THE LEGITIMACY OF VIOLENT PROTEST: Black Lives Matter vs. the State

Hundreds gathered in Centennial Olympic Park during Atlanta\’s first night of demonstrations on Fri., May 29, in the wake of George Floyd\’s murder. Photography: Brandon Mishawn, 2020.

Joshua Fryer holds a Bachelor of Science degree in International Politics and Sociology from Middle Tennessee State University, and is a former doctoral research fellow in Political Science and former instructor of Global Issues, both at Georgia State University. His prior research has been in political philosophy and human rights law, looking at the effect state power has on the construction of human rights, especially as it relates to policy development within international organizations.

Those that disavow rioting, looting, and destruction of property, in response to systematic oppression and state violence, are complicit with the state, and society as a whole, in the oppression and destruction upon which the riotous release of anger is based. I say society as a whole, because through our votes, policymaking, and everyday willingness to ignore racism in our midst, we white people have created and privileged from a society that devalues and dehumanizes people of color, blocks their access, and deprives them from equal opportunities.

Our society is one bred on white patriarchy; one where racism and oppression are wove into its fabric; one that socializes dominance and aggression. This is our culture—a culture of fear and violence. Violence perpetrated by the state, leading to violent responses by its people. In order to end this cycle of violence, we must upturn our racist culture. We cannot hold on to our culture and way of living, and simultaneously expect change; to expect Black people to be content; to expect Black people not to lash out with anger in response to their society’s oppression.

If we truly want to confront violence in our society, we must address overt, subtle, and systematic racism. We must address racism in all corners of our society: in the Deep South, throughout the Rust Belt, on the liberal coasts, in the mountains of Appalachia, and across the desert Southwest. We must defund the police and in turn invest in community and social justice programs; provide equal access and opportunities to jobs, health care, education, representation in government and media; and the list goes on. But even if we change those things, we will fail if we do not also confront our society’s foundation on white patriarchy, its enduring power, and the perpetuation of racist myths that encourage a culture of violence. 

History has shown that the powerful rarely abdicate their power to peace, and that power does not cede without the destructive and reconstructive force of violent protest. Power-holders—usually governments and their related institutions, historically constituted of white men—construct ideas of validity and legitimacy. Therefore, validity in itself is an expression of those values of power, and thus validity cannot become independent of power and the power-holders that construct it. Violent protest in the modern era has been labeled by power-holders as illegitimate or unreasonable acts, even though legitimacy and reason are being defined and validated by the same players that are the initial perpetrators of violence: the state. This is done in order to invalidate violent responses to violent state oppression, so that power-holders can maintain their power, in spite of their own systemic acts of violence.

A police officer looks over a large crowd of Black Lives Matter protestors from a SWAT vehicle in downtown Atlanta on the city\’s first night of George Floyd protests. Photography: Brandon Mishawn, 2020.

Not only does power determine the legitimacy of the use of violence, but power also determines what is and is not violent. Power minimizes its own harmful acts, as a way to not only legitimize its behavior, but to define its behavior as something other than violence. To maintain its power, it then exaggerates the acts of others by labeling them as violent as a way to delegitimize the behavior and oftentimes the actor themself. The state has minimized the centuries of physical, psychological, and social harm that Black people have suffered at the hands of state legitimized, systemic racism. And now, the types of acts that the media and state are referring to as violent mostly consist of protestors breaking windows, looting, and setting fires to police cars. However, these are specifically forms of property damage. With a few exceptions, throwing water bottles or fireworks at cops have been the closest protesters have come to inflicting physical harm. Police forces, on the other hand, have engaged in the use of tear gas, rubber bullets, batons, concussion grenades, and more—acts constituting violations of the Geneva Conventions

In Atlanta, crowds of peaceful protestors were gassed for not going home when the mayor told them to, and others were sprayed with rubber bullets simply for kneeling down when defying orders to “move,” essentially shot for peacefully kneeling. These are examples of physical harm, and police have and are engaging in these types of violent acts in cities all across America. This is the real violence. So, while we look at the legitimacy of violent protest, it is also important to understand the distinctions in the different types of violence being carried out by protesters, as opposed to the types of violence being committed by the state.

Signs in Centennial Olympic Park in downtown Atlanta condemning state-committed violence in the form of police killings of Black people. Photography: Brandon Mishawn, 2020.

