This is the Heart of an Uprising: How a Demonstration of a Community’s Capacity for Violence can Affect Change

I don’t remember which uprising it was.[1] Like school shootings, incidents of police violence and the resulting response have grown common enough that, unfortunately, the memories of each start to blur together. What I do remember is that, following one them, I posted something like “I agree the officers must be punished, but I don’t understand why the community is doing this — they are throwing away all this political capital, everyone’s sympathies, for what, a TV?” I remember feeling self-satisfied with my “nuanced” take. I thought I’d found a way to demonstrate my “solidarity” with the cause of justice while condemning the resulting violence. In reality, all I did was justify my inaction (if both sides are wrong, why get involved?) while broadcasting a passive acceptance of white supremacy. I know now that I was wrong and I’m truly ashamed. Now, as parts of Minneapolis and the nation burn, I see history repeating itself on the ground and online, and I want to help undo some of the misconceptions I helped perpetuate.

I’m not qualified to answer the question of “why” this is happening. I’ve done my best to seek the perspectives of people of color, educate myself on racial disparity in the United States, and, sometimes, read the stories of other white Americans who are trying to overcome their internalized white supremacy.[2] Despite this, I still can’t fully explain “why” Black Americans like George Floyd are routinely and unjustly murdered by the state.[3] I believe this is beyond my understanding and the understanding of anyone who’s sheltered from the direct consequences of oppression.

What I do understand is the value of violence or rather the capacity for violence. I’ve spent most of my adult life studying history, war, and law, and each of these fields shows that the deployment of violence is rarely a meaningless exercise. Whether as a tool of intimidation or enforcement, the capacity to employ violence is inextricably intertwined with the state’s capacity to govern. This capacity is broad and includes the various tools the state is empowered to use to enforce its laws, from fines to imprisonment to capital punishment. To this end, violence is not always “bad” — so long as it is justly applied and done with the purpose and consent of the governed. Additionally, while I believe that many communities are not reliant on state violence, it’s undeniable that a belief in the state’s capacity for violence helps to check the impulses of would-be bad actors and maintain public order.

In theory, the state should have a monopoly on violence, and, in the area of law enforcement, it largely does. Police — in conjunction with the Court system — ostensibly act as arbiters of state violence, determining how best to enforce the laws of the state. However, as recent events and large portions of American history demonstrate, law enforcement often exceeds its legislative mandate and deploys state violence as a tool against communities rather than a tool in support of them. Under these circumstances, another capacity for violence, capable of checking the excesses of the state, must also exist. This is the capacity for community violence.

There is no uniform definition of what constitutes a demonstration of the capacity for community violence. For communities of color, this capacity is most often expressed through large scale group action. However, while they are effective as proof of scale, mass demonstrations are not the only way to demonstrate this capacity. In other circumstances, relatively small groups can either implicitly or explicitly demonstrate the community’s willingness to resist state violence. This is best demonstrated by the defense committees formed to protect key Civil Rights movement leaders and the Black Panther’s community defense tactics in the 1970s. In both of these instances, small groups were largely effective in disincentivizing an escalation in state violence because state actors understood that they would meet with deadly resistance. Whether done through mass demonstrations or small groups, the importance of demonstrating this capacity to resist state violence remains the same.

Before going any further, I want to make clear that I don’t condone acts of violence themselves — just that I understand both that they are a reasonable reaction to oppression without relief and a natural response to violent victimization. Further, I don’t believe that most uprisings are, or should be, centered around violence — even if it is sometimes necessary as a measure of resistance. While violence seems an inevitable part of uprisings, it often is perpetrated by a minority within the larger body or is the defensive reaction to state violence against the uprising. In either instance, I ask you to focus on uprisings as a demonstration of a community’s capacity for violence — whether acted on or not. This capacity is central to checking loosely restrained state violence and establishing space to create a more just community. In essence, violence itself may not be a means to an end, but the capacity for violence is. To understand what leads communities to need to demonstrate this capacity, we must first examine the pre-conditions of community violence — both the underlying causes and the inaccessibility of alternative reform options. Only then can we better understand why communities must occasionally demonstrate that they can exceed the state’s capacity for violence, and how these uprisings can bring about positive change.

