The Protests are Great, But Not the Violence That Has Sometimes Surfaced: Why I Agree with Everything Deva Woodly Says, And Yet Need to Say Something More

Deva Woodly’s just-published “An American Reckoning: The fire this time,” is a terrific essay, smartly argued, beautifully written, and perfectly timed. I agree with everything she says. And yet, in a friendly rejoinder, I would add one thing that is missing from her piece, deliberately and perhaps even justifiably so: a critique of the violence sometimes associated with the protests.

Woodly is a colleague and friend, and she has long been one of the most important political scientists and public intellectuals writing about Black Lives Matter. Her first book, The Politics of Common Sense: How Social Movements Use Public Discourse to Change Politics and Win Acceptance (Oxford, 2015), is a major contribution to social movement theory. In recent years she has published numerous Public Seminar essays on BLM, most notably her November 2017 “#Black Lives Matter and the Democratic Necessity of Social Movements.” Her forthcoming book on the topic is sure to be important. And in her current essay she powerfully makes all the right points about the protests of the last ten days that have unfolded in response to the police murder of George Floyd in Minneapolis.

As she says, neither the protests nor the problems that gave rise to them are new, and both are rooted in centuries of racism, white supremacy, and violence. Evoking James Baldwin and citing W. E. B. Du Bois, Woodly argues that “the reckoning” we are witnessing is both inevitable and just. She rightly explains the expressive and the tactical importance of protest as a form of dissent, resistance, and pressure for real change (her discussion of the withdrawal of consent brings to mind Hannah Arendt’s famous essay on “Civil Disobedience”).

As important as her analytic insight is her rhetoric itself, and the politics it performs.

She is right to insist that “it is inappropriate to begin this political conversation from the perspective of the governors who have failed to respond to the cries of Black people who have been insisting for generations that they cannot breathe under the knee of structural racism,” and that “we must begin with the demands of those who have massed in the street and declared that they will no longer be ignored.”

And so she begins by enumerating five ways that those adopting “the perspective of the governors” have called for a de-escalation of the protests, sharply stating that these calls are “dishonest,” and thus to be dismissed. She then proceeds to explain, brilliantly, how protest emerges from oppression and is a form of empowerment; how the Black Lives Matter movement so emerged in 2015, and has succeeded in transforming public discourse through its disruptive, activist politics; and how the only way forward, beyond the protest, is for the demands of the protestors to be met by those who govern them. And she convincingly indicates ways that the current protests are already bearing fruit, concluding with the hope that these protests might signal the beginnings of a “new era” based on a real reckoning with injustice.

I agree with everything summarized above. And if forced to choose between “the perspective of the governors” and the perspective of “those who have massed in the street” as she has characterized them, then I stand with her on the “side” of “the street.”

But, with all due respect to the fact that we approach this matter from different experiences, racial identities, and actual connections to the center of action on the streets of New York City, I would slightly amend my friend Deva Woodly’s dichotomy. For I think it is misleading in a number of ways that I am confident she would acknowledge in a longer or rhetorically different piece.

One is that “those massed on the street” are not a simple mass, or a single collective actor. There is diversity within the commonality being enacted on the streets, a diversity of tactics and even of strategies. Fortunately, the BLM demands that Woodly outlines do seem to be the overriding, articulated demands of the protests, and certainly of its leaders and constituent organizations. But there are other things that have gone on in the streets, and last week quite a few people on the street were destroying property, burning buildings and police cars, and attacking police. I am certain that Trump’s version of the violence as an “Antifa” plot is a lie. He is a fascist eager to unleash force against political opponents, especially when they are people of color. It is quite likely that some of the violence was precipitated by small groups of provocateurs on the right or the left or both. It is likely that some of the violence, perhaps even most of the violence, was a “spontaneous” reaction by some people in the streets to the genuine fear and anxiety that is pervasive, and that is accentuated by the presence of police—the very police whose ongoing practice of racial brutality precipitated the demonstrations in the first place. There is no reason to demonize those who may have been caught up in crowd violence. And there is every reason to focus on the stated BLM demands, and to underscore that these are the intelligent political demands of a citizen movement that is organizing peaceful protests and seeking serious legislative change.

But there was nonetheless also violence coming from “the street,” and this violence was economically destructive and it introduced an element of danger into an already explosive situation. It caused harm to people. And it engendered a predictably violent police response which produced much more harm, to the protestors and to public life. 

