The problem with wanting ‘peace’ in Baltimore

Peace disgusts me.

Let me clarify.

We all want peace. Even in the prison system, where I often work with people who have committed serious acts of violence and who are very comfortable using violence — people want peace in their lives.

But calls for people to be “peaceful” in the face of the most recent police killing infuriate me. The calls for “peace” that act as a euphemism for “stop protesting” sickens me. When law enforcement and politicians tell people to protest “peacefully” as a way of saying “stop being so mad,” it repulses me. The gross and dangerous misunderstanding that people have of the concept of “peace” disgusts me.

In 1956, a young woman named Autherine Lucy became the first black student enrolled in the University of Alabama. From the first moment she stepped foot on campus, there was violence. People rioted. And in response, the school expelled her, blaming her for inciting the violence. The next day, with Autherine expelled from campus, the riots stopped. The local newspaper ran a headline that read, “Things are quiet in Tuscaloosa today. There is peace on the campus of the University of Alabama.”

And that peace disgusts me.

People too often associate “peace” with quiet, with calm, with candles and kumbaya. People too often understand “peace” simply as the absence of tension. And that is a problem.

In a sermon he gave in response to the incident, Marin Luther King Jr. described this peace as a “negative peace.” A false peace, the simple absence of violence that came at the expense of justice.

It is this understanding of peace that allows people to justify going to war to create peace. “If we just kill all the bad people, then we will have peace.” It is this understanding of peace that allows us to justify mass incarceration to create peace. “If we just lock up all the bad people, then we will have peace.” And it is this understanding of peace that allows people to demand “peace” from the Black Lives Matter movement. “If the protesters would just stop yelling, we would have peace.”

And it’s true, if all we want is the quiet, calm, polite “negative peace.” If all the protests stopped, Baltimore would be quieter and calmer than it has been recently. If we simply arrested all the protesters, Baltimore would be “peaceful.” But as King reminded us, “This is the type of peace that all men of goodwill hate. It is the type of peace that is obnoxious. It is the type of peace that stinks in the nostrils of the Almighty God.”

Yes, these protests are loud. Yes, there is tension in the streets. Yes, the marches are disruptive. And that’s the point.

Peace is a messy process. Justice is loud. If people think that building “peace” in a society as violent as the United States is a neat, calm and pretty process, they are in for a surprise.

Yes, there has been violence in the streets of Baltimore. And as a trainer and practitioner of Kingian Nonviolence, I don’t think breaking windows is the most effective tactic. However, it infuriates me each time I hear some talking head denouncing the violence and criminalizing the protesters who are in the streets.

Yes, windows have been broken and police cars have been smashed. But in Kingian Nonviolence, we teach that all conflict has history, and we typically only see the moment that the conflict erupts. We have a tendency to look only at the moment of eruption to try to understand what is happening. Sometimes, a conflict has days or weeks of history that we don’t see before it erupts. And sometimes, a conflict builds for 500 years before erupting. What is happening in Baltimore is the result of 500 years of systemic racism and violence. Much like Autherine Lucy being accused of inciting violence, accusing the protesters of violence is ignoring the much larger systems of violence that they are responding to.

The actions that the protesters have been engaged in are a response to that violence. The violence of police brutality. The violence of poverty. The violence of structural racism. People are fed up, and their actions are not violent as much as they are actually a cry for peace — the positive peace that only comes about through justice. It is the deep yearning and desire for peace and justice that is moving people into the streets.

Former Baltimore Ravens star Ray Lewis recently implored the protesters to “stop the violence.” Ironically, that’s exactly what the protesters are trying to do. They are the warriors fighting for peace in a society that seemingly doesn’t honor the value of their lives. They are the ones who are sick of the violence.

I am a trainer and a practitioner of nonviolence. I believe that nonviolence is the most effective way to create change, and the only way to create “beloved community,” the reconciled world with justice for all that King lived and died for. But just as with the concept of “peace,” “nonviolence” is a highly misunderstood concept.

Extreme forms of violence call for extreme forms of nonviolent responses. And nonviolence can be as loud, as unsettling, and as assertive as violence. King called for a movement that was “nonviolent, but militant, and as dramatic, as dislocative, as disruptive, as attention-getting as the riots.” So if people think King would have called for “calm” in Baltimore, they would be sadly mistaken. And if those calling for “peaceful protests” are hoping for calm, quiet, neat and orderly marches, they do not understand the dynamics of violence or peace.

Less than a month before he was assassinated, King said, “It is not enough for me to stand before you tonight and condemn riots. It would be morally irresponsible for me to do that without, at the same time, condemning the contingent, intolerable conditions that exist in our society. These conditions are the things that cause individuals to feel that they have no other alternative than to engage in violent rebellions to get attention. And I must say tonight that a riot is the language of the unheard.”

The biggest misunderstanding that exists of nonviolence is that it means simply to “not be violent.” You can watch someone get beaten and killed right in front of you and not do anything to help, and you would be “not violent.” You can watch police get away with murder after murder and not take a stand, and you would be “not violent.” However, true nonviolence is about taking a stand against violence and trying to transform unjust situations. A riot, as inarticulate as it may be, is an attempt to transform unjust situations. It is the cry of a people who have been unheard for generations. And it’s time we listen.

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