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Violence, Non-Violence, And What Happened In Ferguson

"What clearly cannot be said is that violence—like nonviolence—sometimes works."
Violence, Non-Violence, And What Happened In Ferguson
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Ta-Nehisi Coates wrote a really powerful essay in The Atlantic about Obama's response to the Ferguson grand jury results. An excerpt:

What clearly cannot be said is that American society's affection for nonviolence is notional. What can not be said is that American society's admiration for Martin Luther King Jr. increases with distance, that the movement he led was bugged, smeared, harassed, and attacked by the same country that now celebrates him. King had the courage to condemn not merely the violence of blacks, nor the violence of the Klan, but the violence of the American state itself.

What clearly cannot be said is that violence and nonviolence are tools, and that violence—like nonviolence—sometimes works. "Property damage and looting impede social progress," Jonathan Chait wrote Tuesday. He delivered this sentence with unearned authority. Taken together, property damage and looting have been the most effective tools of social progress for white people in America. It describes everything from enslavement to Jim Crow laws to lynching to red-lining.

What clearly cannot be said is that violence—like nonviolence—sometimes works.

"Property damage and looting"—perhaps more than nonviolence—has also been a significant tool in black "social progress." In 1851, when Shadrach Minkins was snatched off the streets of Bostonunder the authority of the Fugitive Slave Law, abolitionists "stormed the courtroom" and "overpowered the federal guards" to set Minkins free. That same year, when slaveholders came to Christiana, Pennsylvania, to reclaim their property under the same law, they were not greeted with prayer and hymnals but with gunfire.

"Property damage and looting" is a fairly accurate description of the emancipation of black people in 1865, who only five years earlier constituted some $4 billion in property. The Civil Rights Bill of 1964 is inseparable from the threat of riots. The housing bill of 1968—the most proactive civil-rights legislation on the books—is a direct response to the riots that swept American cities after King was killed. Violence, lingering on the outside, often backed nonviolence during the civil-rights movement. "We could go into meetings and say, 'Well, either deal with us or you will have Malcolm X coming into here,'"said SNCC organizer Gloria Richardson. "They would get just hysterical. The police chief would say, 'Oh no!'"


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What cannot be said is that America does not really believe in nonviolence—Barack Obama has said as much—so much as it believes in order. What cannot be said is that there are very convincing reasons for black people in Ferguson to be nonviolent. But those reasons emanate from an intelligent fear of the law, not a benevolent respect for the law.

The fact is that when the president came to the podium on Monday night there actually was very little he could say. His mildest admonitions of racism had only earned him trouble. If the American public cannot stomach the idea that arresting a Harvard professor for breaking into his own home is "stupid," then there is virtually nothing worthwhile that Barack Obama can say about Michael Brown.

And that is because the death of all of our Michael Browns at the hands of people who are supposed to protect them originates in a force more powerful than any president: American society itself. This is the world our collective American ancestors wanted. This is the world our collective grandparents made. And this is the country that we, the people, now preserve in our fantastic dream. What can never be said is that the Fergusons of America can be changed—but, right now, we lack the will to do it.

Perhaps one day we won't, and maybe that is reason to hope. Hope is what Barack Obama promised to bring, but he was promising something he could never bring. Hope is not the naiveté that would change the face on a racist system and then wash its hands of its heritage. Hope is not feel-goodism built on the belief in unicorns. Martin Luther King had hope, but it was rooted in years of study and struggle, not in looking the other way. Hope is not magical. Hope is earned.

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