A Widespread Misunderstanding of Protest

What does it mean to protest the government?

Our understanding of protest has been skewed by many years of peace, and by a sanitized and romanticized nostalgia for the civil rights movement of the 1960s, popularized by both media and the government. When most people think of protest they think of peaceful protest, and when they think of peaceful protest they think of something like a march or a rally, a gathering that is most likely planned beforehand, permitted, and subject to restrictions by the police to make it as safe and non-disruptive as possible. While there’s nothing wrong with peaceful and well-regulated gatherings it’s naive, ahistorical, and ultimately dangerous, to see them as the only legitimate form of protest against injustice.

Injustice naturally engenders anger in those being treated unjustly, and human anger has within it the potential to be vented through violence. On a purely gut level, we all understand this: It’s why we take a step back if someone is screaming in our faces. The most natural form a group of angry people takes is a mob.

Nonviolent protest in the modern world comes to us through Ghandi, and the successful resistance to British colonial rule in India. In America, the inheritor of Ghandi’s nonviolence was Martin Luther King, Jr. and other black clergy who were leaders of the Black Civil Rights Movement. Our most iconic images of that movement are from the March on Washington, which perhaps explains why we conflate protest with nonviolent protest and nonviolent protest with large peaceful gatherings like that one.

However, history is replete with examples of violent protest against injustice. The American Revolution, for example, is a successful violent protest that we should all have more than a passing familiarity with. The Civil Rights Movement as well had moments of great violence, race riots that made white American’s intensely angry and fearful. The nonviolent protests of that era were an alternative and an imperfectly realized ideal. Their success was due in part to the fear of violence that was constantly in the background, and in part because brave nonviolent protesters put their bodies on the line, intentionally drawing a disproportionate and violent response from white authorities that shocked the conscience. If fact, it would be more accurate to call these protests “nonviolent on the part of the protesters” since violence directed toward the protesters was constant, brutal, and essential to their strategy for winning moderate whites over.

Ultimately, I do not believe in rioting, or in “Nazi punching.” I do believe in breaking unjust laws, and sometimes even in well-planned acts of vandalism, property damage, or sabotage, depending on the seriousness of the cause and the specificity of the action. However, I worry that  many years of peace has caused us to conflate protest with nonviolent protest and nonviolent protest with rallies. A rally alone will never be enough to effect change, because at the end of the day everyone goes home and there’s no actual pressure on those in power to listen.

If we don’t understand the potential for violence to break out among people who are being treated unjustly, or if we act as though any act of violence instantly de-legitimizes any potential grievances on the part of the protesters, it just makes violence all the more likely as the pressure builds without release. I personally believe that nonviolent methods are both more morally justifiable and more effective as a means of making change, but I also know they’re not a particularly easy or natural outlet.  If a culture wants to encourage them, it’s not enough to whitewash and romanticize past protest movements, we have to keep in mind the human capacity for violence. We have to recognize and respond to nonviolent measures, praise those who engage in them and give them a platform, and search for solutions to their grievances before violence breaks out, not afterwards.