Underlying Conditions as a Cause of Violence

To understand the legitimacy of community violence, we must first understand the underlying conditions which precede uprisings. One of the common fallacies I’ve seen in personal responses to uprisings, such as Minneapolis’, is the narrowing of their purpose to a protest over a single event. In the case of Minneapolis, it’s the murder of George Floyd. In Baltimore, the murder of Freddie Gray. In Ferguson, the murder of Michael Brown. Many seem to assume that, in each of these cases, the uprisings were exclusively a reaction to a single murder and, consequently, the community’s response is irrational. Under this line of thinking, some form of state justice against the murderer would be sufficient to instantly quell unrest. However, as demonstrated by the continuance of the Minneapolis’ uprising in the wake of the officer’s arrest, resolution of the inciting incident, and the larger goals of the uprising are not always the same.

While George Floyd’s murder was both an example of the most extreme form of state violence and was graphically captured, it was likely insufficient to trigger an uprising on its own. Instead, it was the cumulative effect of the thousands of daily injustices perpetrated by the state against communities of color (e.g. higher rates of police-involved incidents, greater escalation for similar offenses, disproportionate application of mass incarceration, etc.), paired with a visceral example of injustice, which triggered the uprising. In short, George Floyd’s death was the spark that lit years of accumulated fuel. In this context, the reaction of Minneapolis’ communities of color (later reflected, in solidarity, by other communities across the country) is a reasonable response in light of years of pent up frustration with an unjust system. So, if you’re looking at this as an irrational response to a single incident, please take the time to recognize that George Floyd’s death was the breaking point for a community already familiar with injustice.

A Capacity for Community Violence is Necessary to Create Space for Traditional Reform

Just as uprisings aren’t the result of a single, isolated incident, they aren’t the first course of action for communities of color. Uprisings only occur when other avenues of recourse against the state have closed and the community is required to take action to make them available again. Historically, this requires a demonstration of a community’s capacity for violence.

While most Americans hold an idyllic view of the Civil Rights movement as a series of exclusively non-violent protests (on the part of Black Americans and their allies), this is more myth than fact. Undergirding the success of the Civil Rights movement was the willingness of supporters to demonstrate their capacity to react violently if necessary.[4] Black militias — used to defend Civil Rights leaders from both state and terrorist violence — played a critical role in preventing the movement from being decapitated during its infancy. Later, these same groups operated parallel to the movement’s non-violent wing. While these groups weren’t designed to prevent mass-violence against the movement, they helped ensure its intellectual core remained largely intact. Outside of individual protection, the size of the movement itself — with fears of repeats of earlier “race riots” — gave the movement more power. While disgust towards the violence perpetrated against protestors was critical to the movement’s ability to gain broad support, it was the fear of the violence it could unleash that allowed it the opportunity to engage in other, non-violent forms of protest. Still, as many of the most successful challenges to state authority centered around non-violent tactics — protests, sit-ins, obstructions, lobbying, litigations, etc. — it’s worth asking why these tactics aren’t as effective today.

Unfortunately, the truth is that the United States has changed dramatically since that era — most notably in the de facto criminalization of mass protests, the Federal Court system’s conservative lurch, and the reframing of what it means to be racist.[5] In essence, the era of mass peaceful protests, while not entirely over, is far more constrained than it was in the past. While large demonstrations are still possible, an increase in red-tape provisions and the state’s willingness to proactively terminate protests has diminished the capacity to organize to peacefully demand change. Not coincidentally, these restrictions on protest coincide with an era of conservative jurisprudence which besides, restricting the right of peaceful assembly, has dismantled the Voting Rights Act of 1965 and restricted judicial remedies for racialized claims.[6]

