Category Archives: Revolution

Revolutionary Violence


Martin Luther King made an important point that those in power don’t often enough listen to. That is that even though he famously did not support violent tactics, by ignoring legitimate protests the people in power make violence inevitable. As a result the powerful become the real authors of the violent change they claim to abhor. King argued that the way to stop violent protest was to take seriously the calls for justice. All those in power have to agree to do is share power. When they refuse to share power, or design the system they control to such an extent that peaceful change becomes impossible they are to blame for the violent change that inevitably arises.

The way to stop riots is to acknowledge and then fix the conditions that rioters were rioting against and until they do that durable peace will not happen. This is not limited to racism. It applies to all injustice controlled by those in power.

King led the protests of the 1960s and today the same arguments he faced against violent protests are being levied against Black Lives Matter. As opinion columnist of The Guardian Nesrine Malik said,

“Today, it is the Black Lives Matter movement that is being discredited for not staying in its lane; for refusing to “quit while they’re still ahead”, in the words of one broadsheet columnist. But protests happen in the first place because the “proper channels” have failed – in some cases, because previous protests have also failed…When a statue falls, you don’t see the years of campaigning and lobbying and writing that went before it, and came to nothing. When Extinction Rebellion occupies central London, you don’t see the power – corporate lobbyists, complacent politicians, indifferent bureaucrats – that marginalised these concerns for so long that activists knew there was no other way.”

I too want to see non-violent protests. I am opposed to violence. Yet at the same time I believe that when peaceful protests are continuously ignored the cause of the violence is the fault of the entrenched interests.

I am reminded of the legal concept of entrapment. When courts are convinced that a crime has really in essence been created by the police rather than the criminal, the accused will be found not guilty, even though the accused did commit an illegal act. This is common in drug offences, where police officers work hard to convince “pushers” to sell the drugs to them. Courts have held that in such circumstances the trafficker has really created the crime not the “criminal.”

As Malik said,

“The very nature of being excluded from the spaces in which decisions are made means that the process of managing grievances is already rigged against you. The very position of black people as always appellants, never adjudicators, means that every protest will soon enough be denigrated as violent or disruptive. Their demands will always be dismissed as unreasonable, their priorities confused, their methods off-putting to erstwhile allies.”

Those in power are usually conservatives because they like things the way they are. Who wouldn’t when they have the power? However, such entrenched interests will not be able forever to capture the process of change for their own benefit. They have tried hard to accomplish that, but inevitably in time their efforts will fail. They should fail and they will fail. The rules must be fair. They must permit all sides to be heard not just the side of the powerful. Until that is done, their demands to follow the rules of protest will be ignored. Yet inevitably, the powerful insist that the rules of peaceful protest must be followed, but cannot they do so without permitting their opponents to have a say as well. As Malik said,

“And these rules must be respected – because conservatives will always hold them up to stymie any change, and because liberals are afraid to admit that most of our rules and norms are neither definitive nor universally observed. They are afraid to shatter the illusion and face the reality that so many of these rules are, in fact, broken all the time by people who can get away with it: tax avoiders, labour exploiters, vote manipulators. And so it is those who cannot get away with breaking the rules who are told they must uphold what is left of this order; it is their responsibility to ensure that the slope does not get too slippery and allow us all to slide into chaos.

But as long as concessions have to be prised from the hands of the establishment, rather than reasonably handed over, we cannot live without slippery slopes. Our history may, in time, bless some riots; but it also sands the rough edges off many others, expunging the anger of martyrs and revolutionaries and telling us that their victories, over slavery or Jim Crow, were the benign gift of those masters whose morality carried the day.

Today’s movements for equality are expected to resemble the dramatised depictions of their sainted predecessors – conveniently forgetting the calumnies heaped upon Nelson Mandela, Martin Luther King and Gandhi, from enemies and would-be “allies” alike. Random quotes from black icons are cherry-picked out of context from the past and waved in front of the protesters of the present, in an attempt to shame them into the most timid form of political activism possible.”

Protesters should be careful. They may turn the public against their cause by their tactics. Donald Trump is counting on that. He might be right. Violent protests helped to get Richard Nixon elected in 1968. It might happen again in 2020 in the US. Yet protesters should not be so cautious that they guarantee ineffectiveness. People in power will not give up their grip on power by timid entreaties. But when and how far should they go? Here is Malik’s view:

“The premise of change is that risks and chances need to be taken. And the movements that will be born from that demand will never be neat, and never have been. The effort to humanise black lives and win them the rights to safety and the dignity of equality may involve – among many other things – pulling down statues when it becomes clear that polite petitions and humble pleas to decolonise the curriculum will forever go unheard. Process by its very nature is conservative. To insist that the aggrieved must “follow the rules” or lose our support is to ignore the lessons of history. Many of the rights we now take for granted were won by people who knew when the time had come to give up on the establishment. Civil disobedience, strikes, riots and boycotts are not the hijacking of process: they are its continuation by other means.”

That is not an entirely unreasonable view.

I am opposed to violence and therefor  I insist that the powerful demonstrate they are willing to share power. Otherwise the violence will be on them.


