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Is there really any such thing as a Peaceful Protest?

June 7, 2020

Over the past week, Grand Rapids, like many cities around the country, has seen an incredible outpouring of collective anger directed at the state and in particular, police departments.

The most resistance started in Minneapolis, after someone filmed a cop murder George Floyd. The collective anger in Minneapolis took on many forms, with a growing critique of police brutality, White Supremacy, State violence and the Neo-Liberal Capitalism.

This collective rage then spread across the country, in dozens of cities, even in Grand Rapids. Last Saturday, thousands of people converged on Grand Rapids, demonstrating against state violence, first with an informal rally, then a march and later an uprising that resulted in property destruction and an escalation of GRPD violence.

The City of Grand Rapids then responded by imposing a curfew and bringing in heavily armed soldiers in the form of the National Guard. Since then, the commercial news media and the City of Grand Rapids has hijacked the public narrative to the police murder of George Floyd and so many other black people. 

The narrative is now framed around whether or not the resistance or the protest is peaceful or not. This re-framing of the collective rage against police violence was highlighted last week, when the Grand Rapids Police Chief and other local law enforcement officials took a knee during one of the protests, even going as far as saying, “Black Lives Matter.”

Over the past week, the most common reference in both the general narrative and often in news headlines was the phrase “peaceful protest.” But what exactly does such a phrase mean? It is important for us to us-pack what peaceful protest means and why it is such a problematic phrase.

First, it is important to come to terms with the use of the word peace, which for many people means the absence of conflict. If we think about peace in terms of a protest, then we have to ask ourselves if there is no conflict. The very nature of a protest, whether we are talking about climate change, US militarism or police violence against black people, there is always an inherent conflict. People protest because some injustice has occurred, because they want to express some grievances, grievances often directed at the very institutions were are at the heart of the conflict. Therefore, we can conclude that a protest cannot be peaceful, since there indeed is a conflict.

Second, it is important that we frame the issue of racism, White Supremacy and the police murder of black people through the lens of power. Systems of power, like police departments, have the backing of the legal system, the political system and propaganda systems like news media, popular culture and schooling, all of which present a general narrative that police are necessary and most of them are “good.” All of these systems of power protect and legitimize police and policing. However, police departments are one clear example of structural violence, which we are conditioned to not think about. As Alex Vitale, author of the book, The End of Policing, states:

Well-trained police following proper procedure are still going to be arresting people for mostly low-level offenses, and the burden will continue to fall primarily on communities of color because that is how the system is designed to operate – not because of the biases or misunderstandings of officers.

Third, the presence of police at a protest, means there are people with guns, tasers, mace, clubs, tear gas, rubber bullets and a whole range of other high tech weapons. As anyone who has ever participated in a protest knows, it doesn’t take much for the police to use any number of these weapons. In fact, one could argue that the police are looking for a reason to use such weapons. However, even if they don’t use these weapons, there is always the threat of their use, which means that whenever cops are at a protest it CANNOT be peaceful.

Fourth, calling a protest peaceful, when protests are anything but peaceful, is a way for the system(s) to dictate the narrative about what is happening. When the police say a protest was peaceful, they mean that those protesting obey their orders, did nothing to disrupt business as usual and often it means that protest organizers cooperate and even collaborate with the police. In fact, one could argue that if this happens, then it is not really a protest, instead it becomes a performance. Such forms of “protests” are almost always organized by white liberals to make other white people feel good about themselves, without having to interrogate systems of power and oppression.

Lastly, the GRPD Chief of Police taking a knee during a protest against police killings of black people does nothing more than make a mockery of the countless number of people who are now in the streets, AND, it insults the memory of the black people who have been murdered by cops.

Protest, Tactics and Strategies

Peter Gelderloos, in his important book, How Non-Violence Protects the State, makes this observation:

“Non-violence in the hands of white people has been and continues to be a colonial enterprise.”

Now, it is important that we think about the phrase, “non-violence in hands of white people.” White people have the luxury of organizing peaceful protests, because they generally don’t have to worry about suffering the full force of the state – cops, courts, prisons, etc. White people can preach non-violence, because they often don’t want to disrupt business as usual, since they are the primary beneficiaries of law and order.

At this point, some people will say, but didn’t Dr. King advocate non-violence? Yes, he did, but Dr. King understand the tactical and strategic value of using non-violence to disrupt business as usual – whether it was a boycott, a strike, shutting down roads or engaging in civil disobedience.

However, it is equally important for us to come to terms with the fact that using force, property destruction or armed self-defense can also be employed as tactics and strategies in the struggle for freedom. There have been numerous insurrectionary movements, both in the US and around the world, that have used insurrectionary tactics and strategies to obtain their goals, such as the Black Panther Party for Self-Defense, the Deacons for Defense, the American Indian Movement, the Zapatistas or the African National Congress. The point here is that all forms of protest should be examined and people should not be judged based upon the tactics and strategies that they use.

The State will always use force and violence to maintain order, to maintain business as usual, which really means they will use force or the threat of force to maintain White Supremacy, Capitalism, homophobia, Patriarchy and ecological destruction. What we have to decide is how we will resist such injustices and what tactics/strategies we will use in the process.

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