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The Limits and Dangers of a Fixation on “Nonviolence”

On peaceful protest, “outside agitators,” and the radical agency of the oppressed


In the immediate aftermath of the Twin Cities protests following the police killing of George Floyd, St. Paul Mayor Melvin Carter claimed that all of the arrests tied to rioting in the area were from out of state. “We don’t know these folks,” he said. Minnesota Governor Tim Walz made a similar claim. Both statements were widely disseminated by other news outlets, but a KARE 11 investigation quickly revealed most of those arrests were in fact of local residents. As anti-police-brutality demonstrations sweep all 50 states and countries around the world following the deaths of Floyd and Breonna Taylor, so has debate about what constitutes legitimate protest and legitimate protesters. With sensational imagery of extreme police repression of protests alongside riots and looting saturating the news cycle, many commentators are seeking to distinguish between peaceful protests and what many have labeled “outside agitation,” in which property destruction following, or sometimes during, demonstrations is blamed primarily on white anarchists or even police or vigilante agents provocateurs. 

In many cases, this focus on the specter of destructive interlopers is an attempt to grasp onto certainty in a terrifyingly uncertain moment, and some of it comes from a place of seeking to legitimize nonviolent protests in the face of widespread repression. But there are real risks that come with this desire to tell a clean story about “good” protesters and “bad” protesters. Labeling all riots the work of outside agitators threatens to legitimize state violence that has only become more dangerous with President Trump’s attempted designation of antifa as a terrorist organization and threat to send the U.S. military into states and cities where protests continue (a violent sentiment that was echoed last week by Senator Tom Cotton in the legitimizing pages of The New York Times). The emphasis on the conduct of protesters erases the violent escalation of law enforcement, who in recent days have blinded people with rubber bullets, sprayed tear gas and pepper spray indiscriminately (a tactic that is under scrutiny in Ohio after a 22-year-old woman died after she was reportedly teargassed), incited physical confrontation, driven vehicles into crowds, and killed a man while clearing a protest in Louisville, Kentucky. 

Such totalizing narratives about the “right way to protest” also flatten nonviolent resistance into a form of respectability politics that robs those enacting or rejecting it of their agency and precludes the complex forms of solidarity that can exist within and beyond it. These dynamics are not without precedent, both in our history and globally. They put emphasis on optics, when the focus of these protests is changing the material conditions of Black lives in a country built on violent white supremacy and colonialism. And by seeking refuge in such stories, we may prematurely foreclose the future these protests are trying to build just as they’re beginning to cohere—unpredictably and often tenuously—at a mass scale.  

The U.S. media’s fascination with “peaceful protests” is often colored by a romanticized and sometimes ahistorical view of the civil rights movement, in which organizers like the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee opposed segregation, and the violence used to maintain it, with nonviolent protests, sit-ins, and boycotts. And while concrete gains were won by these tactics, those enacting them were often themselves labeled “outside agitators” by segregationists, and their tactics were regarded by white observers as confrontational, disruptive, and worthy of condemnation. These peaceful protests could not stop the violent repression of their movements nor the constant arrests and eventual assassination of leaders like Martin Luther King Jr. and Medgar Evers. 

The death of King, in particular, led to nationwide riots that were both a manifestation of grief and a response to the very clear rejection of these nonviolent efforts by white supremacists that his murder represented. And it was the persistence of this white supremacist violence in the face of Kingian peaceful protests that gave rise to the Black Power era, in which such nonviolent tactics were often rejected as failures, sometimes by the very activists who had worked so hard to promote them. Former SNCC leader Kwame Ture (formerly Stokely Carmichael), who previously advocated nonviolent action, once famously quipped, “In order for nonviolence to work, your opponent must have a conscience. The United States has none.”

