Category Archives: MLK

The Violence of Demanding “Peaceful” Protest

In the wake of the murder of George Floyd, a Black man, by the Minneapolis police officer Derek Chauvin, dozens of U.S. cities have be rocked with unrest, ranging from small protests to open rebellion and riots. In watching coverage of the protests over the last week, several predictable issues and themes have emerged in how these protests are being framed by city and state leaders, police, and mainstream media outlets. I think that those of us who are committed to anti-racist politics need to directly grapple with some of these frames if we are going to shift how our collective efforts to challenge racism and injustice are understood going forward, for the wider public and for ourselves:

1.) “Outside agitators”
Both the governments and the media are going all in on dividing the good vs bad, legitimate vs illegitimate protesters, in order to control the unrest by turning people’s sympathies against it. They will say they support the cause but not the methods, but these are crocodile tears. They will cite MLK as a weapon against black protest, but it was MLK who said that his biggest enemy was the white moderate who valued order over the struggle for justice. It is these same moderates who condemn rioters rather than blame those in power who make riots inevitable.

The city government leaders are just lying, point blank, saying that the people who are doing anything other than quietly praying in their Sunday best are outside agitators. They have no evidence of this at all, and there is actual evidence from arrest records that most people vigorously protesting enough to be arrested are locals. This is an old tactic, and is used around the world by those in power seeking to discredit energetic social and political movements.

MLK felt compelled to condemn this rhetorical tactic, since it is the same one that was used by Jim Crow mayors and sheriffs against him and other civil rights protesters. The most important of his numerous criticisms here is that *it does not matter* if someone comes from elsewhere to stand with those protesting injustice. Injustice anywhere threatens justice everywhere: the logic of domination and oppression breeds and spreads, and produces further domination and oppression, while insensitivity to injustice anywhere breeds insensitivity to other injustices. We are all woven into a single garment of destiny, and cannot pretend that any injustice could (or should) stay parochially contained.

2.) Violent vs peaceful protests
Those who condemn property damage during protests should reflect on a few specific points:

First, tactically, riots and the damage they cause raise the economic and political cost of continuing with the everyday violence of business as usual, and have been an integral part of successful struggles for democracy and equality throughout history. This increase in cost can force elites to make concessions, and shift what counts as an acceptable policy bargain to buy peace again. Polite tactics have not worked whatsoever to ease the systemic racial and class inequalities and violence of places like Minneapolis. What else is left, besides people of color opting to die without a fuss?

Second, the human costs of continuing business as usual, from the early deaths and sicknesses imposed by police violence, racism, poverty, lack of healthcare, environmental racism, stress, etc, are incomprehensibly massive. They are far higher than any costs from these riots, at a minimum producing hundreds of thousands of early deaths in the U.S. a year.

This means that if you are opposed to “violence”, then you must prioritize ending these systemic conditions over the flash in the pan of any riot damage. It also means that if you truly oppose violence, then you must consider what given tactics *do* about this systemic and state-enforced violence. If your “peaceful” tactics don’t pose a threat to the continuation of a violent status quo, and even help sustain it by institutionally channeling, containing, and de-fanging challenges to it, then those measures are *more violent* in what they produce than riotous street clashes or mass strikes that compel actual concessions and change.

3.) Property damage as “violence”
Conceptually, calling broken windows, burnt cars and looting “violence” is extremely dubious in it’s implications. It puts unexpected forms of damage to or destruction of things as such in the same moral continuum as human suffering, and conveniently only those things that pose a direct threat to the people who own the world. Legal material destruction, of course — such as through a manufacturer shuttering and offshoring a factory (and with it a community’s ability to thrive), or a developer destroying poor people’s housing to put up empty luxury condos for investment, or a company spilling pollutants into the environment and our bodies — is never really framed as “violent”, even though it is more widespread and destructive.

Calling property damage violence also ignores the violence entailed simply by the state-backed imposition of particular rules and distributions of property. Property isn’t just stuff, it is also the rules for deciding who will be denied the right to use that stuff, and how that denial will be legitimized. If you’re concerned about looting, consider it in light of this.

The current distribution of resources is the result of racist state violence, centuries of openly white supremacist policies, imperialism, and exploitation. No honest person can disagree. It cannot be considered just or moral. Even in market terms, it cannot be considered a result of consent or fair competition. The pitifully low wage exploitation perpetuated by retail outlets in these areas are a product of these violently imposed unjust conditions and systems, and is itself a looting of the time, sweat, and well-being of people who are not truly free to do otherwise.

What, then, justifies condemnation of people’s attempts to grab goods that alleviate conditions of violently imposed and flatly unjust conditions of inequality and poverty? If just distributions are blocked politically, then how can we condemn what essentially amounts to material self defense against illegitimately imposed conditions?

4.) On looting during protests
Charges that people looting are acting opportunistically, or without pure enough motives make the mistake of thinking that pursuing material enhancement amidst unjust conditions is at odds with, rather than a central component of the demand for dismantling systemic racism. This isn’t separate from the fight against police brutality, since policing as such, as well as police brutality in particular are historically and tightly connected to state efforts to maintain racial and class inequalities and property rules under American capitalism. Demanding saintly selflessness from rioters is a dehumanizing double standard, and itself undercuts the legitimacy of demands for material justice and restitution.

