Since Ferguson, the images have become familiar. The fires. The police, in their face shields, armed with batons and cans of pepper spray. The protesters, sporting bruises, pouring milk on one another’s faces. Sometimes it feels like we’re stuck in a loop, reliving the same scenes, over and over. Is this kind of protest working? If it is, for whom? And how will this all end?
On Wednesday’s episode of What Next, I spoke with Kellie Carter Jackson, a history professor at Wellesley University and the author of Force and Freedom: Black Abolitionists and the Politics of Violence. In our conversation, which has been edited and condensed for clarity, she argues that the uprising we’re witnessing right now is rooted in a long-standing American tradition, and we may not be stuck—we just may be at a turning point.
Mary Harris: I was watching the New York police commissioner give a press conference over the weekend, and at the very end, he basically defended the cops for the fact that they’d driven into a group of protesters. He also said something like, I’ve done this a long time, and my perspective is that the most effective protests are the quietest.
Kellie Carter Jackson: Ugh. I couldn’t disagree more. When we go back to Colin Kaepernick’s silent protest of taking a knee at football games during the national anthem—people lost their minds. I remember the outrage. I remember the boycotts. I remember the Nike ad. And I remember saying to my husband, all he’s doing is taking a knee—like, this is not a middle finger to the flag. But people could not handle that. No one wants the knee, so you move past that into this much more aggressive, direct political response. Now, those who initially expressed displeasure prefer the knee. If we’re honest with ourselves, no one wants to be interrupted. No one really wants the status quo to change. No one wants to be uncomfortable. No one wants to forfeit anything.
You’ve talked about violence as a lubricant for social change, and as a form of communication.
In my book, I talk about how violence is a political language. It works really well as a metaphor when we think about revolutions, wars, and particularly bottom-up uprisings. Violence becomes the main way people can communicate their political, social, or economic grievances. When Martin Luther King Jr. said, “A riot is the language of the unheard,” he was saying, this is how they speak. When you mute them politically, socially, and economically, this is the only way they can communicate and get attention.
I want to talk about how violence is woven into dissent in this country. If you had to explain how we got here, where would you start this story?
I would start with the American Revolution. That was when we were given our first ideas about equality and liberty and democracy. And that was when revolutionary language became so popular. I mean, Patrick Henry’s “Give me liberty, or give me death” was the most popular phrase of all of the colonial period. I think that ideology is a really serious ultimatum—it requires freedom or violence. That’s also how our country was founded: While our Founding Fathers were talking about liberty and justice, a good portion of them were slave owners. The hypocrisy of liberty is also birthed in this moment of enslavement, so it’s really hard to reconcile.
This is the paradox at the core of our country: slavery vs. liberty. After all, the American Revolution got started when British soldiers killed a black man, Crispus Attucks.
Crispus Attucks was part Native American and part African American. He was a free black person, and he was protesting the British soldiers. There’s a lot of controversy about how exactly everything commenced with the Boston Massacre. Some say people were throwing snowballs at the British soldiers to taunt them. Other people say they were throwing sticks or pieces of wood. But either way, there was an altercation and Attucks ended up being the first casualty. A British soldier fired and killed him and several other people. And it leads to this catalyst that precipitates the American Revolution. In this moment, it’s John Adams who defends the British soldiers and basically calls out Attucks and says, These soldiers were right to retaliate, because look at Attucks. He’s this big, black, terrifying man. How could you not want to defend yourself? And so he uses the race card.
The way I was presented Crispus Attucks was from a point of pride: The first casualty was a black person. The first person to stand up was a black person. But no one gives you the backstory of, well, why was he the first person shot? Why did he become the sole aggressor in Adams’ defense of the British soldiers? That, to me, is what’s even more telling: how John Adams sets up the defense for these British soldiers, which in the present day would be the same sort of justification that the cops feared for their lives. That narrative is not new.
You write that abolitionism was a violent movement too. But a lot of times folks remember it as peaceful, just convincing people that slavery was wrong. What do we misunderstand here?
The abolitionist movement was incredibly violent. Incredibly violent. And I think that when we think about it, we only have a narrative through the lens of William Lloyd Garrison, this white, pacifist man who pushed nonviolence and moral suasion as a tactic to abolish slavery. Moral suasion is this idea that you can morally persuade people that slavery is wrong and people will say, Oh, gosh, this is terrible, and want to free their slaves. That tactic does not work at all. And they found out very quickly just how adamant slaveholders were about maintaining their ownership of black people and of the institution of slavery.
