“Riot is the language of the unheard.” – Martin Luther King, Jr.
As the largely peaceful protests in Ferguson become overshadowed by occasional violent streaks, some have been eager to use these violent incidents to dismiss or ridicule the cause, particularly the presence of civil disobedience in the first place.
That is a mistake. These people are discounting very legitimate grievances surrounding institutionalized racism, police brutality, and utter lack of accountability and transparency.
I want to make this absolutely clear: I do not condone violence. I think that some, but not all, of the violence is opportunistic. Sadly, the presence of violent acts of behavior does undermine the legitimacy of the peaceful ones.
However, I want to put the rioting in context: here is a pattern I have observed:
- Protest starts off as peaceful and nonviolent. That is exactly what happened here.
- It is violently suppressed and/or grievances are ignored or ridiculed and/or condescending rationalizations are made. Police and political leadership were slow, defensive, and reactive in responding to calls for any semblance of accountability. The entire time, police were highly hostile towards protests and often attempted to break them up in riot gear and abusing full military equipment, arresting many people in the process.
- Driven in part by desperation and in part by opportunism, protests turn violent. It is important to emphasize that the proportion of violence to peaceful protests vary: in Syria, violent resistance more or less displaced its peaceful counterparts. In Ferguson, I believe there are still some pockets of peaceful protests left, but that is not what the media emphasizes.
Examples of When Peaceful Protests Eventually Turned Violent
There are a multitude of examples that fall under this pattern:
Civil Rights Protests (late 1950s – 1960s)
An iconic era of the US, the civil rights protests in the South were largely and undeniably peaceful. However, they were brutally suppressed. Police used fire hoses, trained dogs, and other tools to disperse the protests. While progress was made with landmark legislation such as the Civil Rights Act of 1964 and the Voting Rights Act of 1965, implementation did not happen instantaneously as Southern states fought tooth and nail against the imposition of reform.
Eventually, protests slowly transitioned towards more violent resistance. The Black Panthers Group was founded in 1966. Martin Luther King’s assassination in 1968 probably further paved the transition.
In this case, the protestors’ goals minus the implementation were largely met. That is probably a major reason why the protests were largely peaceful throughout what is admittedly a very turbulent period.
Syrian Protests (February 2011 – Present)
Around February 2011, as momentum for the Arab Spring gained ground, unrest began in Syria. During the early months, protests were entirely peaceful: they called for Assad’s departure and the imposition of democratic governance in Syria.
These protests were brutally quashed.
As with Tunisia and Egypt, police and plain-clothed thugs alike arrested and tortured many, and in general harassed what was a very sizable number of protestors.
On July 29, 2011, the violent resistance began with the formation of the Free Syrian Army. Peaceful protests persisted long after that, but over time, armed groups and even opportunists such as ISIS (an offshoot of Al-Qaeda in Iraq (AQIM) that even AQIM thought was too brutal) are destabilizing Syria and escalating sectarian tensions to the point where the original democratic ideals of Syria are all but lost.
The UN conservatively estimated back in 2011 that tens of thousands had perished. Now, that number could easily be hundreds of thousands. It is unambiguously a terrible tragedy.
Occupy Wall Street (October 2011 – )
On September 17, 2011, the Occupy Wall Street movement began with protests in Zilker Park. The protestors, sadly, did not have clear goals, but they decried the troubling gains in economic and political power by the top 1 percent, as well as deepening income inequality (currently at levels not seen since 1929) and continued economic malaise.
I want to emphasize how the protests were brutally suppressed. At UC Davis, a police officer pepper sprayed clearly peaceful protestors. At other places, police broke up protests and arrested a number of people.
To be fair, the protests did affect economic activity. Small business owners complained of 40-50 percent losses to their business. Even so, there are far more sensible ways to disperse a protest without it getting violent.
These protests were a further indictment against senseless police brutality.
Russian Protests (late 2011 – early 2012)
Around December 2011, in response to the announcement that Putin was to run for president yet again, a sizable number of people, largely middle class, held a protest against his authoritarian tendencies. For months, the protests were peaceful, with tens of thousands and even hundreds of thousands turning out. The protestors called for free and fair elections (which may or may not have resulted in Putin’s loss), and the immediate release of all political prisoners.
These protests were regulated to some extent and arrests still resulted. The more unsettling pattern was the presence of plain-clothed thugs clearly aligned to the regime who sought to harass protestors and give officials an excuse that things were going violent. In addition, Putin was easily reelected in March in what was clearly a shady and rigged election: The New York Times reported, for instance, that voter turnout at Chechnya, a region that is no fan of Putinism, was an astounding 106 percent! In large part, protestors’ demands were not met and they were constantly harassed by police and plain-clothed thugs.
Then, they began a violent streak.
I profess to be rather ignorant of the full story, but I distinctly remember these protests being a big deal back in the day when I was in debate. I have little doubt The Economist had excellent coverage on this subject.
I fully acknowledge these may not necessarily be the best examples.
However, there are countless examples of civil disobedience devolving into violence because the incumbents in power steadfastly refuse to be responsive to protestors’ demands and actively attempt to suppress the protests.
Here is my proposition: if corporations have the right of “free speech” in a way that is highly corrosive to democratic governance, then people have a right of “free speech” through protests that shape the dialogue of the country and help deep grievances be heard.