Let's talk about Peaceful Protesting, Martin Luther King Jr., and Riots.
In light of the riots occurring across the country, I see a great number of commentators, newscasters, and activists condemning rioters and desperately trying to pin the riots on provocateurs. As has become customary in contemporary American rhetoric, these prominent voices have again trotted out “one of the good ones—” Martin Luther King Jr., as an example of a civil rights leader who sought changes to America’s systemic oppression “the right way.” These prominent voices implore those leading movements to peacefully march about their neighborhood to express their grievances. They denounce the riotous elements in their intended peaceful protests as “distracting from the message” or “disrespecting the legacy of George Floyd.” Unfortunately, these folks are applying Martin Luther King’s calls for nonviolence out of the context in which he was briefly allowed to live.
First of all, Reverend Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., was deeply committed to nonviolence in the midst of a great deal of riotous violence. The Wikipedia page for Mass Racial Violence in the United States indicates that the Civil Rights era of 1955 to 1973 hosted 59 race riots. The most of any period in US history. While Martin Luther King certainly disagreed with the tactics of these rioters, they contributed to his ultimate strategic goal: To make life so uncomfortable for the masses that the society has no choice but to address the grievances of the people he led. Indeed, the strategy of any modern civil rights movement is to accomplish this discomfort and inconvenience such that the masses feel the movement’s grievances personally. The fact you, or someone else, may disagree with civil society being suspended during these periods is the point. Martin Luther King led peaceful protests in the midst of this. His peaceful protests occurred in-addition to riots that also made society uncomfortable.
Second, let’s examine the media context of Martin Luther King Jr.'s peaceful protesting. During the Civil Rights Era, there were three national news networks: NBC, CBS, and ABC. There were only three videographic news sources to obtain imagery about what was occurring throughout the country. Because these three networks instinctively held one-another accountable for providing reasonably balanced content, an American in the 50’s, 60’s and 70’s could obtain a relatively truthful understanding about what was occurring throughout the nation. When Bloody Sunday occurred in Selma, all three news networks covered the violence that the police carried out on peaceful protesters. Additionally, this type of news was weaved into broadcasts about local issues, weather, and other information that people needed to live their lives, making it more likely that the average American would know about an event like Bloody Sunday. Today, the average American can obtain their news from thousands of disparate sources that allow them to self-select out of news that makes them uncomfortable. If a person who supports police doesn’t like hearing about police violence, they can simply selectively listen to news sources don’t report on police violence.
Thirdly and finally, during the Civil Rights Era the police and broader public had not learned to temper their violence when the cameras are trained on peaceful protesters. A huge reason Martin Luther King’s (and other’s) strategy of peaceful protest worked was because the police and public in the 50’s, 60’s and 70’s enthusiastically committed violence against them. This resulted in grotesque images of black men, women, and children being beaten in restaurants, trampled on bridges, chased with dogs, blasted with fire hoses, screamed at as they walked to class, and bombed in Sunday school that accomplished the aforementioned strategic goal of mass discomfort. Now, having learned from this history—the police know to not do these things.
All three of these contextual elements contributed to the success of Martin Luther King Jr.’s strategy of peaceful protest. None of these contextual elements existed prior to the murder of George Floyd. Since what we now call Black Lives Matter began in earnest after the murder of Trayvon Martin, there have been 6 race riots according to Wikipedia, the Ferguson Missouri riots being the most prominent. I can’t be bothered to look up the number of casualties and the amount of property damage directly attributable to these riots, but my general knowledge of the riots that occurred in the Civil Rights Era assures me that the amount of property damaged in these recent pre-2020 riots dwarfs those of the Civil Rights Era. These riots have not captured the same media attention or caused the same discomfort to the public that the prior civil rights riots have. The disparate media landscape and relatively peaceful behavior of police on camera during those prior riots has allowed the average American to heretofore ignore them as a sideshow. Now let’s talk about the riots that have been associated with the reaction to the murder of George Floyd: None of the riots throughout the country has as of yet resulted in any mass casualties. The few deaths that have occurred are due to incidental situations that aren’t directly related to the fact the riot was occurring. One death that I know of in Minneapolis apparently occurred because a shop owner shot a looter. Another death that I know of in Detroit occurred because an apparent vigilante fired indiscriminately into a crowd. Several people were shot in Louisville as a person fired apparently indiscriminately into a crowd. There are other instances of people fighting amongst a crowd that have resulted in injuries. The point of bringing this up is to say: the rioters are not attacking people (besides the police that tend to antagonize them), they are attacking property. In fact, they are attacking so much property that it has overcome the disparate media landscape, exhausted the police’s ability to peacefully stop the riots, and for both of those reasons, has forced the average American to pay attention.
Of course, in American culture people tend to elevate property to a status just below that of human life. I am not one of those people. This is especially true when the property in question belongs to a large corporation. I do believe that the property of individuals and small businesses carries greater moral weight, but the property of large corporations on the small scale at which it is being damaged in these riots is insignificant to me. It is especially insignificant in light of the fact that these riots are occurring because a police officer put his full body weight on the neck of an unarmed, handcuffed man for more than eight minutes, suffocating him until he was lying dead in the middle of a street. And add to that, all the other unjust police killings that have occurred. These rioters are not running around cities killing people. They are destroying property, mostly of large corporations. If the destruction of a Target renders the public uncomfortable and inconvenienced, that is in alignment with the strategic goal of any civil rights movement. Solve the issue of wanton police violence and the nation’s precious Target stores will be safe.
Does this mean that rioting to destroy property is always strategically aligned with the goals of a civil rights movement? No. It is important to note that these riots across the nation have sprung up in the context of decades of inaction on the issue of police violence. People have sued in the courts, demanded prosecution, suggested changes to policy, marched in the streets, disrupted campaign events, and pleaded on television and still the police and their contingents have refused to enact the sweeping changes demanded. Only after exhausting all these legally permissible options to stop the police from killing and unjustly imprisoning the citizenry (yes, even white people are sometimes victims) have some people decided to riot to destroy property. The rioters are not demanding a change to the tax system, an end to student loan debt, or expanded voting rights. Those are relatively trivial things compared to this issue. People are destroying property in a riot to keep the police from unjustly killing people. And what has been the result of this riot against property? National media coverage of the issue of police violence, nationwide and even international protests on the issue of police violence, discussion of legislation to stop police violence, and the further coalescence of allied groups dedicated to stopping police violence. The commentators, newscasters, and activists criticizing riots on property ought to consider that in their analysis; especially in a nation whose founding events included a Boston Massacre by occupying British soldiers responding to a riot, and a Boston Tea Party which destroyed the property of the East India Company. At some point people get tired of trying the same things over and over again and eliciting no different result. A riot is the language of the unheard. A dream deferred explodes.
Martin Luther King Jr. photo credit: The US National Archives