In my book, I talk about how black abolitionists rationalize: Slavery starts with violence, slavery is sustained by violence, so slavery will only be overthrown by violence. And these black leaders come together and they start to say, We need to defend ourselves. We need to protect our communities. And I talk about protective violence, because protective violence is not just like self-defense. Protective violence is really about the collective: It is about not just defending your home but your community, your kin, fugitive slaves, anyone who is without the protection of the state. I have to tell my students all the time that fleeing required fighting—no one was going to let you walk off the plantation without a fight. So slaves always had to arm themselves. And abolitionists and leaders always had to be ready to defend themselves.
I have a couple of kids. I think the story they get in school about Martin Luther King Jr. is about peaceful marching. Those images of giving a speech in Washington, “I Have a Dream,” that’s the image we leave them with. And I saw a lot of people over this past week saying, I need white people to stop talking about MLK right now.
He’s become so sanitized, and we don’t realize that in his day he was hated. He was despised. We don’t talk about that enough. We like to stick to these pleasant, accommodating versions of him that make us feel good about ourselves or about the future or even about the past, which was incredibly violent. Everything King was doing was a response to intense violence. And I also think what people don’t realize is that his home was an arsenal. He believed in the Second Amendment—he had guns all over his house. There’s a good book called This Nonviolent Stuff’ll Get You Killed that talks about how having nonviolence as a political stance is an offensive tactic. Black civil rights leaders intensely believed in protecting their households and families. They weren’t just going to let somebody firebomb their house and turn the other cheek. And so I wish people knew more of that MLK, who had the Deacons for Defense and Justice within arm’s reach who sat out in front of his house, armed to the teeth, sometimes on rooftops, guarding his home, guarding his entourage. That’s really, really important: that you could be peaceful, but you could also protect yourself in the same space.
The other thing MLK did was give a movement a face. A leader. That’s one of the things the current movement lacks.
We still have a model for movements or protest that is very much like, “Take me to your leader, and then we can negotiate terms.”
I’ve been thinking about that a lot. I interviewed a reporter in Minneapolis who talked about being in the crowd with an older civil rights leader who was saying to him, This isn’t how it works. You need to have leadership and there need to be demands and this needs to be more organized.
That’s what we’re most comfortable with because it’s so formulaic: Man meets man, they have a discussion, and then that’s it, draw up the contract. That’s what we’re so used to. But that hasn’t worked because otherwise we wouldn’t still be here. If it’s not about “take me to your leader,” then they have to deal with the people, with all of us. All of us want a seat at this table. Then we have to reconstruct the table, reconstruct the room.
It’s encouraging to me that people are saying you have to deal with the collective. This idea of one person leading all of it does not work, because what happens when you kill them? History has taught us that these people don’t have long life expectancies. If you look at Malcolm X, Medgar Evers, Martin Luther King Jr., they’re—
Yeah. Vulnerable. That’s a really good word.
James Baldwin has this great quote: “People find it very difficult to act on what they know. To act is to be committed and to be committed is to be in danger.” I think about the formula of that: to think about something to act on, to be committed to the thing you’re acting upon, and then to realize you’re in danger because you are committed to this idea. That’s a very real, sobering notion: How do I grapple with the fact that if I’m really going to be committed to this, if I’m really going to act on what I know, I have to put my life on the line, and it might not be life as in life and death, but my livelihood, my job, my promotion, my friends, my quality of life? A lot of things get put at risk when you say, “If we going to have this, I have to forfeit my privilege.” Or, “If we’re going to have this, I have to risk making people uncomfortable.” And danger is not always death, right?
You’ve said riots have a way of magnifying not merely the flaws in the system but also the strength of those in power. I feel like we’re seeing that now with the police reaction and this tremendous power in the streets. New York City has a curfew of 8 o’clock, and the power structure has helicopters and SUVs and a lot of guns.
And tanks and tear gas and rubber bullets. It’s military force against civilians.
What was most disturbing about George Floyd’s death was not just the knee and his neck, but the smug look on the cop’s face of You won’t tell me what to do. You won’t tell me how to stop. I’m doing what I want. He just seemed completely unrepentant.
I get annoyed when people talk about looters. Look at the people in power. Look at what they have access to. Look at the tools they have. Then ask yourself: Is this a fair fight?