Since the death of George Floyd and the subsequent global protests that have followed, this article examines why, especially in an American context, “nonviolent” protest does not work and therefore, why looting and riots are legitimate forms of protest despite many people who consider themselves activists questioning the reasoning.
The current movement taking place is not just about George Floyd nor is it just about police brutality. It is about the fight against systemic racism, socioeconomic injustices, and disadvantages black people face in basically every aspect of life that has been going on for hundreds of years. The day to day life for a person of color in America, is characterized by a struggle to survive and to overcome almost impossible odds. An event like this therefore, digs deeper into the wounds that the black community has faced for centuries, so it should not come as a surprise that it has incited a movement with this great intensity. Most who are being put off by the seemingly radical nature of the movement, however, are those who speak from a great position of privilege where they are fairly removed from the impact such a protest could have. But for the black individual, the racism that forms the fabric of this country is a matter of life and death and therefore justifies this response.
Every protest, revolution, or movement that has ever occurred and made progress has been either “radical” “uncomfortable” or “too extreme” for those in power. This movement checks all three boxes. This is good and means change is occurring.
Many people believe that “violence” is not the answer and that a peaceful protest would perhaps be the best option. In an ideal world, this would be the preferred form of protest and people of color honestly want nothing more than to peacefully request the restoration of their basic human rights and to carry on with their lives without having to put their identities, health, and livelihoods at risk by protesting. The problem lies in the evident reality that we do not live in an ideal world, and in fact live in quite the opposite where our world is deeply unfair and unjust and nonviolent protest lacks genuine momentum and sway. This is because people of color are the minority and no matter how much they talk about the rights they do not have, the disadvantages they face, and explicit and implicit biases that white people have, the government or officials in charge are not receptive to their voices.
Unless the movement causes disruption to the regular way of life, there is no reason for them to make changes. Government officials that are in charge of care about reelection, and when there is no massive movement that gathers everyone’s attention, protesting simply does not matter because officials are confident that protests are merely just a vocal minority and not actually a threat to their power.
Therefore, if the only way to bring about change is through disruption, the question still stands as though whether this change can come about through nonviolent protest. If a majority of people supported changes that these people of color were working towards, there would already be enough support and no need to “violently” protest. The issue is, however, that both white people and the wealthy are not invested in causes like police brutality, redlining, differences in school funding, safety nets, voter ID laws or the immigration system because it does not affect them. In large numbers, they are unlikely to turn out to protest, write letters, or call officials with the same intensity that people of color will because these are not causes which affect their own personal livelihoods.
This is ultimately why people of color have been nonviolently protesting and working for equal rights and treatment for hundreds of years, and yet, the country is perhaps more worse off than it has ever been. The mortality rates, poverty rates, and incarceration rates are all completely out of proportion when comparing black people to their white counterparts, and this is fundamentally because of systematic racism.
Therefore, when looking at the looting and rioting that is taking place, it is important to understand that every part of American life is commodified. Every law that is passed is in regards to economic growth or increasing productivity. Thus, one of the best ways to cause disruption and garner the attention of government officials is to engage in looting and rioting. When one takes money out of powerful corporations such as Target and Starbucks, which were recently set on fire, this forces people with power to pay attention and listen. The wealthy people who own super PACs and the senators and representatives who have the power to make legislative change are mobilized to do something to fix these problems. Investors are scared and the world issues a response.
There are admittedly facets of looting and rioting that are not ideal. Many small businesses have been affected, and this is not ideal because it negatively impacts someone’s life. Nonetheless, there needs to be a complete shift where people are prioritized over politics, economics, and businesses. If the question lies between the basic human rights of literally tens of millions of people–about their physical safety and their right to even live in the first place–and Starbucks getting looted, we should be picking the people and their rights every single time. Organizers as a whole have tried to be careful in intentionally targeting huge corporations over small businesses, because this will lead to the most impact.
Finally, these so-called “violent protests” should not be misconstrued. They are not mobs of angry people of color attacking other people. The protestors are destroying property, and again, the plight of these people and their struggle for basic rights should outweigh any care about property. To those who think that this “violence” will escalate to people simply killing each other, this is more a product of a racist mindset that believes that people of color want to hurt each other, that they are inherently violent, or that they tend to commit crimes.
In short, disruptive movements are the only ones which cause change. People in power care about money, and when big corporations are looted, it sends a signal which leads to the people with money paying attention. As John F. Kennedy once said, “Those who make peaceful revolution impossible make violent revolution inevitable.”