Speaking just weeks before his assassination, which catalyzed rioting across America, Martin Luther King offered his thoughts, saying:
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.
If there’s any question—in this time of deep spending cuts and high unemployment—as to whether the same can be said about the riots plaguing parts of London these past four days, one need only look at where they are occurring.
In the following map, published by The Guardian earlier today, the riots are clearly taking place in the poorest areas of London (represented by the dark red), indicating that the spark-plug has more to do with the staggering economy than anything else. Nevertheless, the racism and police violence must not be overlooked, as they are all part of the same dysfunctional system.
None of this is to excuse the violence, which has ruined many small businesses and resulted in injuries, as well as death. But something can be both inexcusable and understandable.
It’s at this point that some might say it’s too late for nonviolence—that it couldn’t ultimately supplant the rioting now going on. But King actually had the experience of such a transformation occurring when he visited Watts shortly after the riots in 1965. As he wrote in his autobiography:
What I emphasized is that, in spite of all of the hostility that some Negroes felt, and as violent and destructive as the mood temporarily became, it was not yet a blind and irredeemable condition. The people of Watts were hostile to nonviolence, but when we actually went to them and emphasized the dangers of hatred and violence, the same people cheered. Only minutes before the air had been thick with tension, but when they were reminded of the Rev. James Reeb and Viola Luizzo, the martyrs of the Selma campaign, they cheered the thought that white people can and do cooperate with us in our search for jobs and dignity.
Then again a year later in Chicago—a city brimming with segregation, poverty and violence.
After the riot in Chicago last summer, I was greatly discouraged. But we had trained a group of about two thousand disciplined devotees of nonviolence who were willing to take blows without retaliating. We started out engaging in constitutional privileges, marching before real estate offices in all-white communities. And that nonviolent, disciplined, determined force created such a crisis in the city of Chicago that the city had to do something to change conditions. We didn’t have any Molotov cocktails, we didn’t have any bricks, we didn’t have any guns, we just had the power of our bodies and our souls. There was power there, and it was determined once more.
There are signs of hope in London through the peaceful acts of those who have been organizing cleanups through Twitter and Facebook. According to the Daily Telegraph:
An online campaign, Clean Up London, (Riotcleanup) had 27,500 followers on Twitter by mid-morning on Tuesday, as it instructed people to congregate to remove the glass and bricks strewn across the streets of the city.
But these Londoners will have to do more with their sense of civic pride than merely clean up the streets—they must clean up the filth of the economic system that bred these conditions. As King noted, “It must be remembered that genuine peace is not the absence of tension, but the presence of justice.”
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Jack, thank you for this wonderful comment. So very thoughtful. I think you highlighted something that I struggled to express. When I say the rioting is understandable, I’m trying to speak to those who would dismiss it entirely as just irrational hooliganism, which is what the prime minister, the mayor of London and people in the media are saying. While that may be accurate in some instances, I’m more concerned with the other instances—the ones that are clearly related to economic injustice, and therefore something we as a global society have a hand, if not a stake, in. And I believe that is what King is getting at.
If you read the rest of the speech I cite at the beginning or the chapters of his autobiography I cite toward the end, you’ll see several instances where he buffers his moments of understanding with a clear statement that he does not support rioting. Understanding is not the same thing as supporting. Understanding is taking the time to find out why people engage in a certain action. From there, that action can be criticized, which is exactly what I did. Of course I’m going to criticize violence. I don’t believe it to be right or effective.
But for King, it all comes back to this point: “A mere condemnation of violence is empty without understanding the daily violence that our society inflicts upon its members.”
True, we are talking about different societies—1960’s America verses 2010’s Britain. But I don’t think we are in a position to say that because one is presumably more advanced than the other that injustice isn’t occurring. We must be mindful of that, particularly when the evidence does point toward economic disparity as a source of the unrest.
So that was the distinction I was trying to make. But I realize it can be like treading on thin ice to say that violence is understandable. Another way to look at it, would be to say that it’s understandable that there was an Iraqi insurgency against the US-led invasion. But supporting it, again, is another thing. I would never support an insurgency because I know that nonviolence is more likely to succeed and result in fewer deaths in the process.
