King said a few weeks before his death in 1968. Polling on the current situation suggests a similar dynamic, with most respondents expressing support for the movement to reduce police violence, but a large number saying they viewed the unrest as “mostly violent riots.”
Those on the other side of the issue say violence, though regrettable, is sometimes necessary when all other paths to reform are blocked. Systemic racism creates barriers — such as voter disenfranchisement — that make it nearly impossible to bring about change through purely peaceful methods, they argue. History also shows that progress can come in the wake of violent unrest. For example, the Civil Rights Act of 1968 was passed just seven days after King’s assasination, which had prompted riots in cities across the country. Others argue that destruction and violence are an emotional reaction, not a tactical one, that will inevitably arise when people are oppressed.
Many activists take issue with the perception that the current protests are in fact violent, since destructive acts are being committed by a small minority of participants. They also argue that the vast majority of violence seen at the demonstrations is being instigated by police.
It’s unclear what might bring the wave of protests to an end. The true test of their impact may not come until November, when the debate over police violence will likely be a key issue in the presidential election.
The case for peaceful protest
Violence undermines the message behind protests
“Instead of talking about the history of police killings in Minneapolis, we are talking about a store going up in flames, and the focus in reporting tends to shift from a justice frame to a crime frame. And that is an unfortunate thing for a protest movement. It ends up undermining the interests of the advocates.” — Protest movement researcher Omar Wasow, to New Yorker
Destruction does nothing to honor George Floyd
“What do smoke, scorched aluminum and shards of glass have to do with George Floyd’s needless, wasteful and hideous killing? Nothing. Will this destruction help unify Americans in pursuit of justice for George Floyd? No.” — Deroy Murdock, Fox News
Violence turns the protests into a partisan issue
“The political spectrum was united in sympathy for George Floyd. ... The response to what was happening in Minneapolis began to polarize, with activists on the left either downplaying the rioting or outright romanticizing it, while the Right began to recoil from the violence.” — Zaid Jilani, National Review
Violent protesters inflict further pain on marginalized communities
“The violent protests in Minneapolis and around the country are devastating the people in whose name they demand justice.” — Robert L. Woodson, Wall Street Journal
Destruction is counterproductive
“Most spasms of robbery or arson aren’t the revolution but often a ritual reaffirmation of the status quo — a period of misrule that doesn’t try to establish an alternative order or permanently change any hierarchies, as a true revolution would, but instead leaves the lower orders poorer and the well-insured upper classes more or less restored.” — Ross Douthat, New York Times
Escalating violence will ultimately lead to more deaths
“I worry that violent protests will lead to a violent response. I’ve seen enough black men dead in the streets at the hands of authorities, and I don’t want to see any more.” — Greg Moore, Arizona Republic
The limitations of nonviolence
Violence is an inevitable response to oppression
“When people feel helpless, like there is nothing left to lose, like their lives already hang in the balance, a wild, swirling, undirected rage is a logical result. You destroy people’s prospects, they’ll destroy your property.” — Charles M. Blow, New York Times
Peaceful paths to change are blocked
“Telling black Americans rioting in the streets to ‘go vote’ is, fundamentally, to gaslight them. They created neither the Monopoly board nor the rules. The game cheats them out of their lives. They flipped the table. Now the other players say they should play harder next time.” — 60 Minutes correspondent Wesley Lowery
American history shows how violent uprisings can lead to reform
“What we see in the current unrest are the learned lessons from a long history of revolution in this country, people who understand that virtually no rights have been secured without either committing violence or inciting it against their own bodies.” — Jamil Smith, Rolling
Destruction is an emotional act, not a strategic one
“A riot is not a tactic to gain widespread sympathy. It’s an expression of how inadequate other efforts have been.” — Zak Cheney-Rice, New York
The police are largely responsible for violence at the protests
“Escalating force by police leads to more violence, not less. It tends to create feedback loops, where protesters escalate against police, police escalate even further, and both sides become increasingly angry and afraid.” — Maggie Koerth and Jamiles Lartey, FiveThirtyEight
A small number of violent acts shouldn’t define the whole movement
“Civil disobedience is frenzied and chaotic by nature. People who take to the streets might not all share the same beliefs: Some protesters are looting out of the same anger that drives the protests, and other looters are not protesters at all. But because it’s impossible to untangle every person’s motivations and intent, it’s much easier to lump them all into a group to create a narrative of the event that fits our understanding.” — Terry Nguyen, Vox
White violence is celebrated; black violence is vilified
“Since the beginning of this country, riots and violent rhetoric have been markers of patriotism. ...Black rebellion and protest, though, have historically never been coupled with allegiance to American democracy.” — Kellie Carter Jackson, Atlantic
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Photo illustration: Yahoo News; photo: Mark Lennihan/AP