The torching of buildings and looting of stores and the attacks on police were dangerous, harmful, and wrong. And so it is hardly surprising that some calls for de-escalation are coming not only from “governors” but from citizen leaders themselves. Forbes family attorney Benjamin Crump, for example, has resolutely demanded justice, but has eloquently combined the call for “a breath for justice” with a “ breath for peace.” Appealing to George Floyd’s example, he said that “He would have wanted peaceful protests. He wants everybody to use their voice, but he wants them to do it in a constructive way.” In the same vein, civil rights icon John Lewis issued a powerful statement

“To the rioters here in Atlanta and across the country: I see you, and I hear you. I know your pain, your rage, your sense of despair and hopelessness. Justice has, indeed, been denied for far too long. Rioting, looting, and burning is not the way. Organize. Demonstrate. Sit-in. Stand-up. Vote. Be constructive, not destructive. History has proven time and again that non-violent, peaceful protest is the way to achieve the justice and equality that we all deserve.”

Lewis obviously does not speak for a younger generation of activists. But he speaks to them as a genuine civil rights hero whose experience matters, and who is serious about racism and protest and is not talking down like a “governor” to “governed.” A much more subtle message, not centered on non-violence, is contained in Rev. William Barber’s recent Guardian piece, “American must listen to its wounds. They will tell us where to look for hope.” But even here, there is no doubt that Barber is calling for protest and political action that is non-violent. (To be clear, I also do not doubt that Woodly is calling for such a politics! I am simply calling attention to the importance of incorporating attention to the non-violent dimension.)

I am not saying that the “first thing” to be said by activists should be a “call for peace”—I do not believe this!– and there is surely a range of perspectives within the broad protest movement about how much to emphasize non-violence. It is understandable that in the face of police violence many activists do not consider their own non-violence to be an urgent imperative.  And indeed, right now, the ongoing police violence against peaceful protesters all across the country is an outrage that deserves the focus of everyone’s attention. At the same time, calls for “de-escalation” are nonetheless an important and valuable part of the protest movement itself, as they must be, if only to protect the lives of those protesting in the street who face violent police responses. 

And this leads me to my second amendment of Woodly: just as “the street” is plural, so too, in a way is “the government.” (For the record, I do not subscribe to the theory of power once known as “pluralism.)  One need look no further than Minnesota, and the truly exemplary public performance of Keith Ellison, the progressive leader elected as the State Attorney General on an activist platform that centered on the need for serious reform of policing and “criminal justice.” Ellison has been very outspoken about these issues, has used his position as chief prosecutor to bring them to public attention, and has stepped forward in the current crisis as a defender of nonviolent protest, as a vocal proponent of equal justice under the law, and as the prosecutor who is now moving forward a strong case against all four police officers involved in the murder of George Floyd.

Ellison is part of the government—though he obviously contends with others, in state government and in the federal government in Washington, D.C., who speak and act very differently than he does. The Minneapolis Public Schools that are terminating contracts with the city police department—an example of progress cited in Woodly’s piece—are also part of the government. There have even been extraordinary displays of solidarity with the protesters by police officers in a number of cities. There is not a single government perspective even on the question of protest.

It is true, these instances of exemplary action by public officials are exceptional, and they are performed within the context of a general respect for due process under the law that is in tension with many aspects of protest. (And I am not suggesting that protesters should behave like prosecutors or school administrators or police officers!)

But they nonetheless demonstrate that “the state” is a complex institution, and that many of its agents do not “stand” for racial injustice, and indeed speak and act against it.

The protests are everything that Deva Woodly says they are, and she says it more eloquently than I ever could.

I respect and admire that she insists on writing a powerful piece about the protests that refuses to take up the question of non-violence –because this question is all too often and prematurely forced upon people like her, African-Americans who speak out against injustice. I am not saying that she should have written her piece any differently. I am simply adding something that I wish had been there, and that needs to be part of the conversation. It is very important to attend to the question of non-violence, because violence of any kind has serious ethical and political costs, for BLM protestors but also for all of us who desire a more democratic society and who need to work together to build a Democratic majority capable of defeating Trump in November.

The protests have been loud, visible, disruptive, and they have been heard. But many more need to listen, and so their continuation is important. At the same time, the autocrat in the White House–joined by a great many enablers and sympathizers everywhere, including many police forces—is itching to call out the troops or to incite police violence against the protests. No good can come from any action that is not non-violent. And the challenge ahead, as Deva Woodley’s piece understands full well, is a political challenge, requiring coalition-building and electoral victories and real legislative changes. No progress is be possible without protest. Ongoing progress is only possible through a dialectic between social movement pressure, including protest, and political reform. And this requires a kind of “de-escalation,” not of activism or even of confrontation but of violence. This seems to be happening already among the protesters, and this is good. But it will only remain good if the violence of the police is also ended, now, and if there is forward progress toward the vision of the future so nicely described in Deva Woodly’s very important essay.

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