A History of Violent Protest

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S1: Hey, listener, over the holidays, we are rerunning some of our favorite episodes from earlier in the year. Today, I’m going to share a show we broadcast back in June as the nationwide protests over the murder of George Floyd were just beginning. Before we get started, I need you to take a moment and remember how the beginning of June felt. We’ve been cooped up for months. No one knew how the election was going to turn out. And then suddenly we were all being inundated by one video after another, showing violence often perpetrated by the police against peaceful protesters. And that is where this episode starts. There’s this question I keep asking myself as they watch the footage of unrest spilling out from city after city over the last few days, how will all this end? The images are familiar now, the fires, the police in their face shields armed with batons and cans of pepper spray, the protesters sporting bruises, pouring milk on each other’s faces. Sometimes it feels like we’re stuck in a loop, reliving the same scenes over and over. But each time the loop starts up again, it gets more intense, more chaotic.

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S2: Watching the protest was a little surreal and that we’ve seen so much or I’ve seen so much of this footage reincarnated in different ways over time.

S1: Kelly Carter Jackson is professor of history at Wellesley University.

S3: Ferguson was not that long ago when we were watching something very similar. If I go back a little bit to my childhood, I think of the Rodney King riots that took place.

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S4: If I go back to my mother’s generation, she lived through all of 68 while she was in college. And so it just feels like are are we making progress?

S1: I wanted to speak with Kelly because this repetition for me brings up his other question. If we’re stuck repeating ourselves, is this kind of protest working and for whom? I live in New York and I was watching the police commissioner here give a press conference over the weekend. And at the very end, there is this part that stuck with me because he talked about a lot of stuff and he was basically defending the cops. He said essentially, like, I’ve done this a long time.

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S5: And my perspective is that the most effective protests are the quietest, that I’ve worked a lot of protests, good and bad, the ones I remember, the ones that have the lasting impact. And this is my opinion. Well, the quietest ones, and I couldn’t disagree more.

S4: I could not disagree more, and I think, you know, when we go back, what, two, maybe three years to Colin Kaepernick, silent protest of taking a knee at football games during the national anthem.

S6: And when he did that, people lost their minds. I remember the outrage. I remember, you know, the boycotts. I remember, you know, the Nike ad. And and I remember saying to my husband, all he’s doing is taking a knee like this is not, you know, middle finger to the flag. You know, this was this was a posture of subservience. You know, you you need to pray. You kneel to propose to someone. And and we could not handle that. And now that no one wants the knee anymore, like, we sort of move past the the the kneeling phase into this much more aggressive, direct political response. Now, people prefer the knee. And and it just boggles my mind that if we’re honest with ourselves, no one really 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. And I think that’s what the real issue is. It’s not about how loud are they, how quiet are they. It’s that no form of protest is considered acceptable.

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S7: Kelly says, if you look at what’s happening right now and feel uncomfortable, that’s the whole point. These historical loops only stop skipping when something breaks. A nice, peaceful protest might not do the job, but to understand that, you have to look past the last couple of decades. Today on the show, how the uprising we’re witnessing right now is rooted in a longstanding American tradition, we might not be stuck, but we could be at a turning point.

S8: I’m Mary Harris. You’re listening to what next? Stick with us.

S1: When I asked Kelly Carter Jackson to put this moment into context for me in just a few words, this is what she had to say.

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S9: Oh, it’s so American. It’s so American that it’s like even American to call it an American, you know, it’s so American.

S1: Kelly writes about the history of this country, how it’s rooted in protest, violent protest. It’s why I wanted to talk to her in the first place. She talks about violence as a lubricant for social change, a form of communication.

S4: I talk about this a lot in my book. I talk about how violence is a political language and it works really well as a metaphor. When we think about riots, revolutions, wars, particularly, you know, sort of bottom up uprisings, violence becomes the main way that people can communicate their political, social or economic grievances. And so it’s definitely a language. So when when Martin Luther King Jr. says a riot is the language of the unheard, he’s saying this is how they speak. When you mute them politically, socially and economically. This is the only way that we can communicate in a way that gets attention.