At the same time, society’s views on racism and what it means to be racist have changed. While drawing distinctions between the cartoonish levels of explicit racism and more ordinary racial prejudice helped show white Americans which was the more just side during the Civil Rights era, the rise of less overt forms of racism today keeps many would-be allies from waking up and getting involved.[7]

With the state limiting the exercise, efficacy, and effectiveness of mass demonstrations, the Courts refusing to intervene, and white Americans standing divided, communities of color are forced to find other avenues to express their frustrations with injustice. However, as best illustrated by the response to Colin Kaepernick’s decision to kneel during the national anthem of NFL games, the indifference, mockery, and indignation of many white Americans doom peaceful reform efforts, reinforcing the existing order of white supremacy.[8]

Without the availability of traditional avenues of effective protest, legal recourse, or broad public support (or even belief) in the cause of injustice, communities of color are left in an untenable position. Political change, while promising at times, is often too little and too late. Further, while politics might improve conditions on the margins, leaders are largely incapable of rooting out the entrenched interests of white supremacy. Even the election of the first Black president did little to undo centuries of oppression built into the American system and, most notably, American policing.[9]

This leaves communities of color in much the same place as their predecessors in the 1950s — with no effective non-violent avenues for change and a state increasingly willing to use violence against them. Consequently, when an inciting incident — such as George Floyd’s murder — occurs, communities of color are left with two options: 1) do nothing in the face of state violence or 2) demonstrate the community’s capacity to resist the state. If a community is sufficiently unified in its resistance against unjust state violence, it can endanger the state’s monopoly and force concessions. In essence, a demonstration of the capacity for violence provides communities of color with the space necessary to pursue other avenues of reform. This is how citizenry affects change when all other methods of recourse have failed. This is the heart of an uprising.

The Component Groups of an Uprising

Before addressing the value of community violence, I’d like to examine the different component groups which tend to accompany uprisings: Protestors, Looters/Rioters, and Instigators. Protestors are — most commonly — people from the community, people connected to the community, or community allies. These individuals participate in uprisings to demonstrate their solidarity with the cause and provide the critical mass of people necessary to make an uprising too big to quell. While these individuals often have peaceful intentions, many are prepared to resist violently if the situation demands it.[10] The next group, looters/rioters, are individuals who may be associated with the protestors but are often more interested in stealing or destroying property. I’m not interested in passing judgment or ascribing a motive en mass. Some of these individuals are lashing out against the combined forces of economic and racial oppression, while others have less defensible motivations. In either case, these individuals make up a small minority of an uprising’s population — even if they receive the outsized proportion of media coverage. The final group, instigators, are typically individuals whose only interest is starting violent encounters. These individuals can belong to the preceding groups or be unaffiliated with the uprising. Much like looters/rioters, they often received outsized media coverage both for their attempts to trigger violence and the perceived “benefit” they bring through the “protection” of buildings, infrastructure, etc. Knowing the difference between these groups is critical to understanding the efficacy of an uprising and to resist the urge to “both-sides” the groups involved.

The Value of Violence

The core question which seems to hang around community uprisings is “what is their value?” Essentially, even if you accept that demonstrating a capacity for violence is a justifiable form of resistance and that this creates space for non-violent reform, do uprisings work? While the results are mixed, they generally point towards positive long-term outcomes. Two separate historic uprisings — Stonewall 1969 and Los Angeles 1992 — present different outcomes for communities in the wake of uprisings. While distinct, they demonstrate the value of community uprisings and help justify their purpose.

One of the famous uprisings in recent American history, the Stonewall uprising, occurred in response to a police raid on an LGBTQ+ bar in Greenwich Village in 1969.[11] The Stonewall Inn had been subject to various police raids in the past, but, in part because of the bars mafia connections, had largely avoided a major incident. On June 28, 1969, that changed when an NYPD raid occurred without warning. What followed were several nights of civil unrest, collectively known as the Stonewall uprising or riot. That night marked a point of demarcation for the LGBTQ+ community as they demonstrated their willingness and ability to resist unjust state violence. While not immediate, Stonewall led to a gradual dissipation in the state’s use of violence against the community. Though state violence against LGBTQ+ persons and their allies continued, the uprising effectively demonstrated what consequences the state could expect it continued to use excessive violence. This in turn helped create space for the community to pursue non-violent reform efforts. Without this omnipresent risk of oppression, the LGBTQ+ community began organizing and fighting against entrenched prejudices while slowly working towards legal equality. While the uprising didn’t immediately resolve the problems facing the community, it did help to unify it, organize, and provide it with space and direction needed to pursue broader legitimacy. Stonewall stands as a testament to the efficacy of uprisings, though others, such as the 1992 Los Angeles uprising, have had some success in its wake.

