They were inspiring, those early mass protests against police violence spurred by the death of a Black man, George Floyd, at the hands of Minneapolis cops. Those demonstrations were also largely peaceful. The situation is more complicated now.
Street demonstrations are always complex affairs made up of many people with many different motivations. Through this summer of unrest, mainstream media reports have generally held to the mantra that most protesters are peaceful, ignoring the fact that more aggressive actors have recently begun taking a bigger role. Meanwhile, Fox News and other right-wing media, along with President Donald Trump, have pushed the lie that anarchists and domestic terrorists are fully in control. That vision is even more skewed than the wistful idea that it is all mostly peaceful.
The reality is that, on major occasions, thousands of regular folks with legitimate grievances and righteous motivations show up. But, too often, when those people go home, nights of rage kick in, fights break out, businesses get burned and looting ensues. And the chaos has been made worse by the arrival of gun-toting, Trump-supporting vigilantes.
That great icon of the Civil Rights Movement, John Lewis, has been frequently quoted since his recent death. Especially popular is his injunction to “make good trouble.” But Lewis also said, “Nonviolence is one of those immutable principles that we cannot and must not deviate from.”
Right now, there is too much deviation from that principle, and that is counterproductive to the cause of justice. Why? Because of something else Lewis said: “Rioting is not a movement. It is not an act of civil disobedience. I think it is a mistake for people to consider disorganized action, mayhem, and attacks on other people and property as an extension of any kind of movement. It is not. It is simply an explosion of emotion. That’s all. There is nothing constructive about it. It is destructive.”
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