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Freeing Protest From the Language Police

Cops and media elites have long enforced a demand for peaceful protest, without any regard for what those words mean.

Cooper Neill/Getty Images

This past Saturday marked the largest nationwide demonstrations against American police since George Floyd’s murder in Minneapolis on Memorial Day. When hundreds of thousands marched across the world in what most newspapers praised as “peaceful” protests, it concluded a tense week of demonstrations across the country that often featured property destruction on one side and police batons, tear gas, rubber bullets, and mandatory curfews on the other. Many commentators strained to appear sympathetic to the protests without endorsing the unrest they caused. Former President Barack Obama praised the “folks who are willing, in a peaceful, disciplined way, to be out there making a difference.” New York’s police commissioner, Dermot Shea, praised his officers for working “tirelessly to protect those who are peacefully protesting,” as if demonstrators and cops were suddenly close colleagues in a shared enterprise. The latest developments were presented to a television audience as progress: “Violence,” we were told, had given way to “peaceful” demonstrations.

With so much seemingly riding on this distinction, you could be forgiven for wondering if anyone actually knows where the line between violence and peace has been drawn. Obama’s celebration of the peaceful folks contained an implied criticism of some other folks protesting unpeacefully—that is, “violently.” Fraternal Order of Police president Patrick Yoes put it more bluntly in a widely circulated op-ed, “Protesters do not injure cops or set fires; rioters do.” German López argued in Vox that racial justice has been secured most often through “peaceful means,” which he contrasted with “riots” like those in Minneapolis. In order to learn what makes a peaceful protester, we need to know what a “violent” one does. López makes a game attempt: “For the purposes of this article, ‘violent protest’ and ‘riots’ means when protesters became violent.” Besides the seemingly arbitrary isolation of protesters and police in a protest—as if the actions of each are not shaped in part by the other—López’s tautology only muddles things further. A violent protest, it seems, is a protest that is violent.

The evasive, circular way we talk about protest and police tactics is an example of more than just journalistic imprecision, political mealy-mouthedness, or cowardice, although it is of course often these things. It is an example of a fundamental problem with policing as we experience it in the United States: The police are imbued with a vast power to set the limits of what it is possible to say and do. Our entire vocabulary for even describing protest actions feels policed at every turn. Consider, for example, the parade of corporate “statements” on the death of George Floyd issued by everybody from the manufacturers of the Taser to the Fruit by the Foot company, and count how many of them even mention the word “police.” By my rough count, the number is zero.

The best definition of a violent protest is a protest that the police say is a violent protest. And, as one Detroit protester told me sarcastically, a peaceful protest is “when no one throws a water bottle,” a reference to the “weaponhurled at riot police armed with rubber bullets and gas. Besides the way it conceals the prerogative of the police to both define violence and to dish it out, our love of the “peaceful protest” is rooted, as well, in a belief bordering on faith in its superior effectiveness. Onlookers and voters are spooked by violence, the argument often goes, making them unsympathetic to its cause; riots are irrational spasms, not a “true revolution,” wrote The New York Times’ Ross Douthat, that noted expert on the art of true revolution. Ilhan Omar, the liberal congresswoman whose district includes Minneapolis, said that “Every single fire set ablaze, every single store that is looted, every time our community finds itself in danger, it is time that people are not spending talking about getting justice for George Floyd.”

One can’t prove a negative, of course—we don’t inhabit the alternate universe where outraged Minnesotans did not loot a Target or burn a police car. But I cannot imagine a scenario in which large numbers of people are talking about George Floyd today, two weeks after his death, without the fires that consumed a police precinct in Minneapolis, along with most of the country’s attention.

Omar’s statement is rooted in a common fallacy that an effective protest is, like a conversation or an opening statement in court, mainly a rhetorical exercise—that is, something meant to convince someone of the validity of an argument. We can see this in the way we often praise peaceful protests: as a way for people to “make their case,” to “register their concerns,” or to “express their views” to authorities. But rather than an argument, a demonstration is just that, a demonstration of the protesters’ power to demand, or just as often, their antagonists’ cruelty in the face of those demands. After a week of media coverage of police repression in places like Buffalo, Philadelphia, New York, and Seattle, it seems that the “riots” that have so alarmed the nation’s police forces have amply demonstrated cops’ capacity for violence.

But what about the backlash argument? “Peaceful protests for civil rights and against police abuses in the 1960s tended to build support for Democrats, who in turn backed the civil rights causes of the time,” wrote López in Vox. “But support for Democrats decreased after violent protests,” he writes, and bolstered right-wing support for Richard Nixon, the “law and order” candidate. Like so many discussions of protest politics, such arguments are hindered by a slippery definition of “violence” and a historical imagination that extends no further than the 1960s. The armed segments of the U.S. labor movement, Reconstruction, abolition, and even the Revolution itself seem permanently overshadowed by the “nonviolence” with which Martin Luther King Jr. is so closely, if superficially, identified.

And so, in Baltimore five years ago, as riots erupted in response to the death of Freddie Gray in police custody, Wolf Blitzer implored an activist to stick to this familiar script: “I just want to hear you say that there should be peaceful protests, not violent protests, in the tradition of Dr. Martin Luther King.”

Blitzer was especially clumsy, to be sure, but his conflation of “peaceful” and “not violent” is not atypical. However, peace is a quality; nonviolence is a tactic. And as critics have recently noted, it was a tactic calculated to invite and therefore demonstrate the violence of state repression. “Peaceful,” by contrast, is a quality of the protest itself—and one with which police have a great deal to do. As the Oxford English Dictionary tells us, “peaceful” means “free from disturbance, commotion, or strife.”

“Nonviolent direct action,” King wrote in “Letter From a Birmingham Jail,” was designed to “create such a crisis and establish such creative tension that a community that has constantly refused to negotiate is forced to confront the issue.” The point was to disturb the peace, to cause commotion and strife. For this reason, King rarely used the phrase “peaceful protest,” and when he did, he used it strategically, to single out the violence of the protesters’ enemies, not as a name for his own tactics.

So when public intellectuals celebrate “peaceful protest” and chide “rioters,” they are making a politically dubious argument, one that summons the legacy of the civil rights movement and tries to speak in its language. But it’s a half-remembered and inarticulate idiom, like an American ordering dinner in Paris 10 years after passing intermediate French. What becomes routinely lost in this garbled translation is the goals of a demonstration—to disturb and unsettle, to provoke a crisis, to threaten power and compel it to show the violence that sustains it.

The demand to protest peacefully is a trap. When a demonstration becomes “violent”—if a window is broken, a bottle is thrown, or a police car vandalized—then it earns the ire of liberal opinion, which rains down misbegotten invocations of Martin Luther King. When protests remain peaceful, as we are told they should, they are quickly ignored and become a ritualized spectacle, in which even the targets of condemnation can gleefully participate—as the endless videos of dancing police make clear. What good, then, is this “peaceful protest?”

We would do well to remember the ubiquitous chant, “No justice, no peace,” which protesters across the country shouted as they were teargassed. Despite its grammatical directness, it’s a more ambiguous slogan than most. What exactly is the causal link between those two clauses? You might well read it as a kind of moral statement: that without justice, there can be no true peace. This is true enough, but only if you remember that it’s also a warning: Until justice is served, don’t expect any peace.