Wednesday, April 29, 2015

Peaceful Protests and Rioting in Baltimore

By Craig Hovey

The recent rioting in Baltimore following the death of 25-year-old Freddie Gray from injuries sustained while in police custody has called for a return to “peaceful protests” from various government entities. As someone committed to nonviolence, I might be heartened to hear authorities suddenly embrace the language of peace. But there are some reasons to be wary of how this language is being used.
  1. When authorities call for peaceful protests, it is because security achieved and maintained through violence is under threat. Dietrich Bonhoeffer was right to distinguish peace from security. Security, at least in the short term, might be achieved through violence and the threat of violence. The security that has been achieved this way is likewise vulnerable to being upset by violence. In a speech delivered in Denmark in 1934, Bonhoeffer declared that “There is no way to peace along the way of safety. For peace must be dared. It is the great venture. It can never be safe. Peace is the opposite of security.” When peaceful protest flows from a belief that peace and justice are the deep grammar of things, or the arc of the moral universe, or God’s will, then protest isn’t restraining itself in the name of security. 
  2. Why does the media seem more reticent in their condemnation of police violence compared to their condemnation of the violence of rioters? Check out the double standard in Wolf Blitzer’s interview with organizer Deray McKesson [video featured above]. Calling for peaceful protests amounts to a double standard if wrongful police violence isn’t also condemned with the same moral intensity and sincerity as are riots. 
  3. Rioting should be understood and not just written off. It’s true, as President Obama reminded us, that several days of peaceful protests preceded but have been overshadowed by the looting and rioting. The narrative that the President and others are telling is that rioting ought to be ignored and that looting isn’t protesting. Yet Martin Luther King’s remarks are also being cited a lot in recent days: that “a riot is the language of the unheard” and what is unheard now is the same as King described, namely, the plight of African Americans and their need for justice. I understand what Obama means when he says that rioting is “counter-productive;” it threatens to make those already unheard to be even more so. But there might be a reverse: What if America became, as King hoped, “more concerned about justice and humanity” than “tranquility and the status quo”?
  4. Language matters and can be revealing. The word “thug” is being used a lot. Many have pointed out that this word has racist origins and is very often used in a racist way. Despite one’s condemnation of rioting as a form of protest, calling rioters who are deeply frustrated by a lack of racial justice “thugs” takes our language in the wrong direction.

Craig Hovey is executive director of the Ashland Center for Nonviolence.

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