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  • Daniel Guillery

What makes a protest violent?

Across the political spectrum, we have heard many commentators and public figures keen to condemn the violent fringes of recent protests, if only to distinguish these from the ‘good’, peaceful kind of protester. The trigger for these protests was the murder of George Floyd in Minneapolis, but their target is a wider pattern, of police brutality at least, but also of structural and institutional racism much more broadly. The violent and thuggish reactions of many police forces across the country (not to mention the federal government) have neatly, but tragically, underlined protesters’ grievances. But the violence of protesters has also quickly attracted criticism. White House press secretary, Kayleigh McEnany, for instance, appropriated the words of Martin Luther King, Jr. to make a point: ‘We must not allow our creative protest to degenerate into physical violence.’ On the other side of the party political divide, Barack Obama urged ‘let’s not excuse violence, or rationalise it, or participate in it’.[1] There are important, even essential, debates to be had about what tactics are appropriate in a struggle for social and political change of this kind (about what is morally justifiable as well as what is strategically wise). But it is worth pausing for a moment to ask what is meant when certain protesters are labelled as ‘violent’, and condemned as such.

The most obviously violent acts are acts directly causing physical harm to another person’s body: a shove, an armed beating, a gunshot. But in most cases, the violence of recent protesters and rioters is not like this. Far more widely than bodily violence, the protests have been characterised by aggression towards inanimate objects: the smashing of windows, burning of cars, and so on. This, I think, is the kind of ‘violence’ that defenders of ‘peaceful’ protest have primarily in mind. In what sense, though, are these acts violent? In one sense, a violent act is just one that involves a sudden, forceful and rapid movement. If I jerk my arm sharply to the right, we might say that I did so violently. But it’s not violence in this sense that Obama and McEnany are talking about. Those who complain about violent protest presumably do not care about violent movements as such: they would not want to condemn a group of peaceful protesters violently waving their arms up and down to attract attention. And on the other hand, something like pulling down a statue can be done through a series of slow, careful movements (fixing a rope and followed by a drawn-out tug-of-war).

So when critics lament the violence of protesters’ attacks on non-human objects, they cannot be referring simply to the kind of physical movements involved in their actions. But maybe, in just the same way that causing physical harm to people seems to be violent, causing physical harm to inanimate objects is also violent. Rioters are violent just because they are breaking windows and destroying cars. But that, still, cannot be quite right. If I decide to burn some of my old household furniture in a bonfire, would McEnany and Obama describe me as violent? I doubt it. Or if I cut up my expired credit card into tiny pieces? What is the difference between these examples and the kind of destruction critics have in mind? In my examples, I destroy my own property; I treat these objects in a way I have every right to do. The protesters, on the other hand, destroy other people’s property, something the law forbids them from doing. So if it’s right to describe protesters’ destruction of property as violent, it looks like it can’t just be a straightforward statement about the physical facts. It seems to involve saying that the action is in some sense not permitted: just to say that the destruction of property is violent is to say that it violates some system of rules.

It is worth bearing this in mind when thinking about the condemnation of violent protest. One reason it seems so natural to criticise the ‘violent’ elements of protests and riots is that the use of this word makes it appear that we are talking about one uniform thing. The most obvious sort of violence, which involves physical harm to the body of another person, is usually condemnable. We at least need a pretty good reason to justify deliberately hurting other people. So, if that is the paradigm of violence, we can see how using the same word to describe something different (e.g. illegal destruction of property) might make us ready to jump to the conclusion that the second kind of violence is also usually unjustifiable.[2]

If ‘violent property destruction’ means ‘property destruction that breaks a rule’, it is far less obvious that it must be bad. We can probably all agree that we shouldn’t obey laws and authority-figures whatever they tell us to do: ever since the Nuremberg Trials, it’s well recognised that ‘just obeying orders’ is not a good defence. This is certainly not Nazi Germany, but one thing we can be sure of is that our societies are severely unjust, and that injustice is in good part a product of the laws, past and present, that have shaped, and continue to shape, society. This is not the place to rehearse the many ways in which modern societies continue to be riven by deep racial injustices[3]; but we live in a world in which life prospects vary radically at birth, opportunities for education and economic advancement are severely unequal, as is political influence and exposure to the violence of the state, and in which these inequalities continue to be shaped in significant part by the legacy of slavery, segregationist housing policy and other elements of a system of white supremacy, often enforced by law. We might well wonder, then, even if we would be morally obligated to obey a good and just legal system, whether that obligation carries over into anything like the current situation.[4] It is a difficult question exactly when we should obey the law in our unjust societies. The point, though, is that the fact we label certain sorts of law-breaking as violent can lead us far too easily to the conclusion that they are bad or wrong.[5]

Confusion (no doubt often deliberate) about the meaning of ‘violence’ can also serve, on the other side, to make police violence seem more justifiable than it otherwise would. Using the same word to describe both straightforward bodily violence and illegal damage to property will make us more likely to think of these as two instances of the same sort of thing. And then, when the actions of protesters are described as violent merely because they involved law-breaking, it can make it seem like police are simply responding in kind when they react with bodily violence. They are answering violence with violence. But we can only say that because we are using ‘violence’ in two quite different ways. Careless use of the word, or deliberate manipulation of it, can make questions of justification seem much simpler than they really are.

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