Nonviolent and Violent Protest

Author, activist, and intellectual Chris Hedges referred to an often quoted statement by the late Stokely Carmichael (Kwame Ture): “In order for nonviolence to work, your opponent must have a conscience. The United States has none.”

The former leader of the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee and the Black Panthers Party’s observation was made in reaction to Black nonviolent protest.

Carmichael, like many, had human flaws that need to be considered when assessing his observation about nonviolent protest in the US, and especially nonviolence in the face of police violence in the US, the most notable being the recent murder of George Floyd, a murder that set off an unprecedented protest movement in the US and around the world.

Carmichael once said that he admired Adolph Hitler and that the best position of women in the movement for Black liberation was prone. He tried to walk back both statements and his appointment of women to leadership positions in SNCC is proof that he may have been speaking without thinking.

But, there is the actual issue of revolutionary violence v. nonviolence that has and is being “played” out on the streets of the US and around the world in response to police violence against people of color.

The far right Trump administration set the tone and legal response to the J20 anti-Trump demonstration (“In the J20 Trials, the Feds Said They Went After “Bad Protesters.” That Just Means Another Crackdown on Dissent,” Intercept, July 14, 2018) on inauguration day in 2017, with the government casting a Draconian net around protest and causing protesters and the organizations that supported them enormous amounts of money and time fighting federal charges. Many on the left abandoned those protesters. Property damage, rock throwing, clashes with police, and damage to a limousine did take place  during that protest.

The wide net of right-wing legal maneuvers has left journalists exposed to the same force of government repression. Since mass surveillance is a reality, even the Internet communications of protesters is examined under a government “microscope.”  Here, Edward Snowden’s warnings about the latter come to mind.

For many radical protesters, and Black and Latino protesters in particular, tactics on the streets and by way of a revolutionary philosophy are countered by the violent reality of nearly unlimited repressive power in police departments and the ability of governments to bring protesters to their knees with the threat of long prison sentences and exorbitant legal fees.

The far right has shown no hesitancy to march and protest with violent intent and violent action  and Trump calls them “some very fine people.”

Sedition laws (Sedition Act of 1918) in the US have been used in the past to repress violent and nonviolent protest. Promoting violence or nonviolence can get a protester in serious legal trouble facing years of prison. Eugene Debs, Edward Snowden, Chelsea Manning, and Julian Assange come to mind. By publishing or speaking out against state violence, protesters and journalists place themselves at serious risk of imprisonment. Fred Hampton comes to mind when state violence is considered. He died for being a Black intellectual and protester on the left.

While a Black middle class has grown since the era of Jim Crow and de facto segregation, great numbers of Black people and Latino people in the US have been subjected to economic deprivation, poor healthcare, substandard and segregated schools, mass incarceration, and outrageous official policies like stop-and-frisk. When people of color were useful to capital, some people made it into the middle class, but most did not. With the global economy in the 1970s, many people of color were abandoned by society with the number of those people incarcerated rising exponentially. The government only paid attention to programs of social uplift when protest on the left was still vibrant and an expanding economy could throw crumbs to those masses of people in need.

CEOs of major corporations like JP Morgan Chase pay lip service to police murders of Blacks, but do little to promote hiring, grant mortgages, create accepting retail spaces, or promote a tax system geared to programs of social uplift. Instead, they seek the lowest taxes both they and their corporations can pay (“Trump stokes division with racism and rage-and the American oligarchy purrs,” Guardian, June 14, 2020).

The murder of many people of color, both male and female, is the extension of police violence in maintaining the status quo of gross economic and political inequality. As jobs with economic security began to disappear in the US in a global economy, masses of people of color were seen as spurious to the functioning of the economy. The global economy cast masses of working class and lower middle class whites aside by the dictates of mobile capital, but murder of whites jettisoned by the economy did not take place. Besides racism,  the oligarchs benefited by creating the dog whistles that were finally abandoned by the racist Trump and transformed into outright racism and the encouragement of violence against people of color and other people who refused to accept the right-wing status quo. The official hate campaign against immigrants at the US/Mexico border continues today and immigrants are criminalized by that policy, including the jailing of children in ICE detention centers, many of those centers run for profit.

Where hate is likely to go is a guess at this point. It depends, to a degree, on whether or not large segments of oppressed people in the US can organize politically. It is laughable that the Democratic Party will be the social conscience of the US, with its standard bearer Joe Biden who championed racist policies of law and order during his political career.

There is a telling quote from Martin Luther King, Jr’s last Sunday sermon in 1968 when he talks about how racism is a way of life for large numbers of white people in the US. How can it be that almost nothing has changed in all of the intervening decades?

Howard Lisnoff is a freelance writer. He is the author of Against the Wall: Memoir of a Vietnam-Era War Resister (2017).