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.


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