For these past ten days I’ve been grappling with violence as a form of protest. Grapple with me.
The impetus for this post comes from a reflection on our own history and current practice as a white-dominated nation. Let’s revisit our revered Revolution:
In the 1700’s, the colonists, our predecessors, were under British rule. They were being taxed, more and more, with no recourse and no power. Many were also itching for independence in every sense, though not all were. Southerners in particular hadn’t signed on. But in his book, Thomas Jefferson: The Art of Power, Jon Meacham describes the uproar from white elites to a threat by British Lord Dunmore to “declare freedom to the slaves.” The reaction was swift as recounted by one colonist: “Hell itself could not have vomited anything more black than his design of emancipating our slaves.” Thus the South was persuaded to join the rebellion.
And so, in reaction to high taxes and the threat of losing their “property,” the colonists revolted:
- Our ancestors marched.
- They yelled “No taxation without representation!” and other slogans, no doubt laced with tons of profanity.
- They threw stuff. They shed blood.
- They invaded and looted and burned British-owned buildings including their armories (the equivalent of our Public Safety Building).
- They formed an army and killed thousands of people.
All for tax relief and the protection of their human “property.”
Our founders were violent as hell. And we celebrate that violence every July Fourth. And we glorify that violence every time we sing the Star-Spangled Banner. The original working title for this post was “In Praise of Violence” because that is what we do.
Fast-forward to Rochester, NY, 2020:
For People of Color, we are the British – times some multiplier. Over 400 years we have overseen a society that dominates Black people. And each time we seemed to correct that original sin of enslavement, we conjured up a more devious way to maintain dominance: sharecropping, Jim Crow, lynching, mass incarceration. And despite the marginal advances of the Civil Rights era, through several iterations, we’ve constructed and upheld a network of systems and institutions that continue not only to disadvantage Black people, but to imprison and to kill them in outrageously disproportionate numbers.
To my white siblings: We are the primary beneficiaries of the violence used to establish our nation. If our predecessors resorted to extreme violence over high taxes and the right to own human beings, who are we to criticize the methods of uprising by those on whose necks we have knelt for centuries? How do we dare criticize the tossing of a few bottles or rocks or fireworks, or the breaking of a couple of dishes and glasses? How blind and ignorant can we be not to see past the few desperate incidents of violence and hear the cause of the protest?
Many we know were at the protests from the first night. They give consistent accounts of peaceful protestors, suddenly, without warning, receiving a deluge of terror from the police. How can we so easily absolve our militaristic police forces using chemical weapons and pepper guns, rubber bullets and more? How can we excuse their bringing in dogs on leashes*, a truly traumatizing sight particularly for African-Americans? How can we excuse that violence?
More so, how can we not recognize the violence that is inflicted on Black and Brown bodies by every system we have engineered? How can we allow a few rocks and bottles to dominate the narrative when we know the anger is righteous?
Again, we white people are the primary beneficiaries of not only of our founders’ violence, but of the current violence.
How then to respond when our friends or relatives or co-workers or club members say “They’re so violent!”? Try this:
Absorb the perspective I’ve laid out here. Research it on your own, in books and in your heart. Let the reality of it penetrate to your soul. Let it root in your mind and spirit until you can recite it with conviction. Decide in advance that you’re willing to put on the line relationships with family, with friends, with our white siblings, not to try to change them, but only to claim your own recognized truth.
Then pause to honestly assess what part you play in those systems we’ve constructed. Ask how you’ve benefited from our country’s original violence, and how you benefit from the current violence being meted out in your name, to protect your body and your property. Then move to change those systems.
To be clear: I do not advocate violence. Personally, I am committed to non-violence in the spirit of Gandhi, Martin Luther King Jr. (not the white-sanitized version of his beliefs), Lech Walesa, Vaclav Havel, and the core messages of all major religions. At the same time, I must recognize that I am of a dominant class, not an oppressed class. Non-violence is a far smoother road to travel when you’re on top.
The experience of being present at many of the protests, listening to and marching with the protestors, has led me to an empathy for the outrage and desperation borne of having tried every other means of breaking through to an intentionally deaf and blind oppressor. I do not endorse violence. I try to keep it in this perspective and hear past it to the underlying message.
*It’s come to light that the dogs were brought by NYS Police. RPD had requested their help, and claimed they had no discretion about how the State Police were equipped. City Council questioned whether RPD can request the dogs not be used.
Postscript: The challenge of writing a blog post:
Lately, I recognize with each sentence I write, that the opposite may also be true; or that I’ve failed to recognize something else that’s important; or the opinion I’ve given could change in the blink of an incident; or that there are certain to be some people who will be upset, even outraged with what I’ve written; or I’ve omitted something vitally important – like the violence we inflicted on Native Americans, etc., etc. I keep chalking it up to the nature of the times – so much uncertainty, so many moving parts. Thank you for joining in the search for answers and action. And please don’t hesitate to “Reply” below.
Thomas Jefferson: The Art of Power by Jon Meacham, a Pulitzer-Prize winner.
With time constraints, I’m offering abbreviated resources and no specific list of actions. I encourage you to do research on our own, particularly about actions that would match your spheres of influence. I encourage you to begin with the video above.