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.
A perspective from a Black Portland resident on what the protests are about and what is asked of white people. 7-min. video.
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.
23 thoughts on “Violence: A Perspective”
Hi Frank, first I’d like to thank you for inviting me to participate. Violence comes in so many forms (words, attitudes, songs, movies, slogans, religion etc…) we have become numb to the influence all the messaging has on us. If we are only given one “tool” to use, we almost have no choice. This is not an excuse but an explanation. The policing in our country reflects the culture of violence we’ve known since its inception (founded through violence and kept together through violence. Its no wonder that the concept of “peace” is so foreign to us.
Well said. Thank you for contributing James.
Frank, I too commend you for taking on this topic…a true hot button for many. As another white guy, I’ll never truly know much about the Black/Brown experience, but I can appreciate why violence occurs. And it seems to me that violence is nearly always an emotional reaction. It doesn’t just pop up unbidden, fully formed out of nowhere. There has to be an antecedent. If someone pushes me, my immediate instinct is to push back. Unless conditions suggest I ought not to, like the guy who pushed me is 6 feet 6 and looks like a linebacker for the Bills.
But violence begets violence. If the police unleash tear gas cannisters, many protestors are apt to toss it back, or retaliate with bottles, stones, fireworks, whatever may be handy. And things quickly escalate. At times like this, people are not going to stop and think about forming a better or more honest historical perspective. Many will be tempted to react, be they the police or peaceful protestors, or thugs. We have a shameful national history, and we continue to reap the whirlwind today. But you’re right, we all need to better understand that history, and try and overcome its terrible legacy, through genuine political, social and economic reforms.
At the same time, we can’t minimize the violence that has accompanied some of the protests. Tragically here in Rochester we saw rioting and senseless destruction after some peaceful protests, vandalism and looting that damaged and destroyed Black, Brown and white owned businesses alike. This is wrong on all counts, and should be condemned.
And parents whose kids, white or black or brown, who come home after such events with brand new stuff they didn’t have before, have a responsibility to confront that behavior. Hopefully we can all agree on that.
Regrettably, the violent aftermath of some peaceful protests is the memory that lingers, as it becomes all too often the focus of news coverage. And part of that is our fault: we like violence. We always have. We like to see it, we get a certain visceral pleasure out of watching someone get slammed into the boards in a hockey game, or a player take a hard hit in the NFL, or even watching America’s Funniest Videos, and pretending that someone crashing into a stone wall while skateboarding is somehow funny, and not really about us taking some sadistic pleasure in seeing someone doing something clearly hurtful. Ultimate Boxing is a vicious “sport”, but it is what fills arenas, and has done so for 2,000 years or more.
And like you Frank, I don’t have a lot of good answers. This isn’t a quick fix type of thing.
But I have faith that good people, working together, and listening to one another’s lived experiences, can bring about positive change. If we are willing. We have to get past the violence, and get back to people to people contacts. We have to set aside our comfort levels, and examine who we are, and what we stand for. Not easy!
Public protests are essential to any movement. Change doesn’t often occur because people in power or authority suddenly did the right thing, without prodding.
And the police have a legitimate role to play in a civilized society. Defunding police departments is a non-starter. BUT, redirecting resources, and reforming policing policies and practices is vital.
And instituting mental health crisis teams is essential, so that people in crisis have a better chance ending up in a hospital setting, and not in a morgue.
Keep up the good work, my friend.
Thanks for the thoughtful reply, Tim.
September 15, 2020
Hi Frank, your last post on violence really sparked a lot of feelings and thought. My first reaction was to think does “the end really justifies the means?” Plus, if I took your thought about the American Revolution a little farther it seemed the revolutionaries said (paraphrased here) there has to be a better way. As a result they set up laws and governance, however flawed, that established a peaceful way to effect change without the need for violence.
These ideas seemed ok in theory but in practice it wasn’t the way things worked. I am reminded of two movies. One was “Gangs of New York” and the other is “The Godfather.” Both of those movies depict the struggles of an ethnic group and their assimilation into society. I will grant there was movie magic in them but the basis in each were the struggles, and sadly violence, each group went through as they confronted the ordered and comfortable status quo. Considering these examples I’m wondering if violence isn’t the driving force behind the change.