In any case, I appreciate the opportunity to make myself more clear. I hope I’ve done that.
Furthermore, and I think you probably got this from what I was saying (but again, just to be clear), my purpose of reiterating King’s line that “riot is the language of the unheard” is not to say that riots are therefore a just response to being ignored. I see it as a neutral statement of fact from which we can talk about a more effective and just means of resistance. That is why I included the video of the Egyptian activist criticizing the riots.
Bryan, thanks. This is one of those instances in which I think it’s important to take a radical, even principled stand against what I see as a potential breach in the wall of refusing to tolerate offensive violence, which is what the London rioting certainly is. I’m not a pacifist, as I’ve said many times, and I’d use violence as a last resort in self-defense, whether personal or civilizational. But I believe that one of my chief tasks, as a promoter of nonviolent resistance as a way to fight for rights or other worthy political or social goals, is to break down the false enchantment with or romanticism about insurrectionary violence that — because of the age-old human default belief in the justifiability of violence in so many categories of cases — disinhibits violence.
In the wake of global news about riots in a world capital in which outright criminal behavior has reached lavish proportions, to begin our discussion by contextualizing the riots by reference to unfortunate living conditions faced by the rioters is to risk turning our political and moral responsibility on its head: It may implicitly elevate the plight of the rioters above the plight of other citizens living in the same communities who’ve suffered from the violence, and indeed above everyone else in the same society who is on the receiving end of social violence, as if it were possible to diminish violence purely through palliative methods.
Civil resistance or even “nonviolence” is not a way to palliate violence, it’s a way to replace it altogether with a different mode of political and social action, to the extent that what might motivate violence is some concern for political and social problems. But to assume that rioting displays such concern is to attribute motives to actions that cannot be known in the midst of such violence, except on the basis of a handful of mainstream-media man-on-the-street interviews motivated primarily, as Al Giordano has said, by the media’s desire to broadcast riot porn.
If you are saying, however, that there is some sort of public responsibility for social conditions that should motivate us to have sympathy for rioters because we should assume they are acting, knowingly or unknowingly, to express concern for the conditions of their lives, then it seems to me that you are saying that Society and the State must intervene to pre-empt social violence by trying to remove conditions we assume will lead to social violence. But that, I’d argue, relieves social actors of responsibility for their acts even before the full causal basis for those acts can be known.
Nonviolent resistance is always taken up by self-responsible, self-organized individual actors who develop plans and strategies for taking collective action intended to reach concrete goals, and to force states and institutions to accept those goals. It comes from below, not from above. I’d argue that the contextualization of any rioting as potentially “understandable” on the basis of social grievances is based on transferring responsibility to Society, which is to say, functionally, to the State (or the “system” or the “Machine”), from the individual. It doesn’t support the case for civil resistance, it undermines it, by looking to the state and to institutions of social intervention rather than to political self-responsibility, manifested in self-organizing and resistance, as the mechanism of forcing redress of explicit grievances or, indeed, of reconstructing society altogether, as often if slowly happens when an authoritarian system is replaced by a democratic system.
The day after September 11, 2001, the airwaves and op-ed pages were full of talking-heads and articles claiming that terrorism was an expression of social and political discontent, and had to be “understood” as such. To demand, right after the wholesale slaughter of innocents, that the deeper motives of those who committed the slaughter needed to be “understood” was to dilute the need at that moment to refuse to grant any legitimacy to such violence. A few days after 9/11, I made a presentation at an Australian university about nonviolent resistance. A subsequent speaker, a radical left environmentalist, said that he approved of the 9/11 attacks because “flying airplanes into buildings was a creative act of protest,” expressing understanding of the oppression by imperialism that had allegedly motivated the attacks.
