Writing by Iz Gius. Illustration by Polly Burnay.
This summer, I sat uncomfortably in my childhood home watching clips of downtown Chicago – only three L stops way – in flames. My mother’s commute to work looked like a war zone. In response to massive BLM protests, and significant property damage, Mayor Lori Lightfoot (a black lesbian ‘progressive’) imposed a curfew, shut down public transportation, and raised the bridges which lead into the downtown Loop area without notice, trapping protestors.
This was shocking and alarming, yes – but so too were the narratives about the looting and rioting coming from news platforms across the political spectrum. They spoke of how ‘peaceful’ protests had ‘descended’ after dark. Analysts condemned a ‘bad few’ who were discrediting the broader movement. Chicagoans were eager to blame the looting on opportunists who came in from the suburbs. Trump was eager to blame it on Antifa. Yet, on both the left and the right there appeared to be a real unwillingness to think critically about the distinction between violence and nonviolence, and importantly, where looting and destruction of property might fall on that shaky spectrum. Further, the fixation on tactics – legitimizing some and demonizing others – reveals a deeply flawed understanding of the nature of protest and the demands of the Black Lives Matter movement.
On a basic level, equating destruction of property and theft with the ending of human life is problematic. According to the Cambridge Advanced Learner’s Dictionary & Thesaurus, ‘violence’ is defined as follows: ‘actions or words that are intended to hurt people; extreme force’. Setting an empty Target on fire, for example, would not be classified as violence by the first definition, although perhaps by the second. No individuals are harmed; only property destroyed or stolen. The corporations will easily recover, rebuilding stores and continuing to pay employees – the Target CEO Brian Cornell said as much in a May statement. What is violent about this act? The Oxford English Dictionary explicitly includes property alongside people in its definition of violence: ‘the deliberate exercise of physical force against a person, property, etc.’. Why are we so willing to equate the smashing of a shop window with physical violence that threatens human life? I don’t mean to diminish the negative impacts of looting on small family businesses or already under-invested low-income neighborhoods. But, if you claim to support the movement but not the methods, your priorities are out-of-whack. The most unnerving element of the explosion of racial justice protests this year should not be the fact that property has been destroyed or cop cars set on fire; it should be the fact that police continue to target and murder Black people, like George Floyd, Breonna Taylor, and Tony McDade, without accountability; that police have tear-gassed, beaten, and shot unarmed protestors; that white supremacy is flourishing in the United States and across the world. As Rebecca Pierce writes in The New Republic, ‘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.’
Further, there is a tendency in our media narratives to portray looting and destruction of property as an anarchic, unprincipled act – something which is chaotic, unplanned, and pointless; a completely emotional act with no rationality – and this is simply not true. This vision is then contrasted with an idealized version of nonviolence, modeled after Martin Luther King Jr. or Gandhi - which is completely emotionless, principled (often religious), and calm. Neither of these visions are accurate or relevant. In a society which values property and profit over people, in which private property has a pseudo-religious sanctity, destroying property and stealing commodified goods is a legitimate form of protest. It points out how fragile the capitalist system is, or can be, if its rules are not followed and its values are not accepted. This narrative also misunderstands what nonviolence is and looks like. Nonviolence is not always – and indeed, often is not – a principled, moral choice which activists make and carry with them their entire lives. Rather, nonviolence is best understood as a strategic choice which activists make based on a variety of factors, most importantly an understanding of your enemy and the best ways to discredit and disempower them, at a particular moment. This can change over the course of a movement or an individual’s life. Nonviolence can be emotional, angry, and intensely disruptive – and still be nonviolence.
When white people and the mainstream media present nonviolence as a demand (made by outsiders and oppressors), rather than an ‘act of political agency’ by organizers themselves, they strip activists of this agency and attempt to de-legitimize them (Pierce, 2020). Trying to distinguish between ‘peaceful’ and ‘violent’ protests creates a false dichotomy which does not capture the complexity of the BLM movement, and it legitimizes harsh state repression of the ‘violent’ elements. This game of respectability politics only allows certain palatable forms of protest to be considered valid. And further, even if activists play into the narrative and appear as respectable as possible, they are still subject to attacks. Don’t forget that Martin Luther King Jr. was assassinated, same as Malcolm X. As Stokely Carmichael, a nonviolent civil rights organizer turned Black Panther, said: ‘In order for nonviolence to work, your opponent must have a conscience. The United States has none.’
I am not suggesting violence is a perfect solution, but rather pointing out that the choice is much more complicated than it might appear. And by focusing on the respectability of protestors, classifying which tactics are appropriate or legitimate, we fail to properly interrogate the behavior of the police – who are trained, paid enforcers of state violence – and we perpetuate the same systems that the Black Lives Matter movement is attempting to tackle.