Some thoughts about “non-violence”

by Rinu

The story of Michael Brown, a young, unarmed, black boy from Ferguson, Missouri being shot dead by a white police officer, Darren Wilson, and the recent news of a grand jury deciding not to indict Wilson for his actions has caught the world’s attention.

Following the announcement of the grand jury’s decision, there have been protests taking place in Ferguson and across the United States. Some of these protests have led to “riots” and crimes being committed in areas with severe tensions between poor African-American communities and the institutions that are supposed to serve them.

As always, many have been quick to condemn the riots, reminding people that ‘non-violence’ is the only answer. Although I would never directly wish or advocate for violence, I feel uneasy about this constant emphasis ‘non-violence’ as the only solution.

Firstly, it’s inaccurate and revisionist to say that non-violence will never bring about lasting change. Many significant changes to society have arisen from violent uprisings. With regards to what’s going on right now in Ferguson and other similar communities across the states, Ta-Nehisi Coates lays down some evidence,

 What clearly cannot be said is that violence and nonviolence are tools, and that violence—like nonviolence—sometimes works. “Property damage and looting impede social progress,” Jonathan Chait wrote Tuesday. He delivered this sentence with unearned authority. Taken together, Property damage and looting have been the most effective tools of social progress for white people in America. It describes everything from enslavement to Jim Crow laws to lynching to red-lining.

“Property damage and looting”—perhaps more than nonviolence—has also been a significant tool in black “social progress.” In 1851, when Shadrach Minkins was snatched off the streets of Boston under the authority of the Fugitive Slave Law, abolitionists “stormed the courtroom” and “overpowered the federal guards” to set Minkins free. That same year, when slaveholders came to Christiana, Pennsylvania, to reclaim their property under the same law, they were not greeted with prayer and hymnals but with gunfire.

“Property damage and looting” is a fairly accurate description of the emancipation of black people in 1865, who only five years earlier constituted some $4 billion in property. The Civil Rights Bill of 1964 is inseparable from the threat of riots. The housing bill of 1968—the most proactive civil-rights legislation on the books—is a direct response to the riots that swept American cities after King was killed. Violence, lingering on the outside, often backed nonviolence during the civil-rights movement. “We could go into meetings and say, ‘Well, either deal with us or you will have Malcolm X coming into here,'”said SNCC organizer Gloria Richardson. “They would get just hysterical. The police chief would say, ‘Oh no!'”

Secondly and more importantly, I find it infuriating when people tell those who have constantly lived under state-sponsored racism and oppression to maintain the peace, especially after something so horrific like police killings happens within their community. It’s particularly offensive when this comes from those outside the communities – namely, white people.

What troubles me is when they are so quick preach ‘non-violence’ and dictate how victimised people should react but at all other times are silent in the face of state-sponsored violence. Because yes, racist policing, an anti-black criminal justice system and the denial of resources to help improve the lives of black communities are also violence. When someone is constantly being knocked over, of course a natural response would be anger and violence, and to only cry ‘non-violence’ when the victim is reacting is to be completely ignorant at best, or at worse to be complicit in the violence that led to his condition.

Here is a clip from The Black Power Mixtape 1967-1975 of Angela Davis speaking on the subject while awaiting trial in the 1970s. Watch from 01:37 to 05:17.

For those who love to preach ‘non-violence’ – I would like to see more calls for ‘non-violence’ the next time a black teenager is denied the opportunity to receive help after committing a minor offence at school and is instead forced to enter the school-to-prison pipeline. I would like to see more calls for ‘non-violence’ the next time a white person receives a lower or no charge at all for the same crime a black person is given a harsh sentencing for. I would like to see more calls for ‘non-violence’ whenever counties decide to put more money into their police systems rather than investing in their under-served communities.

Because it’s these things that so many people are organising and advocating against while at the same time a few people choose to react to their oppression in violent ways. These activists understand well that it’s not the actions of the oppressed that need to change to guarantee progress, but the actions of those in charge.