There’s a white American proverb about violent protests that goes something like this: “What good will it do?”
As surely as the sun will rise, viral footage of any violent protest concerning race will inevitably lead to some virtue signaling about nonviolence. This is happening on social media this week while windows shatter and fires rage around Minneapolis in protest of the death of George Floyd, an African-American man who died after a local police officer pinned him to the ground by kneeling on his neck for several minutes.
“But seriously what is destroying the community going to solve,” one commenter wrote in response to an Instagram video of an Auto Zone set ablaze.
Another commenter chimed in saying: “disappointing [sic]!! THIS IS DOING NOTHING...”
The forms vary on this notion but the content doesn’t: Many Americans seem to believe that riots are good for nothing.
The truth is, however, is riots can be useful.
What History Suggests About Violent Protests
Revisionist history is one reason the notion that using force is always counterproductive feels like common sense. The role of armed struggle is often downplayed in the stories we tell about social progress.
For instance, Americans are generally familiar with Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., and speak of him as though he single-handedly won the Civil Rights struggle of the mid-twentieth century through his speeches emphasizing love and nonviolence. Fewer Americans are acquainted with the Deacons of Defense, another Civil Rights organization of that era, who often showed up with arms to protect nonviolent Civil Rights activists.
In his book, Full Spectrum Resistance activist Aric McBay reveals the lesser-known figures who were willing to utilize more radical acts of resistance to contribute to movements that are often thought of as exclusively nonviolent. McBay reports that, during the Indian anti-colonial struggle, a naval mutiny may have signaled to the British that if they didn’t capitulate to the nonviolent demonstrations led by Gandhi, that Indian resistance may take a more forceful turn.
Then there’s the story of the fall of apartheid in South Africa. One must scratch their heads at how Nelson Mandela remains, in our imagination, a paragon of nonviolent struggle, when he publicly gave up on Gandhian nonviolence, feeling that the African National Congress had exhausted the effectiveness of nonviolent tactics. In a 1961 speech, Mandela said:
“after a long and anxious assessment of the South African situation, I, and some colleagues, came to the conclusion that as violence in this country was inevitable, it would be unrealistic and wrong for African leaders to continue preaching peace and nonviolence at a time when the government met our peaceful demands with force…”
Mandela was imprisoned for his leadership in the radical flank of the anti-apartheid struggle known as uMkhonto we Sizwe (meaning “tip of the spear”) which engaged in acts of sabotage and property destruction; and his autobiography recounts a lengthy process of authorities trying to pressure him into categorically denouncing the armed anti-apartheid struggle in exchange for his freedom, which he refused to do.
It’s a wonder that Americans can be so anti-revolutionary when it comes to protesting anti-Black violence. On the fourth of July, they don’t wag their fingers at their ancestors for throwing all that British tea into Boston Harbor, or for tarring and feathering colonial citizens who remained loyal to the crown in the days leading up to the revolution.
The idea that citizens are within their rights to stand up to tyrannical rule is so embedded in American culture that this very year armed, white anti-lockdown protesters donned colonial garb to demand the country “re-open,” betraying that they believe that the violent protests that constitute the big bang of American history weren’t useless or counterproductive.
Yet, many Americans don’t seem to believe that Black people hold the same rights when confronting the tyranny of anti-Black violence.
What the Stats Say About Riots
As much as my nonviolent heart hates to admit it, there have been studies that show that riots might have been effective in the past.
In his book Political Process and the Development of Black Insurgency: 1930–1970, a study of the Civil Rights era, sociologist and social movement expert Doug McAdam concludes:
The evidence reviewed here provides consistent support for the view that the urban riots of the mid to late 1960s did help to stimulate a reactive pattern of favorable federal action across a wide range of policy areas of interest to blacks (2).
There’s also the famous study The Strategy of Social Protest by William Gamson (1975) which examined several protests in the United States from the years 1800–1945. Gamson concluded that the data from the years of the inquiry showed, “unruly groups that use violence, strikes, and other constraints, have better than average success (3).”
A caveat should be made about both studies. It’d be a mistake to draw a universal principle from them like “violence always trumps nonviolence.”
In the former study, McAdam goes on to say that the U.S. eventually further militarized its responses to protests in general, instead of continuing the trend of capitulating to them. And the latter study was completed before some of the most successful nonviolent movements toppled oppressive regimes around the world. These considerations leave open some compelling reasons to choose nonviolence.
Nevertheless, while “violence is the most powerful force for social change” may be an overstatement from this data, it certainly shows that riots have at been effective sometimes.