50 years ago there were protests and minor violence. What I remember of them was that they sparked a need for action but the changes that occurred were on the surface and somehow did not address the core issue of institutional racism leaving us where we are today. People that study human behavior suggest that a move from the ordered to a reordered status requires an uncomfortable period in between where issues on all sides of the spectrum are surfaced and at the very least are heard.
Is our present situation then are we right where we need to be? My answer to that is yes. Not that I am comfortable with what has transpired but because I know that I can’t change the past. I am thinking that good or bad the past actions have got people’s attention and now we need to look for solutions. Leaders need to emerge and begin to start a dialogue. None of the groups in the conflict are a monolith so dialogue and consensus will be difficult to achieve because of the number and depth of the different perspectives out there. For me the key again is to start.
Tom, I think you’re exactly right to cite Gangs of NY and The Godfather. I was thinking of that history as well – the violence of Italian and Irish immigrants, growing out of the desperate poverty they endured. So when people want to point to Black-on-Black crime, it reveals the racial bias we carry. Europeans living in poverty here were every bit as violent – though they may not have had AK-47’s.
I also agree with your first paragraph – that our founders were said “There has to be a better way”. Black people are looking for that better way, and calling us to the same. Thanks for contributing.
A powerful piece, Frank, thanks for putting it out there.
Frank, we learn and move forward together. Input from multiple people across a diverse spectrum is fundamentally needed to make progress. The culture of European dominance and control must change significantly to achieve equity.
Violence, we can all agree is easy, both to understand and to support.
Results come quicker too. Nothing new here.
It is non-violence that is the harder road.
Thanks for that insight, Carol.
Much with which to struggle.
I find myself distrusting people who seem to know a lot of answers lately!
Some may not like my comments.DT is going to play the violence and riots to the hilt.There may just enough white male voters in critical states to turn the election to DT.One can talk about not being heard,but most people who vote do not like the violence.How many protesters in Rochester or Portland or anywhere else will vote?The
protesters ought to start organizing on how they are going to push or shove Biden if
he is elected and the Congress on the fundamental changes that need to be made concerning the police and systemic racism.Democratic presidents and Senate and
House Democrats do not have a very good record of doing this
I definitely get the concern about how the violence can play politically, Ed. Agreed. Yet I know some will happen. I think it’s up to us to control the narrative as much as we can. As to working with Biden – well let’s see what happens first! Thanks for commenting.
Our Free the People Roc organizers frequently talk about the power of the vote. There have been volunteers from the League of Women Voters at our protests, even stopping at houses along our marches to sign people up. I imagine that is happenning at protests in other states as well. Also, people are protesting against the conditions they are experieincing right here, right now, and that they have endured for decades, no matter who has been president. Is it reasonable to ask them to ignore the oppression in their daily lives in order to serve a national goal (election of a democratic president)? Our protest has produced tangible results in our own community already. Activism at the polls is a part of making change, but marching through the streets is what’s needed now.
Thanks, Frank for the beautifully articulated insight!
And thank you, Jodi, for contributing your perspective. I also believe the protest ought to continue, as a pressure point, while negotiations for change get underway. Still, a lot of fear, based on our own experience, and based on rumors of outsiders coming in looking to amp it up with violence. We don’t want to be part of supporting actions that lead to a city burning. Like I said, back and forth!
Frank, I didn’t know how’ you were going to tackle this complex issue but you’ve done it!! You have communicated passion , challenging conflicting thoughts , anguish and commitment to non-violence. Thank you for challenging us to hold it all! This is not a time for dualistic thinking. It’s a time to listen deeply and pray.
Ask me tomorrow and I might have totally different opinions! It’s been like that lately. Thanks for commenting.
This is all so very hard. Nonviolence is the ONLY way that ultimately works….but, it can seem very inefficient at best. A huge worry with the violence is that it is increasing the divisions within our country….and that those running for office who promise to return this country to “law and order” will use the violent acts of protesters to gain votes and further the divisions within our nation.
Margaret, that is one aspect of this that I also grapple with. We need to be very vocal and social-media-savvy against that narrative.
I found this to be one of your deepest and poignant blogs. I can feel your emotions and inward struggles through your words. I appreciate your insights and your committment. May I share this on Facebook? I share all my post to “public” if that’s ok with you…
Sure, Jim. And thanks for the encouragement.