Despite this righteous frustration, nonviolence has persisted as a tactic in the U.S. and globally, taking on diverse forms that reflect the wide range of communities applying it. But rather than a demand to be made upon the oppressed by outsiders (and often by oppressors themselves), “peaceful protest” is best understood as a choice that people struggling for justice make based on a number of different factors—political principle, tactical concerns, or communal inclusivity. Last year, I documented nonviolent protests led by Ryukyuan elders in Okinawa, Japan, who, in the face of overwhelming domination by both the U.S. and Japanese militaries, choose nonviolent protest tactics as a political rejection of militarism and war. Every week, elders in the district of Henoko block the entrance of Camp Schwab U.S. Marine base to prevent the entrance of cement trucks that are filling Oura Bay for a runway project that threatens local marine life, and every week they are carried off by militarized police. The protests and a recent referendum have been unable to stop the base construction, but they represent popular opposition to the base expansion, create solidarity through political spectacle, and signal a rejection of violence and war that has plagued an island community occupied by various military powers for over a century. 

But what happens when, much like in U.S. uprisings right now, nonviolence is posed as a demand by outsiders, rather than an act of political agency by those undertaking it? Even communities consistently partaking in nonviolent resistance risk being deemed not nonviolent enough. Palestinians in the West Bank and Gaza have long led weekly unarmed protests against occupation and siege in the face of tear gas, live ammunition, rubber bullets, and mass incarceration in Israel’s military prison system. Despite the high profile of these weekly protests, Palestinians are often assumed by outsiders to be exclusively engaging in armed resistance and are frequently met with Western demands for a “Palestinian Gandhi.” 

Such demands not only erase Palestinian organizing, they also serve to obscure the power dynamics at play, making it seem as if any action that falls outside traditional models of nonviolence is on par with the level of violence inflicted by a full-scale military occupation. 

Peaceful protests met with militarized counterterror responses characterize our current era of U.S. activism, where Black and Indigenous organizing from Standing Rock to the streets of Ferguson, Missouri, has been treated as a threat to national security. Despite the widespread violence of the massive militarized police response to the current demonstrations, Black organizers across the U.S. continue to engage in protests that are rooted in Black American histories of organizing, which include, but do not end at, nonviolence. The continued practice of nonviolence remains a choice that reflects the agency of communities that both operate on political principle and seek to create a safe and inclusive environment to collectively grieve the loss of those slain by police, actively resist the systematic white supremacy fueling these murders, and demand change.

In city after city, these peaceful protests are being met with brutal militarized police response, including the firing of tear gas and rubber bullets alongside violent mass arrests, all of which serve not only to repress them but to disrupt the sense of community and safety organizers work so hard to build. “They were laughing at one point,” a protest medic told The New Republic earlier this week while describing violent police escalation against protesters. “I think they think this is funny.” 

The riots and looting that follow, or happen concurrent with, many of these protests are by their very nature out of the control of organizers and thus difficult to pin down to a single source or meaning. (You could say the same for much of what happens at protests of this scale, as people are often responding dynamically to the circumstances around them.) And while it may be tempting to defend the legitimacy of peaceful demonstrations by attributing rioting to outside agitation, the truth is often more complicated. Claiming otherwise with certainty carries serious risks.

Such narratives made it all the way to the Trump administration, with Attorney General Bill Barr declaring that: 

The greatness of our nation comes from our commitment to the rule of law.… The voices of peaceful protest are being hijacked by violent radical elements.… In many places, it appears the violence is planned, organized, and driven by anarchistic and far left extremists, using Antifa-like tactics, many of whom travel from out of state to promote the violence.

The president has used this narrative as a justification for a threat to declare antifa—which is not an organization so much as a set of principles undertaken to oppose fascism—a “terrorist organization.” This antifa panic contributed to the blanket detention of protesters in New York City, and vigilante violence targeting a multiracial family in Washington, whom attackers accused of being “antifa.”

This atmosphere creates even greater risks for Black activists who are already targeted by similar efforts to label their organizing “Black identity extremism.” In this way, an attempt to distance Black organizers from the property destruction linked to protests actually helps to further criminalize them and plays into narratives that falsely associate them with terror, which in turn justifies their violent targeting by police forces. There is no real escape in this narrative distinction, then, from the state’s ability to use protests as a pretext to further criminalize and surveil Black communities.  

