“Peaceful protest”—these words dominated headlines as thousands of American citizens took to the streets in cities across the country demanding justice for George Floyd. Every commentator, from Barack Obama to local faith leaders, urged the protesters to remain peaceful. Their warnings made me think of the college students I regularly teach in a course called “Peace and Protest,” where we read texts defending and critiquing nonviolence. My students’ reactions make me question why we’re always so intent on “keeping the peace.”
For many Americans, of course, the ideal peaceful protester is Martin Luther King Jr. But even King’s nonviolent tactics weren’t always universally applauded. His “Letter From a Birmingham Jail,” written in 1963, recalls how local officials described King and his fellow black Christian leaders when they traveled to Birmingham to join demonstrations against segregation: “outside agitators.” Southern white religious leaders likewise criticized King and his allies for their civil disobedience, on the grounds that such tactics provoked violence. Those same critics also praised the police for maintaining “law and order”—even as officers unleashed violent attack dogs and beat nonviolent protesters after arresting them.
My students find a lot to admire in the 1960s civil rights activists, whose courage and willingness to suffer police brutality without retaliating are certainly inspiring. Still, they are also persuaded by Ta-Nehisi Coates’s skepticism regarding nonviolence. In his book Between the World and Me, written just after the acquittal of the officers who’d killed Michael Brown in Ferguson, Missouri, Coates recalls growing up as a black boy in 1980s inner-city Baltimore. He remembers seeing videos of civil rights “heroes”—black people knocked down by fire hoses and beaten with clubs in the streets. “Why were only our heroes nonviolent?” he asks. The morality of nonviolence, he concludes, is only—and unfairly—expected of people of color.