Is Effective Nonviolent Protest Still Possible in the 21st Century?

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Riots broke out again this week, this time in Baltimore, where protesters spent several days peacefully demonstrating against the death of Freddie Gray, a young African-American man who died in police custody.

The civil rights movement achieved great success using the philosophy of nonviolence, but some commentators this week are disregarding that heritage. “I think we should be more strategic in how we riot,” said pundit Marc Lamont Hill during CNN’s coverage of the violence.

Is nonviolent protest still possible and effective in this day and age? What are the alternatives? Joel Mathis and Ben Boychuk consider the issue.

JOEL MATHIS

During the tea party’s early days, white Republicans scared of increases in the marginal tax rate carried guns to rallies, along with signs bearing a favorite Thomas Jefferson quote: “The tree of liberty must be refreshed from time to time with the blood of patriots and tyrants.” The implication was clear: President Obama was (and is) a tyrant, and perhaps armed and violent revolution would be justified as a result.

My, how things have changed.

You can certainly argue the people of Baltimore really are striking back against a repressive regime. The city paid out $5.7 million to victims of police brutality between 2011 and 2014, with more than 100 people winning judgments or settlements after alleging civil rights violations. The death of Freddie Gray in police custody wasn’t an isolated incident, but merely the latest provocation of a broken police culture that has provided no shortage of them.

“When nonviolence is preached by the representatives of the state, while the state doles out heaps of violence to its citizens, it reveals itself to be a con,” Ta-Nehisi Coates wrote at The Atlantic this week, in a blog post widely cited on the left. “And none of this can mean that rioting or violence is ‘correct’ or ‘wise,’ any more than a forest fire can be ‘correct’ or ‘wise.’ ”

He’s right about the hypocrisy of the state. But he’s off-base with his forest fire analogy.

A forest fire is not human. It does not have agency. It cannot choose between right and wrong. It merely spreads. People who commit violence — no matter the justification for their anger — don’t get to have that excuse, not least because their undirected anger so often damages and destroys black neighborhoods and businesses while leaving intact the power structure that provoked their anger.

A forest fire cannot be incorrect. But a rioter is almost always unwise.

The people of Baltimore deserve their rage. (And, in truth, peaceful protesters have far outnumbered the rioters.) The problem? Lawsuits and peaceful, official attempts at reform have proved insufficient to change the broken culture…

BEN BOYCHUK

My friend Joel Mathis compares apples with blood oranges. A few tea party protesters — not exclusively white, by the way — showed up to rallies lawfully bearing arms. Nobody was shot, stabbed or beaten. The demonstrators didn’t turn over cars, loot businesses or burn down pharmacies. In fact, they often left rally sites cleaner than when they showed up.

But remember what happened next: The tea partiers put away their (few) rifles, put down their bullhorns and picket signs, and took on the much harder task of organizing themselves politically.

The contrast couldn’t be more obvious. We’re told peaceful demonstrators outnumbered rioters in Baltimore. So what? Anything noble or right about the protests over the unexplained death of Freddie Gray at the hands of Baltimore police burned down along with that senior center.

At some point, our liberal friends and fellow citizens need to take a good, hard look not only at the “repressive regime” they themselves endorse and helped build, but the culture that’s festering around it.

According to the Baltimore Sun, at least 12 people have been killed since Gray was arrested on April 12. Homicides are up 23 percent over the same period last year. Is the “repressive regime” to blame?

Or is it the lousy public schools? The awful public housing? Bad cops? How about the perennial scapegoat, “society”?

“Every society but ours knew two things about boys and young men,” writes Anthony Esolen, a professor of English at Providence College, author of Ten Ways to Destroy the Imagination of Your Child, and one of the few serious moral thinkers writing today. “They are dangerous. They are dynamic. Those are really flip sides of the same coin. It is absolutely necessary to socialize them, so that they don’t destroy everything.”

We no longer know these things. We’ve either deliberately forgotten or we’ve insisted that those facts of life are no longer operative. We’d better start remembering.

You can bet the majority of rioters in Baltimore — and Ferguson, Oakland and so on — grew up without fathers. You can bet they’re casualties of a War on Poverty that has no strategy for victory. And you can bet Baltimore’s riots won’t be the last.