Chad Eagleton, Rise! Magazine
“Violence is a part of America’s culture.
It is as American as cherry pie.”
—H. Rap Brown at SNCC press conference, July 27, 1967
“…rights only come alive when citizens organize, protest, demonstrate, strike, boycott, rebel, and violate the law to uphold justice.”
“…the greatest purveyor of violence in the world today: my own government.”
—Martin Luther King
All radical, revolutionary, and protest movements were accompanied by some form of violence or dependent on some form of violence, either directly or indirectly. Doesn’t matter which one you pick—independence, labor movement, civil rights, gay rights—all were intimately tied to violence, bloodshed, and riots. Why then does the question of violence seem so definitively answered to the point where the most egregious wrongs by the State and its thugs are ignored if the citizen’s response involves so much as a broken window?
The single best way to undercut anything radical and prevent it from happening again is to co-opt and commodify into something generic, saleable, and lacking of actual rebellion. There is now not only an entire lecture circuit devoted to “teaching nonviolent protest” but an entire industry as well. A recent survey of college students found that most of them expected to participate in some form of protest while at college…as a rite of passage. I believe our misunderstanding of the role violence plays in the struggle against oppression comes directly from the purposely sanitized legacy of the Civil Rights movement—the last successful campaign to redress the wrongs of the State. Further, I believe, once you begin to examine this legacy what becomes clear is how our entire understanding of what’s effective and not effective against an oppressive State has been entirely gamed. You see, the State has used the lessons it learned against the Civil Rights movement to frame our understanding of what works and why in order to effectively counter our disobedience, yet allow us to feel as if we’ve accomplished something—which in turn has the extra benefit of reinforcing the illusions of the neo-liberal class.
If you mention the Civil Rights movement to someone, who or what comes up first? Martin Luther King, Jr, right? Probably literally the first thing out of the mouth. Despite everyone else involved in the movement, it’s always King. But it’s a very carefully propagated image of King as the kindly black man with the soothing voice who really just loves Jesus and wants everyone to hold hands. This simplistic view is in direct contrast to the man with the complicated relationship with women and with guns, the man who was an actual radical who opposed the Vietnam War on all grounds, praised socialism, and, before his murder, was organizing the Poor People’s Campaign to bring social justice to the United States’ many poor.
This simplistic view of the man in turn translates to a simplistic view of the movement.
What all does that accomplish? First, it lets whites off the hook historically and propagates that much loved image of US exceptionalism when change and justice can only come through confronting things truthfully, not through ignoring the sins of the empire and championing the myth of republic. The majority of whites did not initially support the movement for Civil Rights. King faced constant negative editorials in the press. And, in fact, one of his most famous pieces of writing, “Letter from the Birmingham Jail,” was written in direct response to a letter penned by white clergyman admonishing him for his actions, for making things worse, and inviting violence. King writes back:
“First, I must confess that over the last few years I have been gravely disappointed with the white moderate. I have almost reached the regrettable conclusion that the Negro’s great stumbling block in the stride toward freedom is not the White Citizens Councilor or the Ku Klux Klanner but the white moderate who is more devoted to order than to justice; who prefers a negative peace which is the absence of tension to a positive peace which is the presence of justice; who constantly says, ‘I agree with you in the goal you seek, but I can’t agree with your methods of direct action;’ who paternalistically feels that he can set the timetable for another man’s freedom; who lives by the myth of time; and who constantly advises the Negro to wait until a ‘more convenient season.’ Shallow understanding from people of good will is more frustrating than absolute misunderstanding from people of ill will. Lukewarm acceptance is much more bewildering than outright rejection.”
