Peaceful protesters lament violence at demonstrations, but understand rage behind it
Calvetta Williams, founder of Mothers Against Violence in Des Moines, Iowa, is all about peaceful protest. She organized a march through the city on Saturday that began and ended without a hint of violence.
Yet, one day earlier, as the 49-year-old watched people smash windows in a haze of tear gas, she understood the frustration and rage that caused some to lash out.
"I'm angry, too," Williams said. "I'm a black mother with two black sons, and I'm tired of using hashtags with the names of people murdered by police officers. … We can't just sit on the sidelines anymore."
Her words typified the complicated, conflicting reactions among activists, community leaders and civil rights historians to the violence sparked by the death of George Floyd, an unarmed, handcuffed black man who died in custody of Minneapolis police.
On the one hand, violence sabotages a message of social justice and may prove counterproductive. On the other, fury over Floyd's death is understandable — and it could be effective in changing public consciousness.
Over the past several days, some peaceful demonstrations in cities across the U.S. have turned violent — vandalism, looting, arson, tear gas and arrests.
Even after four officers involved in Floyd's death were fired, and one was charged with third-degree murder and manslaughter, violence extended from D.C. to L.A. President Donald Trump vowed to "stop mob violence and stop it cold" and blamed "radical left-wing" agitators.
A half-dozen states activated National Guard troops Saturday. Mayors across the country imposed curfews. Still, one overriding image on cable news Saturday was a burning police car.
Williams said she does not condone such conduct, but she recognizes violence is a statement of community anger about police brutality.
"I think it enhances the message" of demonstrations, she said. "How many times do we have to say our lives matter? … A building can be put back up. George Floyd, he can't be put back home."
In Minneapolis, Korey Dean Sr., 46, founder of The Man Up Club, which mentors young black males, said he helped former NBA player Royce White organize a demonstration Friday beginning at U.S. Bank Stadium.
A small group of pro basketball players and their friends, dressed in black, led a parade that quickly swelled in numbers.
Marchers knelt in silence at bridge crossings, prayed, and delivered speeches during a three-mile walk that ended long before curfew. "We started with 300 and we finished with 15,000 people," Dean said. "Not one fight, incident or argument. That is absolutely phenomenal."
Dean said the spontaneous event was a statement of unity against injustice — a manifesto that "police brutality can no longer be tolerated in our city."
While the message of peace succeeded locally, he said, it didn't get national news coverage. Instead, media focused on looting, burning buildings and vandals.
"But that's only by a small population in the Twin Cities, and in no way represents the people of goodwill who are out here."
'Throwing tea into Boston Harbor is looting'
Michael G. Long, editor of "We the Resistance: Documenting a History of Nonviolent Protest in the United States," said mayhem is not an effective tool to achieve the goals of a movement.
"Riots alienate sympathizers," Long said. "They alienate the people who can affect policy."
At the same time, he said, rioting is a way for the abused to defend themselves or to be noticed. Sometimes, that's the point: "The thing about violent protests is they get wider societal attention. It can be effective in raising public consciousness," he said.
Long noted that the Martin Luther King Jr. saw violence as "a cry of the oppressed" but denounced it in part because he believed, like Mahatma Gandhi, that a peaceful goal requires a peaceful means.
However, he said violence against injustice and abuse is a founding principle of the United States, starting with the Revolutionary War. "Throwing tea into Boston Harbor is looting," he said. "The U.S. was formed in the crucible of violent protests."
While the historic impact of ongoing demonstrations remains to be seen, Long said, "You can be sure after these protests — these peaceful and violent protests — there will be reforms."
Robin Kelley, a professor of history at UCLA, credited uprisings in approximately 125 cities between 1964 and 1972 with more robust public oversight committees and the 1968 Kerner Commission report, which found institutionalized racism was driving urban violence.
"Reforms have been implemented ... in response to rebellion, in response to unrest, in response to disruption," he said.
Kelley said a victory to come out of the more recent uprisings has been the new wave of district attorneys elected in places like Philadelphia and Chicago who are prosecuting police officers more aggressively. He also notes that without past uprisings, it's unlikely the four officers involved in Floyd's death would have been fired so swiftly, days after video of his final moments went viral.
Violence plays into public perception
Omar Wasow, an assistant professor of politics at Princeton University who focuses on historic civil rights demonstrations, said violence plays a complex role in how events are perceived.
