Briefly Summarized: can violent protests be justified?

Sabina Unni, Assistant Opinions Editor

Should violence be acceptable to create social change? At what point does the cause become diluted by violence? Can social change even occur without violence? Is civil disobedience, by nature, disobedient? These are all questions that apply to the recent protests in Baltimore, Maryland, but they are also questions that have permeated history. Is violence justified in the face of protest?

Early twentieth century contemporaries Booker T. Washington and W.E.B. Du Bois clashed over the same issues. Is the best means of reform quiet or loud? Washington believed in patience and thought that respect would lead to African Americans’ acceptance as equal citizens. Du Bois believed that forceful political action and social change was necessary for growth.

Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. and Malcolm X were later leaders in the fight towards equality with radically different approaches to achieving equality. Dr. King believed in non-violence and peaceful protests no matter what. Comparatively, Malcolm X coined the phrase “by any means necessary,” as he believed violence was an acceptable tactic to achieve success.

Even Mahatma Gandhi, seen as the founder of nonviolent protest is not without opposition. Although he’s widely regarded as a traditional hero, many of his more violent contemporaries viewed his nonviolent ways with anger. When younger and violent revolutionary Bhagat Singh was hanged by British troops, Gandhi refused to let his death turn him into a martyr.

In an article in Young India, Gandhi wrote, “In our land of millions of destitute and crippled people, if we take to the practice of seeking justice through murder, there will be a terrifying situation.”

In Baltimore, activists and community members are protesting the police system and the treatment of black Americans by the police. Although the cause as a whole has created controversy in the United States and abroad, there is significantly more internal conflict about the use of violence as a tactic for success. The recent protests in New York were largely nonviolent, but protesters in Baltimore have used more radical techniques— such as lighting fires and looting. While it’s hard to condone violence, it’s easy to understand the intrinsic pain felt during times of suffering.

“I don’t have to condone it to understand it, right?” said activist Deray McKesson, in an interview with Wolf Blitzer on CNN. “The pain that people feel is real. And you are making a comparison. You are suggesting this idea that broken windows are worse than broken spines, right? And what we know to be true is that the police are killing people everywhere. They’re killing people here.”

“The fact that we debate whether violence is justified, specifically in the case of Baltimore, illustrates that as a society we still have a problem with armed black men and women fighting for a cause, because that dismantles our schema of an entire race of people as criminals.,” said senior Sandra Riano.

While I agree that action is necessary to dismantle this dangerous myth, I still am not sure if violence can be justified. The anger people feel is justified, but the violence caused does not alway affect opressors. Likewise, it is hypocritical to expect protestors to respond to violence with non-violent protests.

While I care more about the lives of black men than I do about windows and car doors, I wonder if this is the best tactical approach for achieving real change. The question also remains: is the goal to bring attention or legitimacy to the issue?