The Problem Of “Peaceful Protesters”

| Strategize!

NOTE: This article was originally published in It’s Going Down in February 2019. In light of the uprising in Minneapolis over the police murdering George Floyd, it seems important to bring this back. Solidarity is critical in times of crisis and we can’t allow the state or “white moderates” to cause division. We are all protesters. We use different tactics in different circumstances. Let’s stay focused on the root causes of injustice and oppression and avoid being complicit with injustice and oppression.   – MF

“I’m not a protester. I’m violent.”
-Masked Rebel in Ferguson

Along with voting, in today’s society protesting peacefully is often held up as one of the only ways that everyday working-class and poor people can change the world. This is a myth we are raised with, and since the time that we are very young, we are taught that peaceful protest helped bring about massive changes in this country and remains the only way in which people can correctly pressure the government into addressing problems and grievances. This myth has gone on to become a framework that not only criminalizes and normalizes repression, but also helps to generalize the policing and shaming of various tactics of resistance in social struggles. If we are to create a movement that can not only push back against broad attacks but create a new way of living, this false notion of “peaceful protesters” is going to have to be completely destroyed.

A History Of Violence

When someone says that non-violence has been the only way that human beings have changed the world, they’re fucking lying. 

Across the world and across history, oppressed, marginalized, poor, and working-class people have used a variety of tactics to further their goals and fight back, and this includes things that could be considered violent. Overall, this means that when people refuse their roles within society and instead force the system into a state of crisis, that’s when we can create a situation in which we can forward our own agenda. This often means that people refuse to do the things that allows the system to reproduce itself. In the case of workers, people strike. In the case of renters, they go on rent strike. For the poor, they refuse to be passive: they riot. In the case of all, they defend themselves against the violence of State repression and the police: they fight back. 

Throughout American history mass defiance to governance and the police is what led to historic changes in the cases of both the Labor Movement and the Civil Rights struggle. In both instances, mass, disruptive, riotous, and at times violent tactics were key in pushing the State to grant massive reforms. Furthermore, disruptive elements often catapulted reformist and non-violent organizers into a position to negotiate with the State and push through changes. Thus, if it wasn’t for violence or the threat of it, leaders such as MLK wouldn’t have become so prominent.

We should also keep in mind that our enemies have also used a variety of tactics in order to ensure that white supremacy and patriarchy have stayed firmly in place. For instance, a combination of white racist terror in the form of the Ku-Klux-Klan, which was backed by wealthy land owners along with the formation of White Citizens Councils helped defeat Reconstruction in the South and paved the way for the legalization of Jim Crow.

State repression has also used a variety of violent tactics in order to ensure that resistance movements were decimated and State authority and control was returned. For instance, in 1990, the FBI with the help of local police and corporate officials, blew up the car of Earth First! and IWW organizers Judi Bari and Darryl Cherney, in order to stop their efforts to both unionize loggers and fight to protect old growth forests. In the 1960s, the FBI worked to destroy groups such as the Black Panthers through COINTELPRO and used a wide variety of tactics, up to out right assassination to destroy the black liberation struggle, anti-war movement, and radical Left.

In short, both racist reactionaries on the far-Right, the State, and movements for liberation have used a wide diverse array of tactics in order to fight both each other, and for their own power.

To imply anything else is to ignore reality and deny history.

The Myth And Image Of Peaceful Protesters

In the daily reporting of the media, in the eyes of the police, and in the minds of millions of liberals, “peaceful protesters” are the basic building blocks of a “successful” push to change the status-quo. Across the social landscape, peaceful protesters are celebrated as the ‘only’ people who are listened too and who historically have been able to change the way the world functions. In many ways, the positive vision of ‘peaceful protesters’ also paints a rosy image of the ‘respectable government,’ which supposedly has its ear to the ground for concerns, listens politely to all those that are not rude, and grants the wishes of those who ask nicely.

Thus, peaceful protesters are celebrated for not disrupting society or physically becoming combative with the established order, while all those who actually do so are demonized by the State, the media, the Left, and attacked by the police.

We see this playing out in a variety of ways. In the media, reporters are always quick to give accolades to protests when they are symbolic, contained, and peaceful. When asked for comment by the police, the cops themselves will always give praise to “peaceful protesters” for policing themselves and making sure that disruptions and attacks on the normalcy of social peace do not happen. In many cases, we see many protesters returning this praise, going so far as to hug police and shake hands with them, “Thank you for protecting us,” they tell police who are there to make sure people don’t actually disrupt the normalcy of everyday life.

The media also always helps to divide protests into two camps: “peaceful” and non-protests, or riots. In today’s edition of The New York Times for instance, a headline reads, Peaceful Protest Is Not a Crime, as it discusses the various draconian pieces of legislation which are aimed at stopping people from blockading and disrupting freeways, roads, and pipelines.

