An examination of violent rebellions.
In unthinkable pain, crying out that he couldn’t breathe, as his assaulter pressed a knee over his neck, making it even harder to even take a breath, to stay alive. For eight minutes George Floyd fought for his life and then died. Died, because an institution that exists across the world to protect the people, fails to do so. And it is in this gross failure, that it falls short in its basic human decency. An institution that is supposed to serve all, serves only the social elite who tend to look a certain way and have certain shared histories. And so, in an effort to fight for justice, a plea that will echo through the ages as the biggest civil rights movement in all of history as a fight for the right to equality and life, Black Lives Matter activists marched on the streets, some in peaceful rebellion and others in violent protest.
Regardless of the kind of activism they were engaged in, government response to protests during the BLM civil rights movement was violent and cruel. Peaceful demonstrations were met with tear gas and police brutality, some states even calling upon the National Guard. The justification was that the protestors were considered threats to national security. Compare the response to a march on the street, to 6 January 2021’s invasion of the US Capitol, a “protest” where people took over the heart of Washington, the house of the government. One would think that walking in a road should be less of a threat to national security than political offices being hijacked by armed civilians. What is ironic is that actions like these in other countries like Venezuela have seen the US government respond with military intervention. The cautionary and delayed action of the state to a predominantly White occupation of a government building and the violent response to the protests fighting for equality of rights for the Black community is an indicator like no other, for the need for the BLM protests in the first place, and the need for immediate and structural change.
Generally, I am a pacifist. But unlike Gandhian ideals of utopian non-violence, I strongly believe that in some cases, violence can be the most powerful tool to affect change.
One would assume that the crimes committed against the Black community warranted violent response and undoubtedly justified the non-pacifist branch of the BLM movement. But, as the White-dominated legislative landscape that shapes the actions and mindsets of a country would have it, the protestors were demonised and even marked as “terrorists”. Apparently, there are “other non-violent ways to get legislative change”.
This fits into the age-old debate - violent protests, yay or nay?
Violence is a uniquely effective tool for protestors to gain attention and traction, things that are essential to affect change. Protest violence intends to create chaos so detrimental to the government, be it in terms of cost, global image, or even internal goals of peace and security, that it forces legislators to pay attention and listen to the demands of the protestors — this scale of detriment is virtually impossible with peaceful protest. It creates the sense of doom, gloom, and gravity that the issue warrants; in the case of the BLM movement the systemic oppression of Black people. If no action is taken to solve the issue of systemic racism, not just a superficial solution but one that attacks the problem at its roots, and the result of this inaction is the disproportionate death and poverty of people of colour, things that have been talked about over and over again, it is not at all unfair for them to cause harm to the establishment that fails to support them. If the said establishment has any semblance of rationality, it would move towards working on uplifting the oppressed instead of incurring losses and endangering livelihoods. This is clear in the French government’s response to the violent protests against the police violence and security bill earlier this month. The trade-off seems unquestionable.
Unfortunately, we do not live in a rational world. It is irrational to be racist, for racism stems from ignorance. It is irrational to deny an entire section of your population equality even from a purely economic standpoint, as it is to allow them to disrupt governance. Yet all of the above behaviours do not just exist, but are prevalent in “modern” society.
This extremely harmful ignorance and irrationality has led to the classification of these protestors as “nuisances” and “criminals”, creating strong counteractive narratives to the one of equality that the violent protests demand. This then creates a pattern of cyclical violence, that, make no mistake, was started by the state’s negligence of an entire community. But this, because of the very issue being fought against, leads to the protestors being blamed and vilified. This then puts inactive allies and self-identified non-stakeholders off supporting the core cause of the protests. Because legislative change requires popular vote, the scales are further off balance than they already were.
Many scholars in protest politics agree that historically, violent protests have brought to attention the urgency of an issue, and are an integral part of the success of protest movements in affecting massive societal and legislative change. However, it is a dangerous tool to play with because of this irrational demonisation and vilification of protestors. So, from that one could assume that a combination of peaceful and violent protesting is essential to achieve effective change.The next time you find a protest group blocking a road and stopping you from getting places, or rioting on the streets, remember that these are people that are 10 times more frustrated than you are at an establishment that fails to do its job. So instead of cursing at them or complaining about how they have ruined your day, reflect on the issue and join in any capacity you can, the fight against injustice.
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