During the early 1960s, Wasow said, civil rights leaders realized peaceful marches would prompt a savage response from police that would be captured by news media. Those "powerful narratives reflected the level of brutality in the Jim Crow South," he said, forcing changes in public opinion, voting and political action.
By the late 1960s, Wasow said, militant black activists had given up on peaceful demonstrations. Protests in Los Angeles and other cities became more violent and were perceived as riots rather than civil rights efforts. The result, Wasow said, was a shift in public concern about crime and security, which was reflected in subsequent elections.
Wasow stressed that even when organizers develop a plan for peaceful demonstrations, some participants may not buy into it. Police behavior and news coverage shape the outcome, too.
Early in the Minneapolis demonstrations, Wasow said, law enforcement appeared to overreact when confronted by nonviolent crowds. "It doesn't take a lot of excessive force to turn a peaceful protest into one where anger breaks out," he said.
Rickey Hill, former chairman of the political science department at Mississippi's Jackson State University, said provocations and passions must be viewed in the context of longstanding mistrust between black communities and police.
Hill was arrested and expelled from Southern University in Louisiana in 1972 for helping lead a campus protest over inadequate services and funding. Police shot and killed two students.
“It’s really frustrating because some of us have faced these guns,’’ he said. “We have seen people killed. Nothing has been done. So we get this constant sense that the tragedy always turns to farce."
"When human beings get tired of being oppressed," Hill said, "they have to in fact raise and cry. They have to go guttural. They say, 'I’m tired of this. We need a change.'"
Violence is newsworthy, but ...
Kristen Clarke, president and executive director of the Lawyers’ Committee for Civil Rights Under Law, said the focus on violence is a "distraction, but only for those who refuse to contend with the murder of George Floyd and Breonna Taylor.” (Taylor, 26, died after being shot eight times by police in Louisville, Kentucky, during an unannounced raid on her apartment.)
For others, she said, the “objective has remained squarely focused on the need for police reform, justice and accountability.”
Barbie Zelizer, a professor with the University of Pennsylvania's Annenberg School for Communication and director of the Center for Media at Risk, said news outlets struggle to cover demonstrations evenhandedly.
"The media love spectacles," she said. "And violence is spectacle."
While violence at protests against police brutality is newsworthy, Zelizer said, it should not eclipse coverage of peaceful demonstrations, and it should be presented in context with "the state violence against blacks."
At the same time, Zelizer said, many instances of law enforcement misconduct would not come to light but for media coverage. "You can't have a democracy without journalism," she said. "The media need to be there as the eyeballs of the public."
Some worry George Floyd protests are being hijacked
National civil rights leaders suspect some outsiders have infiltrated demonstrations to distract from the focus on police brutality.
“It’s really dangerous for us to lose focus on the original tragedy at hand and what we need to do to move forward,” said Vanita Gupta, president of the Leadership Conference on Civil and Human Rights.
Activists said law enforcement should investigate reports that outside agitators are triggering violence at otherwise peaceful demonstrations.
“There are always people who are going to infiltrate," said Melanie Campbell, president of the National Coalition on Black Civic Participation.
Derrick Johnson, president of the national NAACP, said he's concerned “the violence is really suffocating the message.’’
He said activists are working to encourage nonviolent demonstrations.
“I understand the hurt. I understand the anger,’’ he said. “But the anger and hurt must be directed to an outcome and not further divide where we are.’’
It's not over
Former Minneapolis police officer Derek Chauvin was arrested Friday on murder and manslaughter charges. Kon Johnson, a Minneapolis activist, said the arrest is a good first step, but a far cry from justice.
"I don't want to burn down s*** either. I don't. But guess what? It's gonna happen if this fool does not get life in jail," he said.
Dismantling racism is the only way to quell unrest, Kelley said. He expects a sustained period of struggle between those who believe people of color need to be vigorously policed and those who believe their treatment by police is unacceptable.
The stakes, Kelley said, are unbearably high.
"Every single time you walk out the door, you don't even know if you're going to come back home," he said. "You're doing small little things, the hustle to make a life, to make a living. You don't even know you're committing a crime. And at the end of the day, you could be killed for that. Everybody knows that. And so the anger and the anguish just rose up once again."
Contributing: Alia Dastagir, USA TODAY; Tyler Davis and Carol Hunter of The Des Moines Register