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S1: So you’re a historian. I want to talk about how violence is kind of woven into dissent in this country. If you had to explain how we got here, I’m wondering where you would start this story.

S4: I would absolutely start with the revolution. I think. I mean, I know that two hundred and fifty years ago. Seventeen seventy. But this is where we’re getting our first ideas about like equality and liberty and democracy. And this is where the revolutionary language is becoming 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. And it’s something that we know very well today. And I think that ideology of give me this or else give me this or give me death. Right. You know, it’s it’s an ultimatum. It’s a really serious ultimatum. But it requires like freedom or violence. You know, like this is sort of the the dynamic. And that’s how our country was founded simultaneously. While our founding fathers are talking about liberty and justice, you know, a good portion of them are slave owners. So the hypocrisy of like liberty is also birthed in this moment of enslavement. And so it’s it’s really hard to reconcile. Like, how do you understand the founding fathers and this revolutionary moment and at the same time, gross enslavement of black bodies?

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S1: This is the paradox at the core of our country, slavery versus liberty. It’s been there since the beginning. After all, the American Revolution got started when British soldiers killed a black man, Crispus Attucks, Crispus Attucks, who was part Native American and part African-American.

S4: He’s actually originally from the town of Natick, which is the next town over from where I live. And he was a free black person and he was protesting the British soldiers. And there’s a lot of sort of controversy about how exactly everything commenced with the Boston massacre. Some to say they 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 Crispus Attucks ends up being the first casualty of that altercation. A British soldier fires at him and kills him and several other people. And it leads to this major moment or this catalyst that sort of precipitates the American Revolution. And I also talk about that in this moment. It’s John Adams, again, one of the founding fathers that defends the the the British soldiers and basically calls out Crispus Attucks and says, hey, listen, these these soldiers were right to retaliate because look at Crispus Attucks. He’s this big, black, terrifying man. How could you not want to defend yourself? And so he uses the race card.

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S1: I think that’s so interesting because it shows how in the moment there’s this confusion and, you know, now we look back and we say, oh, Crispus Attucks was the first person killed in the American Revolution.

S10: And of course, everyone, even the way I was at Crispus Attucks was from a point of pride, like the first casualty was a black person, the first person to stand up as a black person. No one gives you the backstory of like, well, why was he the first person shot in terms of like, how does this they were other people that were throwing rocks, that were getting rowdy with the British. And why does he become sort of the sole aggressor in John Adams defence of the British soldiers? That, to me, is what’s even more telling is how John Adams sets a. The defense for these these British soldiers, which in present day would be like, you know, troops, cops, the same sort of justification of what they were in fear for their lives, like that narrative is not new.

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S1: Hmm. You read that abolitionism was a violent movement, too. But I think when we look back, a lot of times folks remember it is as peaceful and sort of convincing people that slavery was wrong. What do we misunderstand here?

S3: Oh, man. The abolitionist movement was incredibly violent, incredibly violent. And I think that when we think about the abolitionist movement, we’ve only gotten the narrative through the lens of William Lloyd Garrison, who is this white passivist man who pushes 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, slavery is a sin, and that people will say, oh, gosh, this is terrible and want to free their slaves. That tactic does not work at all. And they find out very quickly just how just how adamant slaveholders are about maintaining their ownership of black people and of the institution of slavery. It’s incredibly violent. So my book, I talk about how black abolitionists rationalized, listen, slavery starts and violence. Slavery is sustained by violence, so slavery will only be overthrown by violence. And so this group of black leaders pretty much come together and they start to say, we need to defend ourselves, we need to protect our communities. And I talk about protected violence because protected violence is not just like self-defense, like someone’s breaking into your home and you try to stop them. 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 like no one was going to let you walk off the plantation. And so slaves always had to arm themselves. And abolitionists and people who were leaders always had to be ready to defend themselves.

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S1: I mean, I think you alluded to the story you get in school and, you know, I have a couple of kids. I think the story they get in school is about Martin Luther King, right? It’s about peaceful marching. Those images of just 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 last week saying I need white people to stop talking about Martin Luther King right now. Yeah, yeah, yeah. I’m wondering what you think people, maybe especially white people, misunderstand about the use of nonviolence as a tool.

