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Everyone loves a peaceful protest.
“I am … an ally of all peaceful protesters,” Donald Trump declared in the Rose Garden on Monday. “We know that lasting justice will only come by peaceful means,” George W. Bush cautioned. “I support and protect peaceful protest in this city,” New York City Mayor Bill DeBlasio said.
Often the sentiment is framed as a negation: “What nonviolent protest gains, violent protest unravels” (Ross Douthat); “If you loot riot and destroy you lose all moral credibility, in my eyes, to protest injustice” (Charlie Kirk).
Attorney General Bill Barr wrapped the sentiment around a threat. Announcing a crackdown against anti-fascist activists, he claimed, “the voices of peaceful protest are being hijacked by violent radical elements.”
They are all full of shit. Nonviolent protest is just a tactic; a means to an end. The ultimate goal of any protest is to force those in power to change, or go.
If the powerful didn’t have to be forced to end police impunity, provide justice for the multifarious victims of state violence, and above all recognize that black lives matter as much as those of white Americans, there would be no need for the protests now. They would have thanked Colin Kaepernick for the gentle reminder instead of denouncing him as a traitor and demanding the NFL drum those who followed his example out of the league.
More importantly, Breonna Taylor, George Floyd, and countless others would be alive today, along with tens of thousands of other African Americans whose lives have been disproportionately lost to COVID-19.
Sometimes nonviolent protest is the most effective way to achieve change. Sometimes it isn’t. What the loudest voices calling for “peaceful protests” really want are ineffective protests. The irony is that it is their intransigence—and ultimately their shamelessness—that could make a nonviolent response to the overwhelming violence of the state impossible.
The Long Version
No one understood the uses of violence more than Mahatma Gandhi. He lived under the violence of British rule in South Africa and India, and developed his protest tactics in response.
Gandhi’s tactics are often misunderstood today as “peaceful” or even law-abiding. They were not. His favorite method was to target an unjust law, break it in performative fashion, and dare the authorities to use violence to stop it. He called his method Satyagraha—“force which is born of truth and love.”
One thing Indians hated about British control was their tyrannical monopoly on the production of basic goods, including salt. In 1930, Gandhi led a protest to a traditional saltmaking town on the coast, where his Satyagrahis would break the law and make salt for themselves.
Though he had informed the British viceroy, Lord Irwin, of the march in advance, the authorities did not interfere. “I wish I could believe this non-interference was due to any real change of heart or policy,” Gandhi told a reporter. The real reason, he said, was that the “British Government, powerful though it is, is sensitive to world opinion.”
If Gandhi’s goal was “peaceful protest”—a symbolic action that ended without anyone getting hurt—he would have stopped there. But his goal was change. News of the salt protest spread civil disobedience across India. “A bonfire should be made of foreign cloth,” Gandhi said. “Schools and colleges should become empty.”
Faced with a real threat to their economic and political power, the British turned to their old standby: violence. Tens of thousands of protesters were beaten and arrested—often by their fellow Indians, working as police and soldiers for the state. In Peshawar, when a crowd gathered to demand that one of Gandhi’s Muslim disciples be released, British officers ordered a platoon of Indian troops open fire. Over 200 civilians were killed.
Gandhi himself was arrested in May 1930. From jail, he informed Lord Irwin that his protesters would next conduct a raid on the government salt works at Dharasana. It would be nonviolent: a crime only against property, not people. When the Satyagrahis arrived, soldiers savagely attacked them with steel-tipped sticks. They cracked skulls and kicked them in their stomachs and genitals until the protesters were wet with blood.
“The injured men writhed and squealed in agony, which seemed to inflame the fury of the police,” a journalist who witnessed it wrote.
This was not peaceful. It was a provocative series of blatantly illegal actions aimed at forcing the British to react badly, embarrassing them in front of the world. As one of Gandhi’s comrades, J.C. Kumarappa, put it, the goal was “to show the fangs and claws of the government in all its ugliness. In this we have succeeded above all measure.”
Twenty years later, writings about the Salt March and Satyagraha reached a young Martin Luther King Jr. Until then, King had been skeptical that nonviolent protest could work against such a deeply ingrained system of violence as American white supremacy.