Riots & How Political Power Works
‘Violent’ or not, protests operate on the principle of consent. That is, as movement scholar Gene Sharp put it:
Obedience is at the heart of political power. By themselves, rulers cannot collect taxes, enforce repressive laws and regulations, keep trains running on time, prepare national budgets, direct traffic, manage ports, print money, repair roads, keep markets supplied with food, make steel, build rockets, train the police and army, issue postage stamps or even milk a cow. People provide these services to the ruler through a variety of organizations and institutions. If people would stop providing these skills, the ruler could not rule.
Armed or not, the status quo is sustained by people peacefully going along with the normal rhythms and activities of social life. Protest works because, while people revolt, the gears of society can come to a halt, removing the sources of power authorities depend on.
People who consent to the status quo are easier to rule, which is why there’s always an incentive for the powers that be to quell protests, even when they’re peaceful. How much more then would authorities be interested in disrupting the protests of people who are willing to break windows, burn buildings, or take up arms? They need the people to be working, and they need the country to remain intact, therefore they have a vulnerability to protest in general.
The Symbol of Violent Protests
There’s been a lot of talk in recent years about the value of sharing the footage of murders like George Floyd’s. Some feel that graphic videos of Black deaths may radicalize and mobilize otherwise inactive citizens to join the movement for racial justice. Others contend that such images are more likely to function as displays of the might of agents of anti-Black violence.
There’s no reason that could justify that officer kneeling on George Floyd’s neck to the point of fatal injury. One onlooker even shouted that the officer seemed to get some kind of sick pleasure from torturing Mr. Floyd. This is reminiscent of photos white people used to snap of themselves at social gatherings where lynchings were an attraction — such images, from that time, were capturing white people torturing Black people for fun. But at the same time, they are symbols of white dominance.
If the videos of Black people being murdered by police are akin to the postcards white people used to send one another with lynching victims dangling from trees above a crowd of white faces, then those videos are actually symbols of racial terror, and they function to signal to the targets of that terror what can be done to them.
With that in mind, riots also can have a symbolic function. In her book, Twitter and Tear Gas, journalist Zeynep Tufekci, explains the concept of ‘stotting’ in the animal kingdom to talk about how social movements signal their strength to power:
“…sometimes while grazing, the animal, seemingly out of the blue, jumps very high in place, lifting all four feet. This action is puzzling because it makes the gazelle visible to predators. But such jumping is also an impressive display of athletic ability and signals an ability to run fast. And a predator like a lion is better off chasing a less fit animal rather than one impressively stotting.”
Perhaps riots are more than just “the language of the unheard,” as Dr. King once asserted. Perhaps they are the stotting of an infuriated, oppressed people signaling back to powers that terrorize them that they too are powerful.
The might of the people is on display in these rebellions, taking aim at the symbols of the entire capitalist system in which our militaristic white supremacist society is rooted, stotting their capacity for economic disruption. Whether or not that might is equal to that of their opponents will be proven through the conflict. Who will be able to impose their will onto the other will be revealed in time.
To be sure, revolutionary violence has its limits and problems — too many to name here. There’s the problem of collateral damage, the violent or unstable and undemocratic aftermaths they often leave in their wake, the fact that there are tremendous barriers to organizing an armed revolutionary struggle, and the fact that newer research suggests that nonviolent movements succeed twice as often. Riots aren’t a perfect means for pursuing change, but they’re certainly not categorically useless.
I’m not pushing for more riots. I remain an advocate for nonviolent struggle, largely because the data on nonviolence looks more promising.
Nevertheless, the amount of force necessary to liberate oneself from an oppressive power isn’t determined by those who have the regime’s knee on their neck. The oppressed can’t be blamed if their oppressors won’t respond to nonviolent actions and diplomatic conversations. The force of resistance is determined by the severity of the oppression. It’s as John F. Kennedy once said: “Those who make peaceful revolution impossible will make violent revolution inevitable.”
If you liked this article, check out why I still think nonviolent struggle is a superior strategy: click here.
- Popovic, Srdja, and Matthew Miller. Blueprint for Revolution: How to Use Rice Pudding, Lego Men, and Other Nonviolent Techniques to Galvanize Communities, Overthrow Dictators, or Simply Change the World. Spiegel & Grau, 2015.
- McAdam, Doug. Political Process and the Development of Black Insurgency: 1930–1970. University of Chicago Press, 1999.
- McBay, Aric. Full Spectrum Resistance. Vol. 1, Seven Stories Press, 2019.
- TUFEKCI, ZEYNEP. TWITTER AND TEAR GAS: the Power and Fragility of Networked Protest. YALE University Press, 2018.