A former president of the San Diego’s chapter of NAACP visited HLS this week. In the context of a heated debate about policing reform, he interjected with a question that confronted the recent protests: Why would I destroy my neighborhood because of police brutality three hundred miles away?
The question was rhetorical. Of course, he implied, rioting here was counter-productive, illogical, even downright silly. From the beginning of the, what would become national, protests following the grand jury’s failure to indict officer Darren Wilson for the murder of the unarmed, black teenager, Michael Brown, most of the speeches, opinion pieces, and public statements began with a condemnation of the violence of the protesters and stressed the need for peaceful protests.
That is remarkable.
This issue is polarizing and deals with some topics even the most progressive public figures rarely talk about (namely structural racism and police brutality). It elicited a wide variety of passionate responses. And almost all of them, including President Obama’s speech, start with a disclaimer: the protests cannot and should not be violent. Violence will not solve anything.
What’s remarkable about this disclaimer is its consistency. It was issued not only by those primarily concerned with “law and order.” Those of all political stripes made it their first order of business. Even in the wake of the unearthing of the long simmering racial tension, the protests were treated as though our primary consideration should be orderliness. Why?
This overwhelming and immediate concern with violence (of the protesters) brings up separate but related questions: Does our primary concern with the violence of protestors reflect a lack of commitment to their goals? Does it reflect the same, racist categorization of black people as violent that the (mainly black) protestors are fighting? Is violence only appropriate as a tool of the state regardless of whether it’s used in a systematically discriminatory way or not? Is the role of violence truly ineffective?
To that last question, I can’t help but proclaim a resounding “NO.” We’ve had a dozen panels in Harvard alone on addressing structural racism and police reform. There are conversations in institutions such as ours, in homes across the county, amongst politicians and leaders in countless communities and cities across the country. These conversations would not have happened without the protests. They would not have happened without violence.
This is not meant as a call to arms. Violence is more than just looting and fist fighting, but a harsh and rude disruption of the order of things. Can the whole of America be forced to wrestle with America’s most insidious problem absent violence of some sort considering the almost religious aversion to dealing with the continuing legacy of racism? Could Martin Luther King’s appeal to peaceful resolution have been as effective if Malcolm X hadn’t promised “by any means necessary?”