In 1991, four Los Angeles police officers were filmed beating Rodney King, a Black American, on a freeway near the city.[12] A year later, all four officers were acquitted, sparking an uprising by communities of color — primarily Black communities — in Los Angeles. The uprising, which lasted 5-days, resulted in more than 60 deaths and nearly $1 Billion in property damage. Notably, much of this damage occurred in communities of color. Unlike Stonewall — which resulted in minimal property damage and no casualties — the question of “was it worth it” is much starker for Los Angeles’ communities of color. While the LGBTQ+ community was quick to realize some benefits from the Stonewall uprising, the immediate results in Los Angeles uprising were best calculated in loss of life and damage to communities. Fortunately, this is not the end of the story. Since 1992, Los Angeles has taken several steps to improve its police departments by rooting out the most violent actors and attempting to change the overall culture.[13] The changes are far from perfect — Los Angeles remains a flashpoint for racial injustice — but they represent a significant improvement over the conditions of 1992 and were unlikely to have occurred if the community had not resisted the LAPD’s unjust use of violence. While some may question the value of marginal gains against the damage done and the lives lost, a better question might be if that was the price of a reprieve, what is the price of freedom?

The preceding examples, as well as early results from Ferguson, Baltimore, and the sites of other recent uprisings, demonstrate that the value of violence isn’t necessarily in the violence itself, but in the state’s recognition of a community’s capacity for violence.[14] This is a fine line to walk because, when actual violence (in the form of rioting/looting) becomes the focus of the uprising and the damage is confined to the affected community itself, then the uprising is unlikely to succeed in effecting change. That said, while it is distressing to see the damage done to the communities where uprisings occur– especially when non-corporate businesses and critical infrastructure are damaged — there is ultimately the hope that the value of checking the power of the state exceeds the value of the damage to capital. Ultimately, an uprising succeeds when the state no longer believes in its capacity to exercise violence without resistance. Once the state is forced to reckon with how it treats communities of color it must either make fundamental changes towards greater justice or its increase its capacity for violence. The former leads to a better society while the latter only promises more and more violent uprisings in the future.

Uprisings are not a pleasant experience. They often destroy valuable community assets, local businesses, and, worst of all, community lives. However, for the people of the communities engaged in uprisings, the conditions which preceded it were similarly untenable. Further, uprisings are not a quick solution. The community must recover from any damage to businesses, housing, and infrastructure, all while coming to terms with what happened on a mental and emotional level. Meanwhile, the fruits of the protest — changes in the system of oppression — may take years or decades to fully blossom. This reality is a reflection of history as much as the uprisings are a reflection of a community’s frustration. The Civil Rights movement was a multi-decade process that only succeeded because of the perseverance Black Americans and their allies, and their willingness to employ every tactic to further the cause of freedom and justice. Despite this, there is hope that what emerges will be an improvement. Uprisings are often followed by reform as a unified community — having checked the state’s capacity for violence — are finally able to seek a more just society and have their demands taken seriously.

Buildings can be rebuilt, roads can be repaired, and, while lives cannot be replaced, future lives may be saved by checking state violence. If you truly believe in the greatness of the United States or just want to see it be a better version of itself, you cannot remain neutral. Do not look away from injustice and do not condemn a community for demonstrating its power to resist an unjust state.

