Is violence a valid response to racial injustice?
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In the wake of the resurgence of the Black Lives Matter (BLM) movement after the deaths of George Floyd, Breonna Taylor and, most recently, Rayshard Brooks, there has been a diverse range of responses from protestors.
Many protests have been peaceful, especially as initial waves of anger hardened into resolve, but rioting, looting and destruction of community property have nevertheless been an aspect of the overall response.
Although BLM does have an official organization and leadership, in many ways it is an organic, community-driven movement that is gaining momentum – and garnering increased public acceptance – in response to documented cases of police violence against minorities, most particularly African Americans.
Policing the actions of protestors within a widespread movement fueled in large part by anger and resentment over repeated killings and economic and social inequalities might be unrealistic, but a number of BLM supporters and leadership members have openly suggested that violent tactics are justifiable aspects of their overall response.
In response to a question on violence within the movement from The New Yorker, Opal Tometi, one of the founders of BLM, said that while it was a “complicated” issue, she and many of her colleagues “don’t equate the loss of life and the loss of property,” which are “conflating very different realities and operating from different value systems” from her point of view.
While there has been significant disagreement over the issue, some protestors say that targeted violence is an effective way to ensure that their demands are heard and respected. With the movement’s increased popularity and a bevy of policy changes being considered on both national and state-levels, there may be little incentive to grapple with criticism over violence too deeply.
Still, others argue that legitimate concerns remain as to the viability of some of these tactics over the long term, especially as BLM raises the stakes with its demands, including calls to defund or abolish police departments.
An eye for an eye?
One of the main arguments for a violent response to racial injustice stems from the belief that longstanding inequalities and persistent police brutality has made life untenable for minorities across the country.
According to Kimberly Jones, an author whose video on the protests and inequality in America went viral, many minorities feel like they can’t get ahead, which in Jones’ view should put rioting and looting in a certain societal context.
“You can’t win. The game is fixed,” she argued. “So, when they say ‘why do you burn down the community? Why do you burn down your own neighborhood?’ [I respond by saying] it’s not ours. We don’t own anything.”
Jones went on to say that in her view society is broken and suggested that violence is a natural response to corrupt and unequal systems.
“There’s a social contract that we all have, that if you steal, or if I steal, then the person who is the authority comes in and they fix the situation. But the person who fixes the situation is killing us. So the social contract is broken.”
“If the social contract is broken why [should I care] about burning … a Target?” she added.
“Language of the unheard”
Another widespread argument that some have used to justify violent responses to racial inequality stems from a quote from civil rights icon Martin Luther King Jr., who said that “a riot is the language of the unheard.”
In response to unrest over the death of George Floyd, Martin Luther King III, his son, quoted his father on Twitter, writing, “My father said, ‘A riot is the language of the unheard.’ And what is it America has failed to hear?…It has failed to hear that the promises of freedom and justice have not been met."
He has also tweeted out the BLM slogan, “No Justice, No Peace.”
Critics, however, argue that while MLK was certainly acknowledging that riots were indicative of social problems, he was clear in his views that violence was never justified.
“That quote has been widely misinterpreted because it’s taken out of context,” says analysis from Reason, a libertarian publication. According to footage of the conversation, which was part of a 1966 interview conducted by journalist Mike Wallace, King was adamant that violence would only lead to more pain.
“I will never change in my basic idea that nonviolence is the most potent weapon available to the negro in his struggle for freedom and justice. I think for the negro to turn to violence would be both impractical and immoral,” King said.
In a separate speech, King said that even if every black American in the United States “turns against non-violence, I’m going to stand up as a lone voice and say, ‘this is the wrong way!’”
“React the right way”
Other members of BLM agree with Dr. King.
In a 2018 event in New York, Hawk Newsome, the then-president and current chairperson of Black Lives Matter of Greater New York, told a story about his reaction to protesters who demonstrated a willingness to engage in violence after the 2015 death of Freddie Gray while in police custody in Baltimore.
“We heard that people were rioting at the precinct, and we as organizers said, let’s go over to this precinct to calm people down and show them how to react the right way.”
He went on to explain how he tried to de-escalate the situation to prevent it from getting out of hand.
“One of [the community members joining the march] are nudged by a car that is coming and he ran and he opened the door [to the person’s car] so I jogged over from the front of the line and I said ‘no brother, this isn’t the fight, this isn’t the way we do things … let’s let our voices be heard.’ And he kind of looked at the driver, and then he walked and he joined me,” he recounted.
“That was Freddie Gray’s brother.”
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