Is Violent Protest Ever Okay?
Since the election of the 45th President of the United States (and really forever) people have been arguing that violence during protests is never okay. From the inauguration to the tragedy in Charlottesville, conservatives and progressives alike have asserted that violent acts of civil disobedience are simply unacceptable. Whether the critic labels violent protestors as “terrorists” or simply “divisive,” the argument is always the same. Violence never works, and always hurts more than it helps.
Some take this argument even further. The editorial board of the Washington Post wrote in response to a 2016 Trump rally that turned violent: “In a free society, political violence is inherently wrong.” Under this mindset, violence is antithetical to democracy, and if you want to have true reform, then you have to go the route of Ghandi and Martin Luther King, Jr. and be willing to patiently change the minds of your peers - broken limbs and noses be damned.
It’s this viewpoint that we are concerned with. We are not going to focus on whether political violence is okay in response to oppression perpetuated by nondemocratic regimes. History has shown us that the answer is clearly yes. The United States, after all, was founded by political insurgents using guerilla warfare against a foreign power (and don’t even get us started on the tea party - referring here to the original event in Boston). From Morocco to India, legitimate, stable governments have been established in the wake of violence. But in a democratic society where citizens can theoretically address their grievances, should protestors ever consider turning to violence? And if so, is it an effective tactic?
When news of the Charlottesville riots broke out, many of us were inundated with pictures of violence. One of the most striking examples was a picture of battered rapper Deandre Harris on the floor of a garage bracing himself against pole-wielding White Supremacists. Few of us would claim that Deandre Harris deserved such a beating. It was a tragic event that shouldn’t have happened, and he deserves our sympathy.
Would that sentiment still hold true for most of us, however, if Deandre Harris had been carrying a gun, and had used that weapon to defend himself against his attackers? If he had come to the rally with a group of gun-wielding activists to broadcast his ability to defend himself, would we still label him an activist, or would we begin to view him as a violent agitator?
For the Black Panthers of the Civil Rights Movement, such criticism was common. The group was founded by Huey Newton and Bobby Seale in 1966 in Oakland California, and its legacy is complicated even to this day. On the one hand, it provided a series of beneficial services (e.g. lunch programs for children, clothing giveaways, prison bussing programs, free sickle cell anemia testing, etc.) to what was an underserved group in America.
On the other hand, some of its leadership was not afraid to use violence for unscrupulous ends. There were multiple, violent clashes with the police, as well as abuse internally among its members. In one example, member Alex Rackley was accused of being a police informant, kidnapped, tortured, tried by kangaroo court, and sentenced to death. He was later learned not to be a federal agent.
These individual actions were atrocious, and deserve no defense. Yet it's important to bear in mind the context in which this radical militarization came into being. The Black Panthers were by no means a unified force (chapters were widely disparate, and vetting was sparse, or nonexistent), but in general, popularity arose from a valid concern that black Americans could not rely on the police forces of their government to provide justice.
This was a time when black Americans, despite receiving slight gains, were still the target of immense discrimination. The practice of lynching black Americans had only just started to become taboo, and there were (are) still many formal and de facto barriers in this group’s way. African Americans had (and have) disproportionate incarceration rates, and still the subject to intense workplace and housing discrimination. Police violence against African Americans was also (and continues to be) high, arguably greater than today, and repercussions for officers were rare.
Black Panthers promised to provide much-needed security to a group that lacked confidence in their government to provide it. Gun ownership became a vehicle for doing this, and, consequently, a central aspect of the group’s identity. When then-Governor Ronald Reagan signed the Mulford Act - a gun restriction law in California - the Panther’s marched on the state capitol in Sacramento wielding .357 Magnums, 12-gauge shotguns, and .45-caliber pistols in protest.
In their statement, they asserted: “The American people in general and the black people in particular must take careful note of the racist California legislature aimed at keeping the black people disarmed and powerless. Black people have begged, prayed, petitioned, demonstrated, and everything else to get the racist power structure of America to right the wrongs which have historically been perpetuated against black people The time has come for black people to arm themselves against this terror before it is too late.”
In many ways, the Black Panther’s attempted to create a space for black americans through the threat of, and sometimes the implementation of, violence. It’s perfectly acceptable to argue that some of the Panther’s leadership (and many of its members) went too far in exacting such violence, but to argue that such protection was unwarranted would be disingenuous. There clearly was a disconnect between the services Black Americans were theoretically entitled to and what many black people actually received.