Ironically, the whole point of these pieces of legislation is that the tactics they seek to criminalize are disruptive and confrontational, and thus dangerous, regardless of it they are ‘non-violent.’

Thus, liberals miss the point again. Any sort of strategy that seeks to physically shut down and block things from happening will be targeted by the State. It is not interested if things are “non-violent” or not, simply if they disrupt business as usual.

The State Has It’s Own Logic, And Not One Of Non-Violence

In the minds of many peaceful protesters, they often believe that if they remain peaceful, the police will not attack them. They also surmise that if the police do attack them, then the police will be reprimanded for attacking the coveted “peaceful protesters.”

This line of thinking plays out in mainstream and Left media, as people will often write and say that police attacked “peaceful protesters,” in order to shock their readers. While many people believe that they are simply pointing out that the police attacked a crowd without provocation, what this does is simply draw a line between those that are disruptive and confrontational (who deserve to be attacked by the State) and those who are “peaceful,” (who deserve to be protected).

Furthermore, it also removes any real analysis of why the police would attack a protest to begin with, regardless of its makeup. For it already assumes that for the police to attack a peaceful gathering, this is somehow outside of the ordinary and uncalled for. It also reaffirms the status of the peaceful protester as the most sanctimonious creature in the universe, especially when compared to the hooliganistic being who riots, loots, punches Nazis, and start fires.

In reality, police attack peaceful demonstrations and actions all the time, not because they are violent or non-violent, but simply because the State views them as a threat and wants to shut them down.

Peace And Whiteness

The peaceful protester is both a convenient myth for the dominant system, as it is an archetype that it encourages people to strive for as it promotes that idea that only those who are non-disruptive will be listened to. There are peaceful protesters; those who are passive and submit to the authority of the State, and then there are rioters, hooligans, anarchists; those who fight, who destroy, who loot, who attack.

The racial overtones of these categories are clear. White, educated, and middle class people who already have more access and sway over institutions, who have been trained with the logic and morals of the dominant system in colleges and schools; are always more expected to be peaceful protesters. Meanwhile, black and brown youth who riot and fight back against the police also are likewise expected to simply be rioters and looters. In doing so, their actions are stripped of all reasons for acting and they are reduced to beings with animalistic urges; devoid of purpose other than being out of control.

We see this time and time again. When riots break out, elites always make the distinction that those that are physically fighting are not protesters and therefore are not legitimate. This is also how the black bloc is largely presented by the powers that be, as a body of people both in treason against the “peaceful protester” and also against whiteness itself. Instead of swallowing the State’s logic, let’s recognize this language for what it is: the State recognizing its enemies. It’s up to us to draw lines: who do we support? The State or those that resist it?

There Is No Non-Violent Protest

The idea that any protest is non-violent is a total fantasy. The police are violent, the State is violent. To the police there is also always the immense threat that a protest (or any social situation) could leave the confines of symbolism and passivity and move into open confrontation and disruption with the established order; this is why they come to protests, to ensure that this doesn’t happen. To do this, they use the threat of violence. 

For instance, in Davis, California, a speech by Milo Yiannopoulos several weeks ago was shut down after a large crowd stood in front of the doors. Soon after the protest began, the Republican organizers pulled the plug out of fear of what might happen. Not surprisingly, Milo and Breitbart would go on to lie about what happened, claiming that windows were broken and this caused the event to be shut down.

On the other hand, others claimed that the event signaled a victory for non-violence and peaceful protesters, and rushed to show that in fact nothing was broken, as if to clear the good name of the people who demonstrated.

But in reality, it was the threat of physical fights and confrontation that forced the event to be shut down, even though in reality, it didn’t come to blows. And while sometimes we can win without carrying out certain actions, which is preferable, we must remember that it is the threat of our ability to do so that often allows us to win, not the ‘moral high ground’ or other made up nonsense that comes from the snake oil of non-violence.

Destroy The Myth Of The Peaceful Protester

The sooner we destroy and leave behind the myth of the peaceful protester and stop holding it up as the archetype for all resistance movements, the better off all struggles for liberation will be.

Let’s not let the media define who we are and what we do. Let’s not allow the elites, corporate CEOs, and police brass to put us into categories of “good” and “bad;” “community” or “outside agitators.” All of this is bullshit and it comes from the State.

Let’s also remember that just because we reject non-violence doesn’t also mean that we worship or glorify armed struggle, being militant, or violent resistance, which is simply the other side of the same coin.

Instead, let’s work to popularize both self-defense against the State and far-Right forces, push back against liberal demonization of a diversity of tactics, and also work to promote strategies that win and build our power.