At a minimum, I’d argue that right at the moment when gratuitous violence is being committed against innocent people and their places of employment is not the time to consider whether their grievances might be understandable. When King spoke about the riots in American cities, there had already been three years of such riots, a presidential commission examining conditions in the neighborhoods, and thousands of trees cut down to publish books on the subject. While I still disagree with his formulation that a “riot is the language of the unheard” as a general proposition in a democracy, at least he was speaking in the context of a well-developed national conversation about the entire subject. I’m not opposed to such a conversation, but it must begin with a categorical refusal to relieve violent actors for their individual responsibility for violent acts.
Finally, while it is true in an abstract sense that there is a distinction between making a value judgment about an action and offering an empirical account of what caused that action, it seems to me that to defend a request for “understanding the causes” of rioting, by saying that there is a distinction between approving an act and understanding its cause, is to make an assumption that speculating about the possibility of a “deeper” cause which may “explain” violent acts will not distract the public debate from the need to demand accountability for violence. Otherwise how would it be possible to say that rioters have full responsibility for acts which may have been autonomic responses to “conditions” for which they were not responsible? Is our first public responsibility at a time like this to try to explain ancillary factors in social violence apart from individual responsibility for violent acts, or to disenjoin and delegitimize the violence?
Jack, thank you so much for your comments in this discussion. They’ve been really, really meaty, and raise very clarifying points. Let me add two bits of my own.
First, the direction you go in at the end here, about accountability for the rioters. I think you’re posing a false either-or here between structural causes and human decisions. Both can be a part of the discussion without one ruling the other out. (Cf., in philosophical discussions of free will, the current majority position of “compatibilism” between libertarianism and determinism.) To say that there are reasons influencing my actions doesn’t mean that those reasons fully account for my actions, much less justify them. In his post, Bryan addressed this implicitly by bringing up the case of Egypt: clearly, other people in the world are finding more constructive ways of dealing with injustice. I think both you and he are saying, in different ways, that the evidence of nonviolent action in places like Egypt is all the more a reason to condemn rioting. But it doesn’t necessarily follow from that to say that we should not try to understand what factors brought this about. That seems to verge on a kind of willful blindness—though I trust that is not what you’re calling for here.
Second, the matter of structural violence. I’m concerned that your “principled” position in this case might lead you to overlook the fact that the rioters are not the only ones committing acts of violence. This is not solely a case of violent rioters against innocents. The kind of understanding Bryan is calling for is a recognition that there was already violence happening in English cities, though it was being ignored—the violence of poverty, mistreatment by police, racism, and so forth. The riots participate in this larger system, a system of violence and massive power imbalance. Doing so does not, again, mean blaming the riots fully on “the system,” or what have you. It is merely asking what seems to me a very sensible question: What violence were we not noticing before that these riots are revealing?
I don’t see why one can’t ask that kind of question while also asking, “How could that structural violence be dealt with more effectively, with more dignity, so as to bring out the best in human nature rather than the worst?” In fact, one can only answer the latter once one has a grasp of the former. Mary King’s post today addresses this, as did Bryan. And because this kind of “understanding” is vital to developing alternative approaches to the conflict, I’d disagree with you that the discussion should be put off until a later time. It is profoundly urgent.
As for 9/11, I do think one can condemn the violence of the attacks while also recognizing that certain behaviors on the part of the US—like maintaining a strong military presence in countries around the world and thereby meddling in their affairs—made it more likely that someone might do something like that. It’s kind of obvious. There’s no need to conflate this sort of sensible position with approval of the attacks as either a creative or morally justified protest tactic.
Nathan, I love your writing and your thoughtful insights on so many subjects, but alas we profoundly disagree on all the points you’ve raised above. So I won’t stint on candor.
First, I didn’t say there was an “either-or…between structural causes and human decisions.” I said, to use your terms, that if “structural causes” were raised as a speculative reason for violence while the violence is still occurring or just after it has been committed, that could well distract the public debate at that time from the urgent business of the society, which is to make absolutely certain that the society rejects the use of violence for any political or social purpose, including any equivalent for an act of speech. Violence is not an alternative to “being unheard.” Defining it that way accepts its propriety. If a society misses the opportunity of just-committed wholesale violence to make clear its intention to severely penalize individual violent acts, it is not serious about stopping violence. In our cacophonous, media-saturated societies, it is hard enough getting people’s attention even for an existential public message, and my view is that there is no more important such message to be sent in our time than that acts of violence are never to be condoned, excused or left unpenalized.
