As is so often the case, this post is inspired by conversations I’ve had over the last several days. The first was with my mother, in Kansas City, who was telling me about a news story in which a man had saved for years and years to start his own business. Only to see that business destroyed during recent riots.
She bemoaned the cruelty of it. She felt bad for the man and decried the rioters. Burning a police station was one thing; she didn’t condone it, but understood. But private businesses? My mom was upset by it and didn’t see what purpose it served or what destroying private property and people’s livelihoods accomplished.
I’ve had similar discussions since then.
My Own Pacifism
While I’ve never been comfortable with violence, as I’ve gotten older and read about “just war” and pacifist theories I’ve come to take a pretty firm position. Killing cannot be truly justified. Violence begets violence.
Some just war theorists who abhor war leave just once exception to their total opposition to it: World War II. I believe Howard Zinn is among them. And while I understand where they are coming from (6 million of my people were murdered), I cannot help but return to the simple truth: violence begets violence.
I remember when it was reported Osama Bin Laden had been found and killed. People all around the world celebrated. Sure, the master-mind behind the attacks on September 11, 2001, was responsible for thousands of deaths. But I couldn’t shake the ill feeling that people were celebrating the murder of another person. I understood why people were celebrating, but rather than being relieved he was dead, I was appalled at the celebration of violence.
And while I haven’t seen anyone celebrating the rioting that’s broken out across the country, the only ones I’ve really seen condemning it are those who would side with the police rather than George Floyd and the communities who have been under threat from law enforcement for decades.
It’s a Societal Problem
Let me state here, for the record, and in the starkest terms, I would never participate in riots that result in destruction of property, injury or death of individuals.
So, while my mom was condemning the rioters for what had happened to the small-business owner, I was a bit surprised to hear myself defend them; “it’s not a police problem, it’s a societal problem.”
I do not condone any of the violence that’s broken out around the country. But I do understand it.
A meme that’s been floating around Facebook sums it up nicely, I think.
Much like with school shootings, our leaders have failed again and again and again to address the very serious woes affecting our country. “Thoughts and prayers” won’t stop oppressed people, who’ve had enough, from setting your shit ablaze.
Until people get that. Until everyone understands, really understands why this keeps happening, riots will continue to plague our society. And school shootings. And abject poverty next to obscene wealth.
“A Riot is the Language of the Unheard”
Since breaking out across the country, many have referenced a quote from Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. to, it seems to me, justify the riots. Quotes can be powerful tools for inspiring the masses and motivating action. And the moral beacon Dr. King continues to be the world is reason enough to look to his words for wisdom and guidance.
Knowing Dr. King to be a principled man dedicated to non-violence, I was a little stunned to see this quote from him. In the context of the current affairs, it would seem this statement would put him standing next to the rioters. Finding this surprising, I went looking for the quote and its proper context.
It turns out, this is one line buried in a speech he gave on April 14, 1967, to Stanford University titled “The Other America” (you can find a transcript here). So, because context matters, here’s the portion of the speech that includes his quote:
Let me say as I’ve always said, and I will always continue to say, that riots are socially destructive and self-defeating. I’m still convinced that nonviolence is the most potent weapon available to oppressed people in their struggle for freedom and justice. I feel that violence will only create more social problems than they will solve. That in a real sense it is impracticable for the Negro to even think of mounting a violent revolution in the United States. So I will continue to condemn riots, and continue to say to my brothers and sisters that this is not the way. And continue to affirm that there is another way.
But at the same time, it is as necessary for me to be as vigorous in condemning the conditions which cause persons to feel that they must engage in riotous activities as it is for me to condemn riots. I think America must see that riots do not develop out of thin air. Certain conditions continue to exist in our society which must be condemned as vigorously as we condemn riots. But in the final analysis, a riot is the language of the unheard.
And what is it that America has failed to hear? it has failed to hear that the plight of the Negro poor has worsened over the last few years. It has failed to hear that the promises of freedom and justice have not been met. And it has failed to hear that large segments of white society are more concerned about tranquility and the status quo than about justice, equality, and humanity. And so in a real sense our nations summers of riots are caused by our nation’s winters of delay. And as long as America postpones justice, we stand in the position of having these recurrences of violence and riots over and over again. Social justice and progress are the absolute guarantors of riot prevention.
1967 to 2020: History Repeating Itself
We have not solved our country’s racial divisions. In fact, it feels like they’ve gotten wider over the last few years. Or, at least, it feels like the racists and fascists have gotten louder, if not larger in number.
Add to this racial division the growing and glaring economic inequality we’re experiencing and it’s a recipe for strife. The U.S. has been for some time a powder keg. The terrible murder of George Floyd was the match.
Dr. King’s words rung as true then as they do now. There are gaping inequalities in this country and as long as they are ignored by our leaders and our society, these riots will continue to flair up.
It’s long past time we not only hear but listen. And take action.
I, like Dr. King, cannot condone or compliment those who have taken to the streets. But I understand why they have. I sympathize. All of us, collectively, have failed to force change.