The Myth of Peaceful Protest

It isn’t nice to block the doorway,
It isn’t nice to go to jail,
There are nicer ways to do it,
But the nice ways always fail.
It isn’t nice, it isn’t nice,
You told us once, you told us twice,
But if that is Freedom’s price,
We don’t mind.

— Malvina Reynolds, “It Isn’t Nice”

Whenever peaceful protest turns into something else, when things get out of hand, the chorus of disapproval is loud and clear: Peaceful protest is The American Way, and any kind of disorder or defiance of authority is not only unacceptable, but unnecessary.

It is one of our foundational myths, that, like all such myths, would have us ignore the reality of history. Try to imagine, for example:

The American Revolution, without the revolution.

Abolition, without John Brown, slave revolts, and the Civil War.

Workers’ rights, without strikers being attacked by Pinkertons, police, and troops.

The vote for women, without activists being harassed and arrested and force-fed in jail.

Civil rights legislation, without sit-ins and illegal demonstrations and mass refusals to obey and the violent white response that forced the federal government to act.

Gay rights, without Stonewall.

The American Indian Movement, without the standoffs at Alcatraz and Wounded Knee.

Anti-war movements, without . . . well, here the problem is coming up with an example of any movement—peaceful or otherwise—that ended or prevented a war that the powers-that-be were intent upon, except, perhaps, the Russian Revolution.

As Frederick Douglass noted in the runup to the Civil War, “power concedes nothing without a demand,” which is why peaceful protest has so little effect against oppressive institutional power, whether government or corporations or white privilege. The unspoken rule is that power and privilege will respect the people’s right to peacefully express their grievances, so long as the people respect the right of power and privilege to ignore them and do nothing at all, as with children being allowed to have their say before the grownups tell them how it’s going to be.

But ‘the people’ are not children, and grievances are often born of generations of injustice and oppression and suffering. How, then, are protestors to respond to yet another phalanx of police, enforcers of last resort, armed to the teeth and determined to decide how this will go? Is it any wonder that push will come to shove?

And when it does, what do we call it and how do we explain and why does it matter?

To judge from the news, violence is something that happens spontaneously and all by itself for reasons known only to those who do it—as in, “the peaceful demonstration turned violent” or “violence erupted from the crowd.” The police are presented as just doing their job of keeping ‘it’ from getting out of control, as if ‘it’ has nothing to do with them or the power and privilege they are so heavily armed to protect by keeping things the way they’re supposed to be.

In the aftermath, authorities and the media focus on acts of violence by protestors who can now be written off as criminals who need not be taken seriously beyond cracking heads and hauling them off to jail. But the object of protest—systems of privilege and concentrations of political and economic power—are made invisible, to continue as before.

The demonstrators’ refusal to do as they are told is declared intolerable, but not the patronizing intransigence of power.

Buried deeper still is the reality that the privileged and powerful do not have the burden of having to resort to protest in order to get what they want, to put their lives on the line for justice, or sit quietly while being told to have patience, that change takes time. What they want, they feel entitled and empowered to buy or take, enact or decree, order or direct, lobby or legislate. And when violence is required—invading another country to protect ‘American interests’ or devastating the earth or getting ‘those people’ back in line—they rarely hesitate in the use of force.

Protestors setting things on fire is condemned as violence, but not fracking or poverty or uranium mining on Indian reservations or segregation or mass incarceration. It is the ‘other’ who are supposed to restrain themselves and make the best of it while the privileged and powerful do what they want and chastise protestors who reach their limit and refuse to back down and go home.

When push comes to shove, it is explained as little more than ‘those people’ doing what they are. But things getting out of hand, including violence, like anything in human life, is always in relation to something to which it is a response. This does not make it good or justified, but it does mean that it cannot be explained by itself, cannot be understood only in terms of those who push and shove, but must also account for what people feel compelled to push and shove against, including,*

The suffocation of democracy, with state and federal power increasingly in the hands of the best politicians and government that money can buy, enacting and enforcing laws that serve the interests of the few while ignoring the many.

Soaring levels of inequality along with the disappearance of manufacturing jobs that once provided generations of white immigrants with a path out of poverty.

Rising levels of racial segregation that isolate people of color in urban ghettos without a base for the coalitions that are necessary for political power.

Hundreds of years of demonizing people of color as dangerous, immoral, and criminal, leading to mass incarceration and disenfranchisement enforced by police departments armed for urban warfare.

And, for all the talk of “We, the people,” the long tradition of elites regarding the country as belonging to them, to do with as they see fit, claiming to know what’s best based on the wisdom that supposedly comes with wealth and power; and the rest of the population is either to support the elite or be dismissed as an ignorant mass to be used and ignored, denounced as rabble when they get out of hand, the mob, a threat to social order, to be controlled, if necessary, with violence.

There is no shortage of things to protest in this country, and if demands for change are to remain peaceful, if democracy is to work, there must be a reasonable expectation of a just response, without which patience and restraint become another means of subordination.

Almost fifty years ago, in the aftermath of race riots that make Baltimore look like a picnic, President Johnson formed a commission to study the causes of ‘civil disorder.’ It concluded that the violence was a response to issues of race, racism, and economic inequality that had been ignored for too long.

The report was widely read, selling more than two million copies nationwide.** But thirty years later, a follow-up study concluded that conditions had only gotten worse.

And now, two decades after that, here we are, not again, but still, with peaceful protest against the oppressive use of power having no effect on political and economic elites, or on the white population, much of which is largely oblivious to the reality of race, with a CNN anchor recently expressing amazement that violent protest could still happen in the United States.

Yes, change takes time. We hear that again and again, but almost always in a condescending tone, that we should need to be reminded. But, of course, that isn’t what it means, the real message being that change takes more time, and still more time, as much time, in fact, as those in positions of power and privilege choose to take, because those without power are not to presume to tell them what to do.

Which brings us back to Frederick Douglass. That power does not yield except by demand has two parts, not one, both the power and the demand, and as long as there is the one, there will be the other.

And there is nothing nice about it.

Allan G. Johnson‘s work can be found at Unraveling The Knot.


Malvina Reynolds, “It Isn’t Nice” (Schroder Music Company, 1964, 1993).

Frederick Douglass, “If There Is No Struggle, There Is No Progress.” Speech delivered in Canandaigua, New York, August 3, 1857 (originally published by the Cornell University Library) See also William A. Gamson, “Violence and Political Power: The Meek Don’t Make It.” Psychology Today, July 1974.

*For those inclined to think I might be making up what follows, please see, for example: Douglas S. Massey and Nancy A. Denton, American Apartheid: Segregation and the Making of the Underclass (Harvard University Press, 1993); Martin Gilens and Benjamin I. Page, “Testing Theories of American Politics: Elites, Interest Groups, and Average Citizens” (Perspectives on Politics, September, 2014, pp.564-581); Khalil Gibran Muhammad, The Condemnation of Blackness: Race, Crime, and the Making of Modern Urban America (Harvard University Press, 2011); Michelle Alexander, The New Jim Crow: Mass Incarceration in the Age of Colorblindness (The New Press, 2012); and Richard Slotkin, The Fatal Environment: The Myth of the Frontier in the Age of Industrialization, 1800–1890 (University of Oklahoma Press, 1998).

**National Advisory Commission on Civil Disorders, U.S. Riot Commission Report: Report of the National Advisory Commission on Civil Disorders (Bantam Books, 1968).

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