Second, by saying that rioting is part of a social fabric that includes “the violence of poverty, mistreatment by police, racism, and so forth,” you are implicitly precluding the ability of the community, expressed through its institutions of justice, to find violent public acts to have been criminal, because under such a definition of violence, why would looting a store be thought criminal if the looter had experienced a racist act which may not be criminal? If you diffuse the definition of violence to include even exploitative or discriminatory behavior which is not physically violent, you open the door to seeing some sort of parity between the kind of violence that has been penalized severely since the origin of English common law, indeed since the laws of the Roman Republic, and a new definition of violence including acts which still do not trigger criminal penalties in most societies (though, fortunately, new laws against hate crimes are a step in that direction). I think that could implicitly lighten the social disgrace and perceived inexcusable nature of physical violence. If you cannot democratically persuade the public to penalize formally such “structural” violence, then there is no functional equivalence, except as a sociological thesis.
Third, I did not say that one cannot ask how unjust, abusive or discriminatory social conditions can be addressed. They are addressed every day by progressive legislators and elected executives in many of the world’s democracies, and as someone who has worked, contributed to, and written for such leaders, I’d be the last person to say that such problems shouldn’t be addressed. But to do so does not require constructing what I think is a false equivalence, between physical violence and social abuses, however profound. I think that such an equivalence would inhibit the critical moral and political work of disenjoining physical violence. It is physical insurrectionary violence which derails nonviolent change, and physical repressive violence which delays it. These forms of violence represent the great immediate worldwide problem which is inhibiting the development of democracy and peace where those conditions would make it far easier to correct the kinds of social abuses you cite. I am less concerned with the timing of how societies debate and deal with “structural violence” than I am about making sure that no public excuse or sympathetic “understanding” of physical violence interfere with the latter’s thunderously clear rejection by the society.
On the issue of 9/11, I do not think it is “obvious” that “one can condemn the violence of the attacks while also recognizing that certain behaviors on the part of the US—like maintaining a strong military presence in countries around the world and thereby meddling in their affairs—made it more likely that someone might do something like that.” Really? Using airplanes with terrified civilian passengers aboard, to kill 3,000 civilians in buildings in New York City, was made “more likely” by American military bases in Kuwait or Diego Garcia? Does that make 9/11 “understandable”? Or is this just another indictment of American imperialism? There’s nothing wrong with such an indictment, but make it directly. Don’t make it by somehow suggesting that there might be a relationship between that misguided and damaging national-security policy, and one of the most gratuitous, insane and horrific acts of violence in the past half century. That supposed causal connection was explicitly proposed, by the way, by Osama bin Laden himself, and repeated ad nauseum by Zawahiri and his other henchmen for a decade — because they knew it would rally rhetorical support among critics of the United States everywhere, and so it did — and made the work of suppressing real terrorism slightly less well-supported in some quarters. But debating terrorism is another subject.
You can see from these comments that I feel strongly about the work of building higher civic and social ramparts against any belief in the justifiability of violence, and I believe it’s important to err on the side of wanting to deprive it of any sympathy or understanding. By the way, let’s be aware of both meanings of “understanding.” I don’t like the use of that word in regard to discussing the causal factors behind violence, because it doesn’t just imply the knowledge that one gathers, it also implies having a measure of tolerance for a person or acceptance of a motive, as in “I understand him” or “I understand why he did that.” Tolerance of violence, however one might define violence, is what we need to breed (and not bleed) out of our human proclivities.
Final thought: I think this is a disagreement about means and not ends. We’re aiming at the same kind of eventual, nonviolent and just society. We disagree about how best to respond to large acts of violence that have to be metabolized in public experience and reflected in political judgments about what to do correctively and when to do it. Thanks…