This is an important, and necessary fact to consider when discussing political violence. The ability to address your grievances is not shared equally among all citizens in a democracy. Some groups of people face oppression when trying to act in the political space, and this makes the peaceful exercise of their rights a very difficult thing to do. In order to exercise those rights safely, proponents of political violence argue, sometimes movements need to prove to the world that they are willing to defend themselves with force, if necessary.
Another example is the modern LGBTQ+ movement. The tide has very much turned on issues such as same-sex marriage, and organizations like the Human Rights Campaigns and the National LGBTQ Task Force are now massive political entities unto themselves capable of influencing legislation and campaigns, but not enough attention is paid to the fact that this movement was born from political violence.
The Stonewall Riots are often accredited as the origin of this movement. It was a clash between LGBT people and the New York City Police Department after the NYPD had raided the Stonewall Inn and arrested over a dozen people. This was part of a general crackdown on gay bars, which were illegally serving alcohol because the N. Y. State Liquor Authority licenses refused to provide licenses to them (on top of being considered sinful, homosexuality was also illegal back then).
The rebellion began the night of June 27, 1969 and spanned over six days. It was not a coordinated effort. Protesters engaged directly with the police. Some of these actions were civil such as chanting things like “We’re the Pink Panthers” and “Fag Power.” Other actions were violent displays of dissidence. People engaged the police with their fists. They smashed meters and shattered windows. These protests culminated in the first ever Pride March from Washington Square Park to Central Park (Yes, Pride is a yearly remembrance of a gay riot).
These actions were not only cathartic, but directly contradicted with the unsuccessful homophile movement of the 1950s that had urged a more cautioned approach with legal and political institutions. Stonewall allowed newly-mobilized queer activists to organize around radical principles that made it acceptable to bring their cause to the streets. No longer would the LGBTQ+ movement solely be focused around nudging straight, cisgender people to the middle. Within a year, a subcommittee of the moderate gay rights group Mattachine had split off to form its own group. They called themselves The Gay Liberation Front and they demanded “liberation in the spirit of the national liberation and anti-capitalist struggles around the world.” In their first announcement they claimed “We formed because of Stonewall.”
Today, the Stonewall Riots are seen as a necessary step forward in the LGBTQ+ movement. Organizations such as the Stonewall Foundation use that moment’s namesake to push the LGBTQ+ movement forward, but there seems to be a disconnect between the violence of the past and it’s possible necessity in the future. When describing the largely peaceful “No Justice No Pride” protests of Pride during the summer of 2017(a group calling attention to the largely-ignored concerns of vulnerable subgroups within the LGBTQ+ umbrella), writer Kevin Naff lamented: “At a time when there’s so much at stake amid the Trump administration’s assault on progress, it’s disappointing we’re expending valuable time and energy fighting with each other and eating our own. We have plenty of real enemies who are now empowered to undermine President Obama’s important legacy.”
To critics of political violence, the only path forward is peaceful, quiet dissent. But this strategy is not always successful and often forces the oppressed to endure violent consequences without any proper recourse. We praise leaders such as Martin Luther King for his strategy of civil disobedience, but the violence he and his supporters had to endure was gruesome.
An important moment in the Civil Rights Movement was the Children’s Crusade. On May 2, 1963, children and teenagers marched on Birmingham to protest discrimination. This is accredited by some as a major turning point in the Civil Rights movement of the 1960s. The world looked in horror as police violently pushed back against these children with hoses, batons, and dogs.
This tragic moment in our history wasn’t spontaneous, however. The leaders of the movement were well-aware of the stakes. They had hoped to capitalize on the greater public's sympathies by using the image of hurt children. King could not have succeeded without having used the optics of violence to his advantage, and these acts were not always successful.
To say that someone has to endure that level of gruesome violence in order to enact change, and cannot defend themselves in the meantime, is incredibly paternalistic. It places the burden of liberation on the most vulnerable. Those that make this argument - either implicitly or explicitly - are claiming that disadvantaged groups have to suffer immense costs to win hearts and minds. And if they suffer broken bones and lost loved ones, well, that’s just the cost of progress.
This is not to say that all violence in the name of equality is universally okay. Every oppressed group has militarized contingents that go too far, but to say that violence in the name of allowing disadvantaged groups to operate in the political sphere (some would call this self-defense), and violence aimed at destabilizing that political space (terrorism) are the same is disingenuous. This call to “bothsidesism” ultimately undermines the oppressed’s ability to act, and it should not be tolerated.