These forms of manipulation by power, to invalidate and redefine violence in their favor, is their way to maintain and continue asserting power over others through the continued use of violent state oppression. Manipulation by power is what makes working within structures of power so difficult. Whether it’s through the courts, council meetings, and elections, these structures of power do not always provide justice and certainly not swiftly enough, because it would require the structures themselves to be dismantled.  This is not to say that violent protest is effective on its own or that we should avoid working within power structures altogether, that we shouldn’t turn out to vote, that we shouldn’t raise funds for social justice organizations, or that we shouldn’t show up to council meetings. However, while we engage in these civic performances, we must realize these are performances within a game that is inherently rigged in favor of white patriarchy and the outcomes are slow and oftentimes limited, especially without the use of citizen-engaged force in response to the abuses of state force.

How many more elections, laws, and council meetings will it take to stop the violence against Black people? How many more Black lives must be lost? How many more centuries must Black people wait? Repudiating violent protest and forcing the oppressed to play by the rules established by their own oppressors, in and of itself is to side with the powerful—with the oppressors. These repudiations legitimize violence by the state, while delegitimizing violent responses by its victims.

Atlanta protestors take hold of the iconic CNN sign in downtown Atlanta. For years, the CNN Center has seen vast multitude of movements and protests march outside its doors, with demonstrators demanding the newsroom deem it worthy of coverage. On Fri., May 29, the Black Lives Matter protests definitely got their attention — as well as the city\’s mayor, Keisha Lance Bottoms. Photography: Brandon Mishawn, 2020.

On Fri., May 29, following Atlanta’s first night of George Floyd protests, Mayor Keisha Lance Bottoms in an impassioned speech said, What I see happening on the streets of Atlanta is not Atlanta. This is not a protest, this is not in the spirit of Martin Luther King Jr., this is chaos. A protest has purpose. When Dr. King was assassinated, we didn’t do this to our city. So, if you love this city, this city that has had a legacy of Black mayors and Black police chiefs and people who care about this city, where more than 50% of the business owners in metro Atlanta are minority business owners—if you care about this city, then go home.

While heartfelt, and while Mayor Bottoms is right that Dr. King strongly condemned rioting as “socially destructive and self-defeating,” she should not forget the rest of his words regarding the cause and purpose of violent protest. In Dr. King’s “The Other America” speech that he gave three weeks before his assassination, he said, 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.

His words here show that while Dr. King was not supportive of violent protest, he did, however, acknowledge the legitimacy of violent protest. He did not refer to violent protest as “chaos” or without purpose, like Mayor Bottoms suggests. On the contrary, he points out that violent protest is the voice of those that our society has gagged, and it is with a deep, engrained purpose: to achieve social justice.

Protestors huddled en masse outside of the CNN Center in downtown Atlanta on Fri., May 29. Photography: Brandon Mishawn, 2020.

In the 50-plus years since Dr. King died, we’re even more aware of how oppressive language and labels can be. Privilege oftentimes blinds people to the subversion, oppression, stigmatization, and racism hidden in subtle language and label differences. To denounce violent protests from people of color and refer to them as riots is the powerful arm of systemic racism attempting to diminish the right of people to revolt against those in power. It is an attempt to eliminate one of the only effective sources of expression that the oppressed have.

To denounce violent protest is to side with the power-holders and their construction of what is deemed legitimate, denying the voice and validity of the oppressed and bereaved. How can we ask victims of active physical and systemic violence to remain nonviolent? Are revolutions not violent protests? Revolutions to overthrow oppressive monarchies, like the one that established the system of government, system of capitalist oppression, and system of violence, in America, that so many white people champion? Or do we only reserve the word revolution for protests led by white people for white people?

Finally, America is not exceptional, and it never was. It has been passionately ideological and powerfully performative in its calls for liberty and equality, yet its history tells a story that is rife with white supremacy, slavery, oppression, and genocide. Those of us that want to be part of this society must be willing to accept its history, our performative roles, and our own complicity in systems and structures of oppression. Whether we have had any direct role or not in racism and racist oppression, we must recognize our own privilege in such a society and be willing to accept that we may have to personally suffer the violence of our own society, as we are all part of its construction, and the membership fees are due. What we are seeing in the streets of Atlanta, Minneapolis, D.C., Los Angeles, and across the globe in response to the deaths of George Floyd, Breonna Taylor, Ahmaud Arbery, and the millions of other people of color killed or oppressed throughout history, simply for being black, is our society’s and our own personal violence coming home to roost.

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