On April 12, 2015, Freddie Gray, a 25-year-old African American, was taken into custody by the Baltimore Police Department for possession of a switchblade. While being transported, Gray fell into a coma and was taken to a trauma center with injuries to his spinal cord and larynx. Gray died on April 19, 2015.
— “Death of Freddie Gray,” Wikipedia
Since his death, beginning with an organized protest on April 25, Baltimore has erupted in violence. At least that’s what the media would have us believe. There has been little coverage of the peaceful protests–one of them 10,000 strong.
But it’s the violence that people are talking about. The violence that people are condemning with words that underscore the root of the problem.
It is easy to say that violence is never justified, but that assumes that there are always alternatives–the most common of which is that these people should be working within the system to change their circumstances. But that judgement contains a number of fallacies:
- That these protesters have a voice
- That they have the means to make a voice heard
- That it is possible to have any impact on a system that they do not, in any real and meaningful way, belong to
It is easy to judge when we come from a place of privilege–white, male, straight, educated, employed, financially secure, safe in your neighborhood, community, and home, having access to resources like libraries, healthy food, health care, a roof over your head. Even if we are only privileged in a couple of ways, we are still a vast distance removed from what it means to live without it.
It is easy to believe that the victims have brought these deaths on themselves. After all, they were breaking the law. Or at the very least, ran when they saw police. But when an interaction with police is fraught with risk of death, running only makes sense.
There are times when peaceful protests are not enough, and those times are when people without power find their lives, homes, communities, freedom, and children threatened by the people in power, and when their attempts to address these threats by other means have failed.
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.
— The problem with wanting “peace” in Baltimore, by Kazu Haga, Waging NonViolence
No, I don’t condone violence, but there is violence on both sides of this fight, and until we address both the physical and institutionalized violence that precipitated the riots, they will continue. And turning away, doing nothing, makes us complicit.