Activism

Should Protestors Embrace Violence?

The question of violent versus nonviolent protest has bedeviled movements for decades.

Photo Credit: Alyssa Figueroa, AlterNet.org

Hours after a New York City grand jury decided not to press charges against police officers who killed Eric Garner using a chokehold and leaving him unable to breathe, Benjamin Carr, his stepfather, walked out of the prosecutor’s office and had to calm down another black man who was waiting for him, enraged over the grand jury’s decision.

“I was right there. I was there, Mr. Garner, every step of the way... it's wrong,” he cried, as a WNYC radio reporter’s tape recorder rolled. Carr tried to interrupt, quietly saying, "Okay. I'm on it... Let’s keep the peace. Let’s keep the peace.”

Across the country, as was the case in Ferguson, Missouri, when a grand jury announced days before that the white officer who killed Michael Brown also would escape charges, there were protesters who would not keep the peace. Businesses were burned. And as protests mounted across the country, such as in Berkeley, California, more violence ensued.

On Saturday, Berkeley police rioted first, viciously attacking protesters. Some protesters, young men, then vandalized chain stores. A day later, hours after a protest began where hundreds of people marched peacefully, a dozen or so young white men led a second vandalism spree. Before the next night’s march, organizer Yvette Felarca defended their reactions as a legitimate expression of rage.

“You cannot never replace the life of Michael Brown and Eric Garner, but windows can always be replaced,” she said, using a megaphone to address a campus plaza filled with marchers. “Who do we hold responsible for inciting riots? The DA and the murdering police, who are the true people who could end all of this right now by jailing these killer cops!”

As the national movement to end racist policing grows, a question that has bedeviled protesters for generations emerges: should protesters be completely nonviolent, use civil disobedience—such as defying police orders and lying down in the street—or use lower levels of force, such as property damage, to make their point and get results?

“This is the issue that pretty much tears everybody apart,” said Cynthia Morse, a longtime Berkeley resident and protester, sitting outside a courtroom in Oakland, California on Monday, where a half-dozen demonstrators arrested during the weekend were to be arraigned. She was speaking of present and past protests, such as during 2011’s Occupy movement, when small bands of vandals also struck.

“The smashy-smashy—that’s what we call it—strangers coming in,” said Morse, who is white, explaining that protest veterans can spot these elements. During Occupy, some were assumed to be police recruits because they arrived by subway, had new clothes and started throwing rocks. Others, such as the so-called “anarchists,” who were photographed vandalizing stores this past Sunday, are a different breed.

“Skinny white kids is what they are: coming from all over the country; homeless; need something to do. They start to show up. And then there’s homegrown people who want to attack capitalism this way,” Morse said. “There’s also the very valid point that without the cops behaving the way they do, there probably would be very little of that. Nobody would come here to fight the cops if the cops weren’t attacking.” 

Morse’s observations reflect the complex dynamics facing a growing national movement. The debate over violent versus non-violent tactics is not new. In fact, the use of violence used to be worse. In the 1970s in California, political bombings were routine. In short, fringe violence probably cannot be controlled. But protesters and their leaders who endorse a role for low-level violence—as is now the case in Berkeley—are using a different strategy, and one with specific risks, experts say.

First, the movements that embrace violent expressions of anger risk losing the moral high ground that comes from not using force, nonviolence proponents say. They also run the risk of giving defenders of the status-quo in media and politics an excuse to change the subject to those outbursts, ignoring the protesters' core demands. These dynamics can be seen in Berkeley, just as they have been seen in recent years in other high-profile protests. 

“Nothing weakens a nonviolent movement more than the sporadic use of violence by people on its side of the barriers,” writes AForceMorePowerful.org, offering its analysis of aggressive tactics used in Seattle in 1999’s global trade deal protests. “That discourages ordinary civilians from joining the ranks, and distracts the media and the public from the injustice or other grievances that the movement wants corrected.”

But history shows that nonviolent movements often take many years to make a difference. Meanwhile, on streets across America where protests against racist politicing and excessive force are continuing, there is great impatience.

The man who told Eric Garner’s stepfather that he saw the killing, heard Ben Carr’s plea for peace. He replied, “Where we headed for? What's the future for me? What's the future for me? You know what I'm saying, for my child, for my son? What is his future?”

And in Berkeley, the young organizers of protests to end racist policing are equally impatient.

“We will not accept this anymore. It is time that we build this new movement that is growing across the nation,” Felarca said Monday, speaking to hundreds who had gathered to march. “Because if people in a small town called Ferguson can fight the way that they have fought, over and over again, that will inspire. It has already inspired people across the nation, including us, right here in Berkeley.”