This simplistic view turns racism into a kind of institutionalized other completely removed from the average American. A great struggle full of sacrifice and terrible violence that took years of confrontation on multiple fronts from multiple people operating in multiple groups with differing viewpoints becomes instead the story of a good-natured, nonviolent black who merely had to alert the responsive white liberal judiciary and his responsive white liberal federal government so they could act with the backing of the nation as a whole. By ignoring facts and creating the illusion of uniformed opinion, it creates an unobtainable benchmark for further protest and agitation to be considered “valid” by the people. This is a pre-emptive propaganda strike by the State that makes protests that “miss the mark” more easily countered. The kindly Jesus-loving King feeds the myth by making the “good black man,” the “proper agitator,” the one who doesn’t challenge the entire mechanism of the system all that much.
In short: they want you to emulate a fiction, so they can ignore you in truth.
African-Americans in the South had a long tradition of armed self-defense. Even more so following the return of service men from World War II. After the church bombings in Birmingham, armed patrols of black men guarded their segregated neighborhoods and churches so as to prevent further violence. The period was full of violent outbursts and riots: Birmingham in 1963, Harlem and Philadelphia in 1964, Watts in 1965, Harlem and Cambridge in 1967. Even King himself was protected by black men who carried weapons. And following his assassination, a series of riots took place all around the country.
Truthfully, it was black violence and the threat of black violence that finally prompted the federal government to propose civil rights legislation. It was the the threat of violent black retribution that successfully faced down a rejuvenated Ku Klux Klan between 1964 and 1967. And the threat of an armed response is what enabled the gains of the Civil Rights Acts in ’64 and ’65 to actually be implemented at local levels, because—despite what you think—simply because a law is passed, does not make it enforced.
Often, the gains that King earned were only awarded to him specifically over others engaged in more disagreeable forms of direct action—like committing acts of violence—as a way for the state to capitulate to the movement as a whole but to being seen as rewarding the preferred option.
The State and its lickspittles don’t want you to understand that King’s peaceful protests were merely one tactic among many. They want you to overlook the various people and groups of that era who also used the threat of violence, actual violence, boycotts, sit-ins, public disruptions of business and services, as well as legal action. But the one thing the State wants to make absolutely certain you do not understand is that King’s nonviolent protest needed violence in order to work.
This notion runs counter to the idea that nonviolent protest succeeds purely thanks to the morals and ethics and the beneficence of a liberal government who simply needed to be alerted as to what’s going on. I find it a silly idea some long-term evil may be redressed purely with what amounts to polite conversation and reason. But again, they do not want you to understand that nonviolent protest succeeds by winning over people by prodding their conscience. However, if we take look at the difference between King’s movement in Albany and King’s movement in Birmingham that truth is astonishingly clear.
Before Birmingham and Bull Connor, King went up against a Chief of Police in Albany, Georgia, named Laurie Pritchett. Pritchett understood King’s nonviolent tactics so he easily circumvent them when the protestors came to his town—exactly like the state does now.
Instead of meeting the demonstrators with unchecked and brutal violence, Pritchett met them with civility. Under his orders, officers arrested the protestors using nonviolent methods while charging them with offenses like disturbing the peace instead of anything as clearly morally objectionable as any of the Jim Crow laws or something else clearly trumped up and painfully transparent.
These tactics rendered King’s protests in Albany mostly meaningless.
Nonviolent protest as a tactic is dependent on a three things to work successfully:
1) the pacifism of the protestors must be met with brutal violence by the state.
2) the brutality needs to be visible, well-documented, and clearly one-sided.
3) the protest needs to be continual and ongoing on multiple fronts to maintain pressure, bring shame, and encourage sympathy and support to engage an otherwise complacent populace.
Pritchett’s understanding of the technique meant he could stop it without allowing it produce results. His effectiveness in robbing King’s movement of success even extended to the tactic of mass arrest.