S9: Mm hmm. There’s no shade to Martin Luther King Jr.. But I just think that he’s become so sanitized and that we don’t realize that in his day, he was hated. He was despised. There’s a reason he was assassinated. And I think we don’t talk about that enough. We like to stick to these really pleasant, accommodating versions of him that make us feel good about ourselves or make us feel good about the future or even make us feel good about the past, which was incredibly violent. But everything that Martin Luther King was doing was a response to violence, intense violence. And I also don’t think what people realize about Martin Luther King Jr. was that his home was an arsenal like he believed in the Second Amendment. He had guns all over his house. And there’s a really good book called The Deacons of Self-defense. There’s another good book called This Non-violent Stuff Will Get You Killed. But it talks about how having nonviolence as a political stance is an offensive tactic. But the defense involves guns that 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. Martin Luther King Jr. that always had the deacons of self-defense within arm’s reach that sat out in front of his house armed to the teeth, sometimes, you know, on rooftops, guarding his home, guarding his entourage. That’s really, really important that you can be peaceful, but you could also protect yourself in the same space.

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S1: The other thing Martin Luther King did was give the movement a face, a leader. That’s one of the things the current movement lacks.

S4: You know, we still have a model for four movements or protest that is very much like.

S2: Take me to your leader and and then we can negotiate terms, right?

S1: And so I’m so glad you said that because I’ve been thinking about that a lot. Like I interviewed a a reporter in Minneapolis who talked about being in the crowd with an older civil rights leader who is just sort of 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.

S9: I think that that’s what we’re most comfortable with, you know, because that’s it’s so formulaic, you know, OK, man meets man, we have discussion and then that’s it. Right. Drop the contract. Right. Like, you know, like that. That is what we’re so used to. But that hasn’t worked for that because otherwise we wouldn’t still be here. So if it’s not about take me to your leader, if it’s no, you have to deal with the people. All of us want a seat at this table. Then we have to reconstruct the table. We have to reconstruct the room.

S2: I think it’s I don’t know, encouraging to me that people are saying, like you, you have to deal with the collective, like this idea of one person leading it all does not work because what happens when you kill him or what happens when you kill her? History has taught us that these people don’t have long life expectancies. If you look at Malcolm X, if you look at, you know, Martin Luther King Jr., you know, these people are they’re vulnerable.

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S1: Yeah, vulnerable. Vulnerable. That’s a really good word. Yeah. I mean, it’s funny you say that because I was literally having a conversation with a friend last night where she said, yeah, if there’s a leader that just that could kill that person, that person would die and. Oh, God, that’s right. That’s right.

S2: Yeah. It’s James Baldwin has this great quote where he talks about and I’m going to butcher the quote I need to find it. But he basically says that you have to do more than just know. You have to act on what you know. And that to act means to be committed and to be committed means to put yourself in danger. And I think about like the formula of that right to think about something to act on. That’s something to be committed to the thing that you’re acting upon, and then to realize that you are in danger because you are committed to this idea. You know, that’s a very real sobering notion in terms of 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 like life is in life and death, but 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. Right. If we’re going to have this, I have to risk making people uncomfortable. Dangers, not always death. Right.

S1: Hmm. Looking at these protests play out, you wrote this thing that I think was really true, that we’re not talking about enough. You said riots have a way of magnifying, not merely the flaws in the system, but also the strength of those in power. And I feel like we’re seeing that now with the police reaction tonight, New York City has a curfew of eight o’clock, which seems crazy to me. And, you know, the power structure has helicopters and SUVs and a lot of guns, tanks and guns and tear gas and rubber bullets.

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S9: And I mean, it’s it’s a military force. It’s a military force against civilians. And I think that optic of lack of power and the enforcement of the state and what that looks like, like what people are up against the optics of the officer with his knee and George Floyds neck. And to me, what was most disturbing was not just the knee and his neck, but sort of the smug look on his face of you won’t tell me what to do. You won’t tell me how to stop. I’m doing what I want. You know, he just seemed unrepentant on his face, completely unrepentant. And that to me was so disturbing. I get annoyed when people talk about, you know, looters and look at these protesters and look at these, you know, punks or whatever you want to call it. But to me, I’m like, look at the people in power. Look at what they have access to, look at, look at the tools they have, and then ask yourself, is this a fair fight?