The question of the “white anarchist” protester—a media and cultural shorthand for the outside agitator—is an alternative framing of this same effort to undermine current protest. While the ability to riot and be seen as legitimate, or at least nonthreatening, is a time-honored aspect of white privilege, those involved in the current unrest have not been exclusively white people. And such claims also sidestep the reality that protests of all tactics have been extremely diverse, with white participants often taking on a role of solidarity in putting their bodies between Black activists and the police across the country. 

In any mass movement, there are going to be a host of differing opinions on strategy. Property damage in communities already impacted by income inequality and racism has real consequences, and activists across the country have worked together to intervene when fires and looting have threatened needed community resources and infrastructure. The discomfort many people of color experience in response to white participation in acts of property damage, even among those who may not object to these tactics outright, is a valid concern. While these protests have created new opportunities for white solidarity against state and nonstate violence against Black people, it is a fair instinct to question the potentially shallow nature of that solidarity. What does it mean for outsiders to engage in property destruction in places where they don’t have to live with the aftermath? Will white protesters engaging in these tactics remain in the work of dismantling policing when the protests wane? To reject white participation in these uprisings is to foreclose any possibility of lasting solidarity, but it remains difficult not to have an answer to questions that feel so urgent.      

A parallel tension around the role of white people in protests is the role of white supremacists in fomenting violence. But these concerns over vigilante white supremacist infiltration, beyond lacking in real evidence, obscure the fact that for decades, activists have had to contend with state white supremacist infiltration and agitation under Cointelpro and other government surveillance and interference in organizing. White supremacist vigilante violence, like that of the white supremacist violence of the state, seizes the opportunities it is presented. To reject radical political action over fears about co-optation by white supremacists would be a form of political fatalism—a diminishment of the possibility that it can be defeated.

So what then explains the widespread unrest that remains a part of these peaceful protests? The difficult truth is, there isn’t just one explanation. In some cases, rioting is a result of protesters responding to excessive force from police who, rather than de-escalating the situation, have violently recreated the issues of police brutality that they came to demonstrate against. There is also the reality of the unprecedented economic precarity facing the U.S. in a moment when issues of racial justice cannot be separated from the unfolding disaster of Covid-19 in a hypercapitalist America that is failing to provide for basic needs guaranteed in most other countries. 

And in this context, the rule of law, which law enforcement itself fails to uphold for Black and brown people every day, becomes that much more brittle in the face of a system that hoards wealth while denying basic rights. In a system that values property over people, property destruction becomes a symbolic tool for letting out the frustrations of the unheard, and is increasingly seen by many as legitimate rebellion. None of this precludes opportunism or outside interference, but it leaves little to hold onto in terms of easy answers.

The question of whether multitactic protest “works,” while historically complex, is being answered in real time. The national uprisings in recent weeks have created new realities. Protesters have moved an abolitionist framework—often articulated in emerging national demands to defund police departments—to the mainstream in an unprecedented way. In response, a veto-proof majority of the Minneapolis City Council has moved to disband the city police department, while elected officials in Los Angeles, New York, and elsewhere have pledged to reduce police budgets and redistribute those resources to community programs. Growing in recognition with that demand is skepticism of the reformist model that has, in its focus on bias training and superficial adjustments to written policy, only reproduced and repackaged the violence of policing. Major institutions in Minnesota, from the University of Minnesota to the school board and parks department in Minneapolis, have in recent days ended their formal relationships with police. 

So perhaps we are asking the wrong questions. Peaceful demonstrations represent the majority of the actions happening across the country, so there is really no need to demand them. The hyperfocus by many on property destruction in the face of protests demanding the basic right of Black people to live, again places value on vandalized cop cars over living, breathing human beings. And while debates about tactics are healthy, the coexistence of rioting and peaceful protests does not delegitimize the overall cause driving this moment. The diversity of tactics playing out in protests right now are very much born of the same conditions. A failure to understand that can, at worst, aid repression, as Angela Davis writes: “The conservative, who does not dispute the validity of revolutions deeply buried in history, invokes visions of impending anarchy in order to legitimize his demand for absolute obedience. Law and order, with the major emphasis on order, is his watchword.”