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Does Violence Achieve More Change Than Peaceful Protests?

Jamal is a graduate of Northeastern Seminary and writes on a broad range of topics. His writings are based on other points of view.

Courtesy of SEBASTIAN SILVA/EFE/ZUMA PRESS during the 2019 Chile protests turn riots.

Courtesy of SEBASTIAN SILVA/EFE/ZUMA PRESS during the 2019 Chile protests turn riots.

I was watching a podcast last week after the conviction of a former police officer Derek Chauvin for the murder of George Floyd last year. They were talking about if things were really going to change now that the jury had found a bad cop guilty of breaking the law by killing a Black man. While most of them were wary, one of them straight up said 'no' because the change had to be in society and not in the laws. More specifically though he said, “violence works”.

This was a statement that hit all the spots: it was obvious, it was cringe-worthy, it was regrettable, it was justified. More specifically, the podcaster said that the reason for his statement was that nothing had been done after Floyd’s death until the riots broke out and probably when the police station was burned down.

In his view, the jury had enough of seeing neighborhoods torn apart over a bad ruling. Especially when it was bluntly obvious to everyone what went down. So they convicted Chauvin on of all charges to avoid another riot.

What came to my mind was the Rodney King riots in LA back in 1992. Not the first riot to happen in an urban center, but arguably the first to occur over a bad ruling of a police officer. It certainly set an unfortunate and volatile stage where Black people living in urban centers were becoming increasingly more and more frustrated at the lack of accountability of those who were supposed to be protecting them. And this only continued to mount since then.

But to the podcaster's point, does violence really work?

Vourtesy of Ron Eisenbeg/Michael Ochs Archives/Getty Images. The usual consequence of violent riots is urban destruction of the very community they want to represent. Yet equally, when your voice falls on deaf ears and peace fails, what else can you?

Vourtesy of Ron Eisenbeg/Michael Ochs Archives/Getty Images. The usual consequence of violent riots is urban destruction of the very community they want to represent. Yet equally, when your voice falls on deaf ears and peace fails, what else can you?

A Questionable Record

For American civil disobedience, the question of peace or violence to achieve change has been an ongoing question since the American Revolution. A conflict that you could argue started out as civil disobedience, then turned into a state of war.

The idea of equal representation, to have your voice heard, I feel was supposed to indirectly replace violent conflict. The three pillars of American government: the Congress, Supreme Court, and the office of the President were the physical incarnation of these ideals. The Cherokee used this when partitioning the Supreme Court to stay on their land when President Andrew Jackson was trying to evict them. Workers and unions demanded it during the Gilded Age against the tycoons who were in many cases literally working them to death. The Women’s Suffrage movement used it to gain the right to vote. And of course, there’s the Civil Rights Movement.

So the idea of peaceful dissent did exist. Yet in most cases, this often resulted in a violent reaction. In four of the five examples listed above, violent reprisals occurred that led to many deaths. The ideal of peaceful and equal representation in American history seems to almost always lose out to brute force and the barrel of the gun and hierarchy of power. At best, if peaceful means do work, it usually comes at a heavy cost.

All Americans are hopeful to some degree for their ideals, whatever they may be. And the hope here was that change through the legal and moral process would lead to the change that many sought out. But without the power behind it, it also seems to achieve little.

So this would seem to back up the point that violence works doesn't it? Except not always.

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"“It’s infuriating that a handful of people try to ruin the peaceful protest. You don’t win anything with that. You lose a lot because we’ll have to pay for that damage.”

— - Karina Perera, Public Relations worker during the Chile Protests in 2019

A Toss of The Coin

On the surface it would absolutely seem that might makes right. But there’s a problem that is rarely addressed and understandably so. The act of violence itself is not guaranteed to get the outcome that you want.

Combatants can believe that they will prevail in the end in some fashion. But once the fight begins, there’s no telling who's going to live or die. The act itself is a nebulous thing rather than a set of calculations or beliefs. Unknown factors can suddenly appear to tip victory in one side’s favor. Someone can bring a hidden weapon. Other people may be involved that the other side is unaware of. Someone can make choices that may either support or sabotage their perceived victory. And so on.

Most will never admit to this I think, but violence feels great in the moment, if you’re the one doing it. It’s cathartic. It’s empowering. And it feels righteous. Violence is like a furnace that is holding back a growing inferno that when it comes apart, those flames rage uncontrollably until they burn out or everything becomes cinders. Because of the fire’s intensity, it's also blinding. People who choose violence often will not consider their opponents’ capabilities or have measurable goals beyond the immediate result or satisfaction of just doing something.


Which is why if the violence fails, the hammer that falls on perpetrators falls hard. And not just them, but the communities they come from as well. Even other protestors who may have been peaceful then come under fire because of their association with the cause of the protests.

This doesn’t take away from the morality of the cause. It doesn't mean that one shouldn't fight if forced to. It just means to plan for it as much as you can beforehand. Because often times, its only a part of a movement that is willing to commit to violence without considering the effect that has on their compatriots peacefully protesting for the same things. Many times you will still have a upset remnant that still believes in working through the system.

Make sure all or at least most of the people you claim to be representing are on the same page as yourself. Make sure the community has plans in place to deal with potential reprisals, whatever form that may take.

Try not to jump to that extreme reaction so quickly, if you do so, do so consciously. Passions can be justified and empowering, but they are a poor guide for creating a lasting system of justice that works for everyone.

© 2021 Jamal Smith


MG Singh from UAE on May 02, 2021:

It's a tricky question and a little difficult to answer because in some cases violence is a necessity, for example, the French Revolution would never have taken place if there was no violence. Everyday violence however in response to a particular incident cannot lead anywhere other than vitiating the atmosphere and inviting counter measures. Floyd Patterson's death was bad and the rioting worse but then what happened? just days after that two other blacks have been shot dead by the police. Where do you go from here?

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