S1: Yeah. Dave Chappelle has this joke where he it’s not really a joke.

S11: It’s just kind of the truth where he says, I don’t see any peaceful way to disarm America’s whites. No, no, no.

S1: You wrote this piece in the Atlantic and you end it with a story about talking to your mom and expressing sadness, sort of that you you can’t really be out there with the protesters. You’ve got three kids and one of them is a little baby. And your mom said to you, don’t worry, there’s more to come and you can help then. Yeah. And I really didn’t know how to feel about that.

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S3: Yeah. Yeah. That was so depressing.

S1: Right. Because I thought, oh gosh, this really I think the question is, when is all this going to be over? The pandemic, the violence, all of it. Right. When are we getting back to normal? That’s been the sort of resounding question. And what your mom was saying was it’s not normal, like get used to riding this roller coaster. And I said it was so heavy for me. Did it feel like that for you, too?

S9: Well, it felt heavy for me because it felt like what she was saying. And and this is this is the sad truth, that police brutality is the norm.

S3: The killing of unarmed black people is the norm. So in that sense, my mom is saying, yeah, just keep on living, you’ll get another chance.

S9: And I’m like, I don’t want another chance. You know, I don’t want I don’t want another chance. But if we don’t have change, that will for sure happen. I will for sure have another opportunity.

S3: My desire to want to be out in the streets by my desire to want to protest is is to find some sort of way to be heard and it’s incredibly frustrating.

S4: But at the same time, I have children, so I have to be hopeful and I have to still work for justice, even if I’m not sure how I can visualize it.

S11: Kelley, Carter, Jackson, thank you so much for joining me. Thanks so much for having me. When we called Kelly back up to see how her thinking had evolved over the last few months, I was struck by the fact that she had been asking herself some of the same questions I’d been asking when we first put this episode together. She was wondering if the protests over the summer had really changed anything. This is going to sound really bad, but I am questioning and I have been questioning the utility of protest because in a lot of ways I think what we saw over the summer, not all of it, but some of it was surely performative.

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S12: Some of it was surely this is for the gram, you know what I mean? Like, this is for Instagram. And that will bring about change. We continue to see a shooting of a black man. It just seemed like it didn’t matter that these protests were happening, at least from the perspective of the police. There was no timidity. No, let’s step back. There was no change in behavior, you know, and there was no real repentance either. So that to me was just really disturbing.

S1: Kelly also wanted to clarify something we talked about when we released this episode. We called it a history of violent protest. But Kelly says the next time you see people out on the streets, make sure you think about who is being violent and what you consider violence in the first place.

S12: I don’t think you can cause violence to a window or commit violence against a building or violence against a car. You can be destructive to a car. But I think violence is something that we should preserve only for physical bodily harm of human beings, of people. And so I think there should be two different kinds of anger that we’re talking about, too. I’m not saying you don’t have you’re not entitled to your anger or your grief if someone destroys your business. Absolutely. That’s understandable. But for the things that can’t be recovered, the things that aren’t insured, like most black lives, you know, there has to be a distinction there.

S13: The primary perpetrators of racial violence have not been black people and the primary victims of racial violence have been black people and have been their allies. So, you know, I think I mean, I think we have to ask these questions of like who’s afraid of who? Who should be afraid of whom?

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S7: Dr. Kelly Carter Jackson is a professor at Wellesley College. She’s also the author of Force in Freedom Black Abolitionists and the Politics of Violence. And that’s the show we’ll be back here with a fresh new episode starting January 4th. Until then, I hope you enjoy a little time off. This episode of What Next was produced by Mary Wilson, Jason de Leon, Danielle Hewitt and Elena Schwartz, Frannie Kelley helped get it ready for rebroadcast. This show gets a little better every day because of Allison Benedikt and Alicia Montgomery. And I am Mary Harris. I’ll be back with more, what, next January 4th.