The Truth You’ve Probably Never Heard About Riots

Why the use of force in response to the murder of George Floyd could be a productive part of the movement for Black Lives.

Photo: Flavio Gasperini/Unsplash

What History Suggests About Violent Protests

Revisionist history is one reason the notion that violence (or force) is always counterproductive feels like common sense. The role of armed struggle is often downplayed in the stories we tell about social progress.

“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…[1]

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 violence of the anti-apartheid struggle in exchange for his freedom, which he refused to do.

What the Stats Say About Violent Protests

As much as my nonviolent heart hates to admit it, there have been studies that show that ‘violent’ protests can be effective.

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).”

‘Violent’ Protest & 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.

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.

“…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.

Works Cited:

  1. 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.
  2. McAdam, Doug. Political Process and the Development of Black Insurgency: 1930–1970. University of Chicago Press, 1999.
  3. McBay, Aric. Full Spectrum Resistance. Vol. 1, Seven Stories Press, 2019.
  4. TUFEKCI, ZEYNEP. TWITTER AND TEAR GAS: the Power and Fragility of Networked Protest. YALE University Press, 2018.

Writer, speaker, & musician contending for a world without racism.

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