[1] I prefer the term “uprising” — an act of resistance or rebellion — because it better encapsulates the aim of the majority of the protestors than “civil unrest” or “riot”. Additionally, I believe the term “protest” is too weak to describe what is happening as this is a call to radically transform a system rather than merely express disapproval with it.

[2] I say trying because I don’t think it’s possible for anyone of this generation to fully overcome this mentality. Regardless of how “woke” we as white Americans are, we’ve existed in a country whose institutions and culture constantly reinforce white supremacy. So long as we live in this system, we can never truly overcome our internalized white supremacy.

[3] If you want to better understand “why” this happens, I recommend you seek out some of the sources found here: Sadie Trombetta, K.W. Colyard, 17 Books on Race Every White Person Needs to Read, Bustle.com (May 29, 2020) https://www.bustle.com/p/17-books-on-race-every-white-person-needs-to-read-76401.

[4] See generally Curtis J. Austin, On Violence and Nonviolence: The Civil Rights Movement in Mississippi, Mississippi HistoryNow, http://www.mshistorynow.mdah.ms.gov/articles/62/the-civil-rights-movement-in-mississippi-on-violence-and-nonviolence (last visited May 31, 2020) (showing that the capacity for violence underpinned the success of non-violent protests); See also Charles E. Cobb, Jr., This Nonviolent Stuff’ll Get You Killed: How Guns Made the Civil Rights Movement Possible (2014).

[5] Barry J Pollack, From the President: Criminalizing the Tradition of Protest NACDL (2017), https://www.nacdl.org/Article/April2017-FromthePresidentCriminalizingt.

[6] See Adam Liptak, Supreme Court Invalidates Key Part of Voting Rights Act, Nytimes.com (May 26, 2013), https://www.nytimes.com/2013/06/26/us/supreme-court-ruling.html; See also Kristen Galles, Introduction: The Supreme Court’s Assault on Civil Rights and Access to Justice, American Bar Association, https://www.americanbar.org/groups/crsj/publications/human_rights_magazine_home/2015--vol--41-/vol-41-no-1-lurking-in-the-shadows-the-supreme-court/introduction--the-supreme-court-s-assault-on-civil-rights-and-ac/ (last visited June 4, 2020)

[7] Robin J. DiAngelo, White fragility: why it’s so hard for white people to talk about racism (2019).

[8] See generally Michael Eric Dyson, The Courage of Colin Kaepernick, The Undefeated (Sep. 6, 2016), https://theundefeated.com/features/the-courage-of-colin-kaepernick/.

[9] See generally Michael Eric Dyson, Whose President Was He?, Politico (Jan. 2016), https://www.politico.com/magazine/story/2016/01/barack-obama-race-relations-213493.

[10] Peaceful intentions here mean not engaging in offensive violence or looting.

[11] See generally Colleen Walsh, Stonewall then and now, The Harvard Gazette (June 27, 2019), https://news.harvard.edu/gazette/story/2019/06/harvard-scholars-reflect-on-the-history-and-legacy-of-the-stonewall-riots/.

[12] See Anjulki Sastry, Karen Grigsby Bates, When LA Erupted in Anger: A Look Back at the Rodney King Riots, NPR (Apr. 26, 2017) https://www.npr.org/2017/04/26/524744989/when-la-erupted-in-anger-a-look-back-at-the-rodney-king-riots.

[13] See generally Laura Bliss, LAPD’s Police Reforms and the Legacy of Rodney King, CityLab (May 1, 2015), https://www.citylab.com/equity/2015/05/lapds-police-reforms-and-the-legacy-of-rodney-king/392000/. Robert Garcia, Riots and Rebellions: Los Angeles Police Reform Time Line 1965–2012, KCET (April 27, 2012), https://www.kcet.org/history-society/riots-and-rebellions-los-angeles-police-reform-time-line-1965-2012.

[14] See generally P.R. Lockhart, Ferguson changed how America talks about police violence. 5 years later, not much else has changed, Vox (Aug. 9, 2019) https://www.vox.com/identities/2019/8/9/20798921/michael-brown-ferguson-uprising-police-violence-reform.