Berkeley’s Organzers Endorse All Tactics

Felarca is with By Any Means Necessary (BAMN), a group that is also organizing in Detroit, Ferguson and a handful of other cities. In recent days, she and other BAMN leaders refused to condemn the vandalism that occurred on the fringes of their marches.   

“To those who are concerned about what has happened in Berkeley over the past couple of nights, to those who are concerned about downtown Oakland and a few windows getting broken, I want to clear that on the air right now,” she said. “BAMN agrees with the words of Martin Luther King that a riot is the language and the voice of the unheard,” she said, prompting cheers.

But moments later, a young African-American woman took the megaphone to made the opposite point.

“I want to say that this is a nonviolent protest. It is a peaceful protest,” she said, also prompting cheers. “I was beaten on Saturday night and please respect that... If you see any agitators, if you see any anarchists wearing black masks, please pay attention to them and call them out. Because they will try to incite a riot.”

Later that night, after protesters did not storm a barricade in front of the Berkeley Police Department, a black man told a bank of cameras, “We were defeated tonight. We need to unite as a people. If you want a peaceful protest, text it from your house or tweet it. But we are here to make a difference. We are here to fight for our constitutional rights, not for white or for black, but our constitutional right as a people.” 

The protests that night included an estimated 2,000 people and shut parts of Interstate 80 for over an hour, ending when more than 200 people were arrested by a mix of state and local police. The next day, the protesters were planning to march and overwhelm a Berkeley City Council meeting to demand that police who rioted on Saturday night be held to account. But by midday, Mayor Tom Bates announced that meeting would be “rescheduled” for another date. Outside the municipal building, two city councilmen announced they would demand an investigation of the police riot.

What Will Police And Politicians Do Next?

It is clear to anyone who has watched footage of Berkeley police during their crackdown on protesters Saturday that abusive policing is a local and national issue. But the decision to postpone a public meeting to air the issues raises another disturbing question: what will government do next to stymie the protesters or even shut down their growing movement? There are dark precedents, starting with law enforcement’s layered attack on the Occupy movement, which, like today’s racial justice movement, was a large civil disobedience action marred by some vandalism on its fringe.

A 2013 investigative report by the Center for Media and Democracy documented how police targeted and sought to discredit the Occupy movement. In short, the police saw organizers as domestic terrorists.  

“The pattern that emerges from these pages shows that heavily funded municipal, county, state and federal ‘counter-terrorism’ agencies (often acting in concert through state/regional 'fusion centers') view citizens engaged in movements of political and social dissent, such as Occupy Wall Street (and its regional incarnations), as nothing less than nascent, if not bona-fide, ‘terrorist’ threats,” its report said.

CMD used the federal Freedom of Information Act to get documents that showcase police goals and tactics. It found spying on Occupy protesters, using undercover cops to infiltrate events and encourage or incite violence, which, in turn, created a pretense for uniformed officers to crack down. The report found that corporations targeted by Occupy willingly cooperated, including fabricating evidence to help the police arrest people “in order to facilitate prosecutions and cover their own actions.”

As protests continue across the country, the question of the government response looms large. While protesters hope their actions will spark needed institutional reform in police departments and the criminal justice system, the cops are likely to be on another wavelength, pondering next steps in protest hot spots like Berkeley and elsewhere in America. In Berkeley, local police reeled in their tactics after Saturday's debacle. But other police agencies threatened to ratchet up their use of force.

A high-ranking California Highway Patrol officer said early Tuesday that he would ask county prosecutors to increase the criminal charges and bail amounts for anyone arrested blocking traffic. Later, the CHP fired smoke bombs and beanbags at protesters at one highway, and smashed the camera of the San Francisco Chronicle’s photographer, the paper reported.

On Wednesday night in nearby Oakland, a white undercover cop was photographed pulling and pointing a gun at a protester—and the photographer—before arresting a black protester, another sign of how police tactics are not changing.

In the absence of public and responsible political responses, one can only wonder what the police might do to try to stifle or shut down ongoing demonstrations. That is entirely apart from what protesters are hoping for, which is altering the policies and procedures that result in racist policing and excessive force.

The debate over the use of nonviolent and violent tactics will continue. The embrace of low-level violence by protest organizers in Berkeley is a gambit. Only time will tell if it will yield desired results—real institutional change—or become a pretext for the police and mainstream media to undermine and discredit their critical new movement.     

Don't let big tech control what news you see. Get more stories like this in your inbox, every day.

Steven Rosenfeld is a senior writing fellow of the Independent Media Institute, where he covers national political issues. He is the author of several books on elections, most recently Democracy Betrayed: How Superdelegates, Redistricting, Party Insiders, and the Electoral College Rigged the 2016 Election (March 2018, Hot Books).