The goal of mass arrest is not just to get arrested—if anything truly speaks of white privilege, it’s the notion that willfully getting arrested is how you show that State you mean business, when in fact all getting arrest does nothing but put you at the mercy or the Statue. Rather, the goal of mass arrest is to rob police of some of their powers. It’s about disrupting the functions of the State. If the demonstrators occupy all the cells, then the police cannot arrest anyone else. If they can’t arrest anyone else, then you’ve removed one of the main powers of policing because an integral part of what keeps a lot of people from breaking the law is the fear of consequence. This in turn creates added pressure against the State and further angers the public who were—hopefully—by then sympathetic to the protestors suffering violent retribution from the State for merely raising a dissenting voice. With the jail full and police enforcement limited, there is no choice but to eventually release the protestors, who then resume their demonstrations and create further scenes. Pritchett, however, deflected this tactic by contacted surrounding law enforcement prior to any march, demonstration, or protest so he could spread prisoners among multiple jails.
The result of King’s protests in Albany? Nothing. Absolutely nothing.
No one cared about the protests, and since no one cared about the protests, then nothing happened.
Because the real power of nonviolent protest comes from forcing a complacent populace to see the wrongs being committed, to really acknowledge the cruelty, to truly know what the mistreatment of their brothers and sister meant, to see firsthand what horrors they gave silent consent to through their continued complacency. People already knew racism was wrong. People knew their fellow human beings were being mistreated. But most people tend to generally be complacent about everything—remember King’s Birmingham letter. So something is needed to spark a change in consciousness and a change in conscience.
And that’s really what the Civil Rights movement was—a forced changed in consciousness for the country. That’s the true power of King’s approach—not the logical argument or the organized complaint. If mere complaining by a group of people or an articulate appeal to logic accomplished anything on a mass scale, our Facebook feeds would have a far different consequence for all of us.
So, after being routed in Albany by a man who understand his tactic, King knew he needed to go up against a state-sponsored adversary who was prone to brutality to spark the necessary change in consciousness.
King found this adversary in Bull Connor, the Commissioner for Public Safety in the city of Birmingham. He repeatedly put Connor in positions that encouraged the use of violence. In front of reporters and news cameras, Connor answered all civil disobedience, all disruptions, and all nonviolent marches with clubs, firehoses, dogs, and bullets. The brutal violence and unchecked aggression of the state against unarmed men, women, and children—King’s most criticized choice of protestor—functioned as it was needed to in order to engage the rest of the country by being visible and well-documented so as to maintain pressure, bring shame, and encourage sympathy and support.
The State understands all this and more, even if you don’t. This understanding has given the State many ways to undermine your protest:
- Numerous laws and ordinances grant the State plenty of means to prepare ahead of time for protests and ensure its ability to stymie quick responses from the populace.
- The internet and social media continue to make the job of monitoring dissent easier—if you’ve posted about it publicly, if you’ve created a Facebook event for it, the State will be ready for you.
- Most cities and nearly all college campuses, now have free speech zones that effectively corral protestors into out-of-the-way areas that provide the least amount of disruption.
- The State is now reticent to commit any act of violence and aggression against protestors unless there is ready means for justification—this is why you often here rumors about orders among the police to “allow escalation.”
- The control of mainstream media outlets by a few massive corporations and the complicity of journalists as agents of propaganda make the effective circulation of abuses of power difficult.
- The continued growth of the prison-industrial complex and new law-enforcement cooperation has rendered the shut-down of local jails through mass arrests next to impossible.
We need to understand that to confront the wrongs of the State (and never has it been more necessary to confront the State than now) we need tactics—plural—not a tactic, especially not a tactic that has been purposefully misframed, co-opted and commodified into something generic, saleable, and lacking of actual rebellion.
Never has it been clearer that our current system is broken. The horribly contentious presidential election in the United States woke a lot of people up to the fact that their so-called representatives don’t actually care about them or their needs and that it is now virtually impossible not to vote for Goldman Sachs. And despite all his promises of draining the swamp, Trump’s angry populism has proven instead to be the gift big business and corporations have always wanted. From the bones of our social safety net, he is constructing the skeleton key that unlocks all the doors of government for the ravenous capitalist who cherishes profit over people.
Rhetoric, liberal-clichés, nationalistic falsehoods will not close those doors. Only truth and honesty will do that.