By Mikenna Montgomery
The modern “American” experience is a tale of two countries. The first tale is of a country full of opportunity that leads the world economy, is incredibly diverse and innovative, and is the proverbial shoulder to lean on for countries around the world in matters of security and development. The second, much darker and less digestible, is of a country governed by an oligarchy that suffers from ostentatious wealth disparities, plundering imperialism – and that which is the topic of this piece: racially driven police brutality and murder.
On May 25th, a black man named George Floyd died in a hospital not long after being arrested for an alleged forgery. He suffocated from a police officer kneeling on his neck while three other officers stood by in tacit agreement. Floyd’s murder is one of 240 violent incidents in 2019 alone; each the result of unnecessarily escalated interactions between law enforcement and black citizens.
Floyd’s death sparked protest in Minneapolis, to which the state’s leaders responded with a call for peace.
While many of our country’s leaders have lamented the ‘generations of pain, of anguish’ with their black constituents, the methods of civil disobedience advocated by Dr. King and H.D. Thoreau have only been half the story. While the freedom rides, and the marches, and the eloquent speeches of a man revered by many ended segregation and facilitated the passing of groundbreaking legislation, no great revolution has been successful without violent protest. Not only is this response especially cathartic, it has been historically effective in eliciting change.
So, how can we defend rioting as a means to an equitable end?
The validity of a protest is not a matter of violent vs. non-violent, it is a matter of authorized violence vs. unauthorized violence. Violence is only considered legitimate if the action is proximate to the source of power, be it political or militant. We denounce protests that ignite fires and damage property, but we still rally behind politicians who order air strikes that destroy cities and wipe out civilians. When replaceable, material things are destroyed by groups of people with very little power, we tell them that “violence is not the answer.” But when an entire country is devastated at the hands of the most powerful men in the world, we warrant it as a matter of national security.
If the hypocrisy is unclear, please take the time to look again.
We are a country that tolerates rallies of white men sporting assault rifles on the steps of our capitol buildings, while simultaneously condemning the Black Lives Matter movement for creating space for its cause, a black athlete for using his platform to peacefully protest, a community for painting signs that read “I am not a threat.” If protesting masks during a global pandemic is justified, then rioting for the right to breathe is justified. Let us not compartmentalize civil liberties on the basis of anything other than being human.
57 years ago, we took the first steps towards a better future. How do we catalyze this progress? How do we attain a truly equitable society? Moving forward, we must better understand how racism has evolved into the contemporary racialized social system in which we live. Whether systemic racism is defined by the lack of racial policies, socially-motivated perspectives, or the influence of anti black authority, the privilege of white people never fearing a police officer when going about daily routines is not acknowledged to a deserving degree. Ambivalence towards the implementation of policies that address racial inequality, no matter how you frame it, is at the root of the issue.
We need to be having this conversation every day. We need to be electing politicians who prioritize equity. We need to see these uprisings led by groups of people with minimal power and influence – not as a reason to preach peace – but as a clear indication that we still have a lot of work to do.
You can’t separate peace from freedom because no one can be at peace until he has freedom. – Malcom X
Violence rattles us. It brutally awakens us and throws the truth in our faces until the truth is all that we can see. That visceral, raw human response is what mobilizes the masses to get things done. Therefore, it is necessary to galvanize the resistance against the injustices experienced by black people in America. Whether or not violence is the answer, the repeated exoneration of police officers like the three yet to be indicted for the murder of George Floyd can no longer be borne by our apathy towards the black American’s dream deferred.
Mikenna Montgomery is a Master of International Affairs candidate at UC San Diego's School of Global Policy and Strategy. She is focusing her degree on environmental policy and sustainable development, specializing in Latin America.