Martin Luther King Jr., popularly praised for his supposed devoutness to nonviolence, once said:
“A riot is the language of the unheard.”
Contrary to whitewashed narratives, social change almost always includes violence. Slavery didn’t end through "civil" discussion. It was fought through uprisings and war. The losers of the war continued to own people until Juneteenth. The fact that the war was fought because black people were property became foundational to the growth of this nation. The Civil Rights Movement was composed of many people and included varying levels of violence. Demonstrations exposed the violence toward the black community in order to gain white support. This highlighted white people’s comfort and tolerance inflicting violence on black people. This laid the groundwork for an international platform of justice led by Malcolm X and King.
After protests led by King in 1963 turned violent, liberal white clergy members and editorials condemned his "provocation of riots." A Gallup poll conducted that same year found King to be the second most hated public figure in America.
Two decades later, King was given a national holiday. What’s lost in this historical amnesia?
Fast-forward to last May 30 in Colorado Springs: People joined in protest, calling for justice for George Floyd and those killed here: De’Von Bailey, Virgil Thorpe and others.
At 6 p.m. that day, Colorado Springs police fired tear gas and rubber bullets into a crowd of mostly teenagers. They stood in front of cops in riot gear, with their hands up. A teargas canister hit a child, who was sent to the hospital. A man was shot in the forehead with a rubber bullet.
The following days, protests continued, only to be met with more violence.
On April 4, 1968, Martin Luther King Jr. was murdered. The days following are known to be the largest wave of riots in America since the Civil War. A few days later, on April 11, the Civil Rights Act was enacted.
Now, on May 25, 2020, George Floyd is murdered. What followed were some of the largest uprisings in 21st century America. Within days, the following was accomplished:
June 3: Officer Chauvin was charged with second-degree murder.
June 3: Los Angeles pledges to defund its police department by over $100 million.
June 7: The Minneapolis City Council votes to disband their police department.
June 12: Boston declares racism a public-health emergency and reallocates 20% of its police budget.
June 12: The Colorado legislature passes SB20-217, a sweeping law enforcement accountability bill.
Just to name a few.
Effectiveness aside (although uprisings have proven quite effective), we should investigate why we hold black protesters to standards of nonviolence never applied to any other group. Teenagers throwing water bottles apparently warrants teargas, yet police are paid (34% of our city budget) to brutalize civilians. We condemn looting by the racially and economically oppressed yet accept looting by corporations.
Valuing property over human lives proves how little our country cares about its people. And until people started damaging property and fighting back, nothing changed.
If you’re asking, “Does violence undermine the effectiveness of protest?” you should also ask, “Does state violence undermine our collective freedom?” As long as police have authority to kill their own community, the only way people can regain freedom is through protest by any means necessary.
Condemning the language of the unheard reflects your racism.
Nonviolent protests followed the murders of Stephon Clark, Botham Jean and countless others over the last five years, with no substantive change in policing. It’s not a coincidence that cities are only now dismantling police departments and building new visions of public safety: ones that include social workers, mental-health first responders and restorative justice. These ideas have existed for decades yet are happening only now because people are demanding it.
But maybe two decades from now, we’ll name a national holiday after this time and claim it was nonviolent.
Tyescha Clark of Colorado Springs is an educator and community influencer. A former high school social studies teacher, she has over 15 years of experience in organizing communities to advance justice.