Insofar as looting contributes to raising the cost for elites to ignore an unjust status quo, we can consider looting to be a useful element in producing an actually status quo-threatening pressure for concessions and change. Depending on the target (or Target), we may even say that it is ethically obligatory, if we take the struggle against violence seriously.

Ultimately, whenever those in power attempt to distinguish between legitimate and illegitimate protesters during times of social unrest, this should be interpreted as nothing more than a classic divide and conquer tool designed to make the unrest more manageable and to divert a fraction of the less demanding participants towards the least costly (to those in power) concessions. It means they are scared. It also means we should investigate what it is that they are truly scared of losing — and what we stand to gain.

The world.

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Filed under Black Lives Matter, Hate crime, MLK, Police, Race, Structural violence, the State, Violence

The Dangers of Remembering MLK


As a national holiday, the commemoration of Martin Luther King jr. has been fraught with problems. Aside from the resistance to its creation, the act of collective remembrance itself is a deeply political affair. The building of monuments, the preservation of moments, and the mythologizing of symbols, people, and places are much more than a simple, dry cataloguing of dead facts. They are acts of creation that can be deeply contentious, as other recent conflicts surrounding Confederate symbols and statues have (again) reminded us. These fragments of pasts are commonly portrayed as something like a woven quilt, with patchwork pieces that we stitch, replace, and re-stitch together to tell shared stories that inform our understanding of the present and convey values and lessons for the future. We can also think of them as weapons, to be used and deployed in struggles over those same understandings, values, and lessons. As weapons, these commemorations can be dangerous, depending on how they are wielded and to what ends.

What dangers are promised by the remembrance of MLK? What dangers should be promised? There are three particularly important dangers that we should keep in mind as King is invoked in our present circumstances.

The first danger is posed by those who seek to co-opt MLK as a truncheon in defense of the status quo. It is the official representation of MLK in state speeches, the version adopted into the national histories, and the one safely relegated to the past and the Bad Old Days. This MLK Has a Dream of a future, one which is made politically palatable today only by virtue of the implicit notion that his imagined future is already our past. Or, as the Washington Post argues in its recent Whiggish, nationalist version of King’s thought and work (accompanying an equally superficial and selective portrayal of American conservatism as an ideological disposition and movement), he had always been a creature of the nation’s alleged true principles which had simply been forgotten or ignored, conveniently, for two centuries. That he was actually treated as an enemy of the state is certainly not taken as a lesson in and of itself for practical struggles today.

In this safe portrayal, King is no longer a danger to existing racism, militarism, or massive class divisions and structural violence, because the beatification of King into a bumper sticker saint is premised on the notion that these problems have already been mostly vanquished. Having played his part and fallen conveniently off the stage at the end of the final act, this MLK is used primarily to silence present social criticisms and dissent under a flurry of milquetoast platitudes and moralizing condemnations, usually about proper ways to protest, but also in defense of a colorblind silence about race itself.

The second danger is instead posed by those who look to King’s life and ideas as a living, incomplete resource from which to draw lessons in order to disrupt and destabilize the racism, police brutality, militarism, and economic violence that remain pervasive. This is a dangerousness that should be embraced. This kind of commemoration is of the evolution of a man from a cautious, relatively safe, middle-class liberal reformer to an unapologetic radical. It is of the critic who found it more and more difficult to ignore the interconnected nature of the various manifestations of violence and oppressions found throughout the world, from Jim Crow to Vietnam, Apartheid to Harlem, capitalism to empire.

This is the King who warned of the greater dangers posed by the white moderate than the KKK in the fight against racism; who challenged the myth that time moved along an inherently progressive path of its own accord, without struggle; who defended the necessity of conflict and creative social disruption as a means to force those in power to the bargaining table and to achieve equality and freedom; who blamed institutional violence and man-made economic deprivation for social unrest; who refused to apologize for the U.S. government’s mass killing of millions of people in Southeast Asia, even though it lost him credibility and influence within the Democratic Party establishment; who was harassed, threatened, and undermined by the FBI.

The third danger is not one of remembrance as much as forgetting, namely forgetting King’s limitations. King is often invoked as a kind of secular authority within the American political discourse. In doing so, we are encouraged to forget many things. We forget that King was one political actor among many, and that he was not The Leader of the Civil Rights Movement, even though he was (like Gandhi) adept at acquiring the credit (and blame) from many other people’s labor. We forget that his strategic vision and arguments – especially regarding “nonviolence” – were often viscerally contested and rejected by others involved in those same struggles. We also forget that he was imagined to be the comparatively “safe” option for white liberal reformers, especially when judged against the threats posed by the emergent Black Power and Black nationalist movements inspired more by the likes of Malcolm X or Fred Hampton. It is important not to forget that the reason we have an MLK commemorative holiday at all is because of King’s limitations, as well as his achievements.

Martin Luther King jr. is indeed a dangerous figure today. The more important question, however, is for whom.

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Filed under MLK, Monuments, Race, Structural violence, Time and temporality, Violence