  • 0040

    “Peaceful protest” was always an oxymoron and at best a non sequitur even when Chomsky related it to Gandhis pacifism in the 1960s which it isn’t and declared it a way to produce systemic change which it never has. I see Mr Hedges has now officially sold out and is running for office in a system he has criticized as beyond repair for decades . The covid panic-demic continues to roll up an impressive string of victories as even the pretense of dissidence collapses..

  • Jeff

    I largely agree, with one exception. The rebellion that ended the Soviet Union was peaceful: there was no violence to speak of nor any threat of violence, but the great masses that got into the streets and stayed there made the society ungovernable. So that works too.

    But this author is right: it’s about whether the protest is effective, not about whether it’s “violent,” which BTW is a loaded term anyway (I don’t believe that property damage is violent, for example).

  • Sally McMillan

    Going Down’s article justifying violence as a response to today’s problems is very disturbing.. Violence leads to violence. Violence detracts from and discredits the value of the action being taken. It is false to connect MLK’s movement for civil rights to violence King insisted on nonviolence. Consider today’s response in Minneapolis to George Floyd’s murder. It has been damaged by the actions of probably a few of the demonstrators who have resorted to violence. Equating work and renter strikes to violence is false. These are nonviolenct responses to injustice. In many demonstrations it is usually infiltrators who commit the violence to discredit the movement. I am sorry to see Popular Resistance re-printing Going Down’s anonymous piece.

  • mwildfire

    Well, I have argued against violence and “diversity of tactics” for decades. But I have also become frustrated with the inability of the left to make any progress. One thing this writer gets right is that what the state and the oligarchs mean by peaceful, legitimate, acceptable protest is not so much the absence of violence as the absence of effectiveness. Some of the anti-protest laws make it a major crime to block a street or a pipeline path, etc. So it’s fine to protest, our Constitutionally enshrined right to protest can’t be challenged–but the state can tell us we have to have a permit (a permit from the state to protest the state’s actions seems a pretty weird idea)… that we can stand or walk here but not there, and their extremely good friends in the “mainstream” (corporate) media will cooperate by either not covering a protest at all or slanting it–often by focusing on broken windows etc, and this is why they often have infiltrators doing the window-breaking (which brings up the question of why Black Bloc types are doing for free what undercover cops or agents provocateur are being paid to do). The key is, protest is fine and good and acceptable as long as IT DOESN’T CHANGE ANYTHING. The most successful protest I have ever seen was in Seattle in ’99 and it wasn’t the few dozen(?) Black Bloc people breaking windows and spraying graffiti (which filled the newsreels); nor was it the 40,000 peaceful marchers (which the news barely mentioned)–it was the 5,000 people who blocked all thirteen entrances to the venue where the WTO delegates were meeting, successfully preventing the meetin on Tuesday, November 30th. The next day the city was locked down and 500 protesters were arrested just for being downtown looking like a protester, and the meeting resumed…but the drama emboldened the third-world delegates, who had been fucked over year after year in these meetings but persuaded they had to take it or leave it. They issued a statement explaining why they would not sign on to what the gang of rich countries had drawn up, and the WTO broke up with no agreement. So, it wasn’t violence or even property destruction, nor was it polite and peaceful marching that made the difference–it was LARGE NUMBERS of people doing direct action, blockading the confab of the vampires.

  • SCM

    White man stole the world with violence and like 5-10% of population never forget that fact.

  • dopfa

    Part of me suspects this may be a part of the plan to bring the military in to use against citizens in a way that would be accepted by white people. Always try out the plan on those with “less questionable legitimacy” before bringing it to the white masses. One fire was allegedly started by a white cop, an agent provocateur. I don’t know what to believe anymore. Between the virus lockdown and the prepared use of military against citizens in such a short amount of time, I am always suspect of the reason behind the corporate media’s weapon of mass distraction. The deep state is the real enemy of the people.

  • Calgacus

    Not at all true about the Soviet Union. Yeltsin displaced Gorby and resorted to violence against the legislature when it wouldn’t obey him. The western press portrayed things as the opposite of reality. Yeltsin’s “democracy” was actually violent fascism against nascent electoral democracy.

  • Jeff

    Your comment is irrelevant to what I said. What I described was the revolution that ended the Soviet Union, not what happened afterward.

  • dan

    Well written and said. A perfect example of “peaceful non-violent protest” being met with violent forces of The State were the tear-gas riot squads that “cleared a path” so Fascist Trump could walk to that D.C. church for a photo op. Holding a Bible as a prop; Trump’s image held echoes of South Africa’s apartheid days when the Calvinist Dutch descendants fought the British as to who was more racist there….