On March 8, 2021, the trial of former Minneapolis police officer Derek Chauvin began. Chauvin had pleaded not guilty to charges of second-degree unintentional murder and second-degree manslaughter for the death of George Floyd on May 25, 2020. The reinstatement of a third-degree murder charge is being reconsidered. Once again, the city of Minneapolis finds itself on the cusp of social unrest. The particularly brutal nature of Floyd’s murder set off shockwaves across the nation, with the public demanding the criminal justice system be reformed.
I certainly hope that George Floyd will get the justice he deserves and given the fluidity of the situation in Minneapolis, I also believe it is necessary to reflect on the state of the Black Lives Matter (BLM) movement. More specifically, I want to address one of the recurring criticisms of the movement, and that is regarding the minority of BLM protests which have turned “violent.” I use the term “violent” in quotations, as more often than not, these “violent” protests are largely defined by the destruction of property rather than enacting harm against individuals. It should be noted that the blanket condemnation of these instances has largely come from the political right — reactionaries who oppose any effort at reform.
It must be kept in mind that over 93 percent of BLM protests are entirely peaceful — i.e. not involving any damage of either property or persons — according to a report by the Armed Conflict Location & Event Data Project (ACLED). In their September 2020 report, ACLED defined violence as “acts targeting other individuals, property, businesses, other rioting groups or armed actors.” Their (fairly broad) definition of violence may include fighting back against police, vandalism, property destruction, looting and road-blocking using barricades.
It’s important here to differentiate between the motivations for looting in the wake of mass protests. There have been episodes of looting which have been condemned by BLM organizations as “opportunistic” examples of outside agitators exploiting social chaos for personal gain. On the other hand, looting may also be considered a rational political statement against a system that promotes “exclusion, deprivation and gross class inequality.” Moreover, looting as a political statement must necessarily differentiate between attacking people and attacking capital as an institution. For this reason, it is useful to consider the looting of small businesses as the actions taken out of opportunism, whereas the occasional looting of a Walmart should be considered an attack on capital, which is thus indicative of a larger sense of socioeconomic alienation.
It must be said that the systemic police racism and the inequities of capitalism are just as inseparable as class politics is to racial justice and vice versa. This synthesis is crucial to understanding the underlying injustices which BLM fights against. Throughout American history, the Black community has been thoroughly proletarianized, and this has only been possible through the maintenance and reproduction of a permanent underclass, which is in part made possible by the systemic use of violence at the hands of the state.
I wonder under what circumstances the aforementioned acts may be justified as a tactic for civil disobedience. That is, can and should property violence be utilized as a method of civil resistance? Now, at the outset, let me establish that I am not advocating for property violence, or any violence for that matter. I am, however, asking whether or not sabotage tactics such as property violence hold any utility in the context of mass movements such as BLM. From the question of utility, I hope to explain under what circumstances and what forms of property violence may be considered just.
First, it must be noted how discussions surrounding the protection and destruction of property are systemically racialized. In the aftermath of the rare instances of looting, both BLM protesters and their opponents alike have condemned looters who take advantage of social unrest for personal gain. Yet, this has not stopped the brutal police crackdown on BLM protests in the past. This has been done in the name of “law and order,” and reveals a disturbing reality — that property is assigned more value than the lives and dignity of Black communities. While it is true that looting in the wake of mass protests may hurt the community at large, especially if local businesses are targeted, it is nonetheless crucial to consider the potential utility such actions may hold in the context of mass movements.
It must also be noted that much of the concern surrounding the efficacy of violence is also inherently racialized. For example, in an AP-NORC poll taken in June 2020, it was found that “white Americans are more likely than Black Americans to call protests violent,” despite the general public support for the protests. This highlights much of the subtler forms of racism which continue to define white America, as said protests challenge the continued privileges enjoyed by white Americans, thus provoking backlash against the movement, even from those who ostensibly support said movement.
In response to the question on the efficacy of violence, Angela Davis once detailed her childhood experiences with violence, from the murder of her neighbors in the 16th Street Baptist Church Bombing in 1963 to the all too frequent public incitement of violence by segregationist politicians. For this reason, Davis declared the ethical objection to violence and the question of whether she supports violence as an indicator “that the person who is asking that question has absolutely no idea what Black people have gone through … in this country.” I believe much of the concern over property violence in the wake of mass protests come from a similar position of ignorance, and even malice, as evidenced by widespread Republican condemnation of the George Floyd protests.
The form of violence I am referring to is not simply looting, but rather sabotage against unjust institutions, i.e. “’fighting back against police’ to vandalism, property destruction looting [and] road-blocking using barricades.” Since the premises we are dealing with here is material in nature, and deal with real struggles against injustice, it seems most prudent to answer this question through a utilitarian approach and to ascertain whether the tactic of sabotage may produce progressive change. That is, we should judge the morality of property violence not by an absolutist condemnation of violence in general, as Davis reminds us, but rather by the degree to which certain forms of violence can serve as effective means in the struggle for social liberation.
Fortunately, there is even a historical precedent for this question. In South Africa, for example, Nelson Mandela infamously waged a sabotage campaign against the apartheid government, in which anti-apartheid revolutionaries destroyed government infrastructure while deliberately avoiding civilian casualties. In doing so, Mandela was able to attack the institution of apartheid directly without causing bodily harm to any individual. I do not mean to imply that this is a tactic that is currently being utilized by the BLM movement, only that said forms of sabotage hold the potential for utility as this method can be used to undermine the legitimacy of unjust institutions by causing physical damage to instruments of oppression and financial damage to the wider institution.
Although Mandela’s sabotage campaign failed to immediately bring an end to apartheid, it nonetheless inspired future generations to utilize mass civil resistance, resulting in apartheid’s collapse and the formation of a democratic government in 1994. In this sense, Mandela’s sabotage campaign also produced the positive consequence of forcing the government to the negotiating table.
Sabotage was perhaps more effectively used in the opposition to the Vietnam War. As students across the country burned their draft cards, and soldiers chose to desert rather than fight, both public support for the war and morale within the U.S. military continuously declined. These efforts ultimately led to the collapse of President Lyndon B. Johnson’s administration, helped bring about the passage of the 26th Amendment, which lowered the voting age to 18, and the eventual withdrawal of American troops in Vietnam.
I do not say this to insinuate that property violence should be the primary means in the fight of racial justice, only that it should not be ruled out as a method of resistance when other options fail. That is what it means to fight oppression by any means necessary, and that “violence is justifiable when one can confidently predict that the violence that one is deploying will eliminate a greater evil,” to quote Harvard Professor Randall Kennedy.
I write this article keeping in mind Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.’s declaration of riots as “the language of the unheard.” But in a wider sense, I think it is apt to describe civil resistance as a whole as being part of this language. Civil resistance, whether it comes in either “violent” or nonviolent forms, is representative of the failure of established institutions to address the material conditions facing the most disenfranchised in society. It gives the oppressed not just a voice, but a megaphone, and that is why it is absolutely necessary for mass movements.
Colin Mangan is a sophomore double-majoring in philosophy and sociology.