“My study of Gandhi convinced me that … true pacifism is not unrealistic submission to evil power,” King wrote. “It is rather a courageous confrontation of evil by the power of love, in the faith that it is better to be the recipient of violence than the inflicter of it, since … the former may develop a sense of shame in the opponent, and thereby bring about a transformation and change of heart.”
“However,” he continued, “bringing about such a transformation is not a simple matter.”
Making violence visible
Scholars and activists are divided on how effective nonviolence is as a tactic. Many question whether even Gandhi and King’s most significant victories would have been possible without the parallel efforts of more violent allies. Just this month, acts much of the public reads as violent—such as the burning of the Minneapolis Police Department precinct whose officer murdered George Floyd—have likely done more than anything else to bring attention to the protests and caused them to spread.
In their book, Why Civil Resistance Works: The Strategic Logic of Nonviolent Conflict, Erica Chenoweth and Maria J. Stephan argue nonviolence has been more effective than armed rebellion in overthrowing governments or forcing territorial change. The anarchist theorist Peter Gelderloos disagrees, arguing their data is inconclusive, and that “nonviolence privileges and protects the violence of the State”—making the legal force of the police invisible, while shining a harsh spotlight on anyone who resists.
But all that is moot without, as King said, a sense of shame.
The police have been shameless for years. One of the main purposes of police unions and benevolent associations has been to convince the public to ratify that sense—to hold up cops as being above not only the law but morality, entitled to do anything in the name of their own safety and preserving the existing social order:
In Donald Trump, law enforcement unions immediately recognized a fellow traveler in shamelessness. Shamelesses has been his political superpower—getting him through a lifetime of laughable lies, credible allegations of rape, even impeachment. There is nothing that could happen to another human being that would make him feel bad. He is, in every respect, a sociopath.
But Gandhi and King’s tactics didn’t foster a sense of shame in their most hardcore and violent opponents either. Insofar as they were effective, it was by making their persecutors’ brutality visible through mass communication, and convincing those who had supported them through indifference to change their minds.
The question is whether anything happening now will have that kind of effect.
There have been some classic examples of Satyagraha amid the police riots over the past week. In Charleston, S.C., on Sunday, 23-year-old Givionne Jordan Jr. kneeled in front of a phalanx of heavily armed and armored riot police.
“I love each and every one of you,” he said through tears. “I cry at night because I feel your pain. I feel the pain of black people. I feel the pain of white people. I feel the pain of innocent cops … If we charge you, if you charge us, what is that really doing?”
Four police wearing gas masks then emerged from the phalanx, grabbed Jordan, and arrested him. He was charged with disobeying a lawful order, and spent the night in county jail.
The moment garnered millions of views on social media, and sympathetic coverage in local and national media.
There are other, fleeting signs that shame might still exist:
After U.S. Park Police fired tear gas at protesters in Lafayette Park to permit Trump to film a campaign ad in front of St. John’s Church, the public outcry was such that the White House felt it had to hold up Bill Barr as a scapegoat.
And Trump’s fascistic threats of using the military to “dominate” dissent seems to have provoked at least a moment of pause in parts of the senior ranks of the military.
But viral tweets and a few blameshifting stories planted in the press are not going to end the cry for change. Every day, with every beating and murder, uncontrollable police further fan the flames of resistance. If nonviolence does not result in substantive change, more violent means will become more pervasive.
Like I said, everyone ultimately wants peace, at least for themselves. The key is to watch who reacts to the spiraling unrest by condemning and holding accountable those responsible for the state’s violence against the people, and those who focus their ire on the people demanding change—whatever tactics they are forced to employ.
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Jonathan Myerson Katz is a journalist and the author of The Big Truck That Went By: How the World Came to Save Haiti and Left Behind a Disaster. His next book, Gangsters of Capitalism, looks at the life of Gen. Smedley Butler and the rise and fall of America’s empire. Follow him on Twitter @KatzOnEarth.
Photo: AP/Deutscher Photo Dienst/W. Bossard