Making Change Impossible


Conservatives and liberals must remember that, as John F. Kennedy said, “Those who make peaceful revolution impossible will make violent revolution inevitable.” This is vitally important. In the United States for decades the America right wing has  worked with tireless diligence to suppress the vote of the disadvantaged. And they have been remarkably successful. They persuaded the American Supreme Court that voter suppression was no longer a serious issue despite mountains of evidence to the contrary. Both Democrats and Republicans have worked tirelessly to gerrymander voting districts so the votes of those opposed to their interests were given less effective weight than those who supported them. Both parties have demonstrated a strong distaste for real democracy. Both want obedient voters. They want to choose their voters, rather than have the voters choose them.

As a result when liberals or conservative urge protesters to rely on the ballot box for change their arguments are understandably often met with disdain by the rebels. Republicans in particular have worked hard to make sure that the rebel  votes will be ineffective, leaving the rebels with no reasonable alternative other than rebellion that might turn unruly or worse.

That is why Martin Luther King reminded American whites that because they went too far they had created the situation were violent protest was almost inevitable. Although King was a remarkable advocate for peaceful protest he realized that white American had given the impression that power would never be shared and this impression was dangerous because it undercut those who urged peaceful protest. For years he had warned that the whites were making peaceful change impossible and that they would pay a huge price for that intransigence.

In 1966 King told Mike Wallace, “And I contend that the cry of ‘black power’ is, at bottom, a reaction to the reluctance of white power to make the kind of changes necessary to make justice a reality for the Negro…I think that we’ve got to see that a riot is the language of the unheard.”

In the following years King expanded on this important idea when he made a speech at Stanford University:

“…I think America must see that riots do not develop out of thin air. Certain conditions continue to exist in our society which must be condemned as vigorously as we condemn riots. But in the final analysis, a riot is the language of the unheard. And what is it that America has failed to hear? It has failed to hear that the plight of the Negro poor has worsened over the last few years. It has failed to hear that the promises of freedom and justice have not been met. And it has failed to hear that large segments of white society are more concerned about tranquility and the status quo than about justice, equality, and humanity. And so in a real sense our nation’s summers of riots are caused by our nation’s winters of delay. And as long as America postpones justice, we stand in the position of having these recurrences of violence and riots over and over again. Social justice and progress are the absolute guarantors of riot prevention.”

We have to remember that these sentiments apply not just to African-Americans but all people of colour in all countries. They apply as well African-Canadians and Indigenous Canadians. We heard the same arguments from Canadian conservatives who were opposed to indigenous blockades. In fact, these sentiments apply to all victims of injustice everywhere.


Who is really responsible for the violent protests?

Where the majority has made peaceful change impossible they become the parents of the violent change they claim not to want.

Don’t Boo. Vote


In 2016 Barack Obama during the 2016 American presidential election urged people “Don’t boo. Vote.” That’s often good advice.

Yet, as The Guardian journalist Nesrine Malik suggested, this is a familiar approach that the established interests will not lose sleep over. They know they can handle that approach. It won’t often bring about big changes, because as Trump truthfully said, but not in the sense he was suggesting, “the game is rigged.” The entrenched interests, particularly in the United States have for decades made sure that the votes of resisters are not fairly counted. As Malik in a subsequent Guardian article said,

‘It is a familiar reproach. If you’re angry, don’t boo, don’t protest, don’t take matters into your own hands. Vote, lobby, report to the authorities, trust the process. It’s the appeal of reasonable liberals and the rebuke of rightwingers. It is the refrain that rings out when demands for justice “go too far.”

After the death of George Floyd in Minneapolis this year, entrenched interests quickly turned the attention of the public from the issues being protested to the manner of the protests. The public was widely persuaded that the issues were vandalism, destruction of property, and anarchy, not racial injustice. That was precisely the agenda of law and order of the president Donald Trump. As Malik said about the United Kingdom, but as could just as easily be said of the US,

“it’s easier to talk about the lawless mobs tearing down statues than the crimes these monuments commemorate… But this is nothing new. What we rarely hear about all the great revolutions of the past is that they too looked at first like spontaneous uprisings against the existing order – and they too were subject to charges of anarchy, reckless violence, puritanical revenge. So much so that the economist Albert Hirschman described the demand to “follow the process” as “the first reaction” whenever the threat of real change is on the horizon.”


Many people fear revolutions, not entirely without justification of course. As Marx reminded, revolutions are not conducted like Sunday schools . They are scary and the American president is an expert at magnifying the fears of the American electorate. As a result many felt he over-reacted to what were largely peaceful protests. As the mayor of Portland said, “he poured fuel on the flames.”

Ever since the French Revolution it has become easy to trigger fears at the mere suggestion of revolution. Yet, it must never be forgotten that revolutions have also brought about radical change for the good. We must remember the good and the bad. Few Americans would want to reverse anything about the American Revolution. The French celebrate the French Revolution. And both of those revolutions were unruly and even violent. As Malik said,

“The first accounts of the French revolution made no distinction between its positive and negative aspects – collapsing its moral position and its violent manifestations into one. The result was that, for a long time, it was defined and smeared by its excesses. It was only the passage of time that transformed it into “a riot blessed by history”, as Gary Younge puts it.”

Sometime you gotta boo.