Why ‘Nonviolent Tension’ Is Necessary For Change

By Khoury Johnson

George Floyd’s killing at the hands of police in Minneapolis on May 25, 2020, careened an already fractured United States onto an irreversible path of inflection. It also sparked a wave of nationwide protests in which thousands of Americans, including me — and an unusually high percentage of white people — turned out to voice their frustrations and solidarity. In the face of such gross injustice, the free expression of discontent trumpets the resilience of our democracy. By attending and lending my own voice to the chorus of fed-up, mostly peaceful multitudes, I was exercising a core, enshrined liberty. But at what point does peaceful protesting become insufficient, especially if the act is increasingly imperiled?

Imperiled by whom, of course, is clear. One need not look far beyond the chain-link barricade around Lafayette Square in Washington, D.C., that protesters breached to appreciate the fortified distance between the people and the current president. While they protested in solidarity outside the fences — marching, chanting, kneeling, or exhaling rebellious fumes — he tweeted in solitude from an underground White House bunker traditionally used for terrorist attacks, casting glib, inflammatory aspersions over an entire movement. While they gathered for peaceful demonstration days later, on June 1, pushed back even further into the street and away from the square, he directed local and national armed forces to unleash dispersing agents among the civilly assembled crowd, clearing his path to a farcical and self-serving photo opportunity in front of St. John’s Episcopal Church just across the street, during which he held up a Bible and proclaimed America’s greatness.

This type of protest suppression, though horrific, should not come as a surprise to anyone knowledgeable of the president’s past. On June 4, 1989, nearly 31 years to the day before the Lafayette Square fiasco, the Chinese military killed or arrested thousands of pro-democracy demonstrators in Beijing’s Tiananmen Square, in what is considered one of recent history’s most glaring examples of brutal state-sanctioned suppression of popular protest. 

Then a real estate magnate, Donald Trump praised China’s firm handling of the situation. “The Chinese government almost blew it,” he opined in a 1990 interview with Playboy magazine. “Then they were vicious, they were horrible, but they put it down with strength. That shows you the power of strength.”

To be clear: Lafayette Square is hardly Tiananmen Square. Trump’s actions were more a blustery pretension of force than a deadly deployment of it. But his apparent admiration for dictatorial tactics bodes ill for Americans’ First Amendment right to peaceful assembly. 

I contemplated this specter as I returned to Lafayette Square day after day, seeing the same ritual rhythms of resistance play out under the hardened stares of fenced-off troops. Peaceful protests and marches alone, I thought, would not be enough to combat Trump’s blatant disregard for Free Speech, or to bring about the institutional changes necessary to obviate the risk of many more George Floyd-type tragedies.

Black Lives Matters protesters
Protesters march down Black Lives Matter Plaza in Washington, D.C. (Photo: Khoury Johnson)

To my surprise, my thinking was not completely anomalous. These protests, as deftly explained on an episode of NPR’s “Code Switch” podcast, titled A Decade of Watching Black People Die,” represent but the latest knot in a yearslong string of heartbreak. Nonviolent protests, riots, and the recurring menace of “outside agitators” had all formed a common, iterative epilogue to repeated incidents of Black bodies being fatally brutalized by police — or, in Ahmaud Arbery’s case in Georgia, a former policeman and his son. 

Where the civil rights movement succeeded, it did so because its custodians were willing to stretch the boundaries of accepted civil disobedience. Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., long touted for preaching passivity at all costs, in practice promoted using more disruptive means to attain righteous ends. 

“Nonviolent direct action seeks to create such a crisis and foster such a tension … so to dramatize the issue that it can no longer be ignored,” King wrote in his 1963 “Letter from a Birmingham Jail.”“I have earnestly opposed violent tension,” he said, “but there is a type of constructive, nonviolent tension which is necessary for growth.”

Another, though lesser known, exemplar of more-than-passive resistance was Monroe, North Carolina, native Rob Williams, the “first African American civil rights leader to advocate armed resistance to racial oppression and violence,” according to PBS. After returning home from the Marines in 1956, Williams took over the local chapter of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP) and established the Black Guard, an armed group intended to protect Monroe’s Black citizens.

In the ensuing years, Williams would engage in numerous, sometimes violent battles with the Ku Klux Klan — whose Monroe chapter was one of the largest in the country at the time — as well as waging local civil rights campaigns and bringing greater attention to the injustices people of color faced in the Jim Crow South. Reportedly, he also had a significant influence on his lifelong friend Rosa Parks, who launched a new phase of the civil rights movement when she refused to surrender her seat to a white passenger on a segregated bus in Montgomery, Alabama, in 1955.

Although I do not advocate here for violence — not least because of the more militarized nature of today’s police forces compared to those of the 1950s and 1960s — my wish remains that more drastic forms of civil disobedience be taken to effect the change we need, especially in light of Trump’s repressive antics. But, despite my occasional skepticism of the efficacy of peaceful protest, I have been greatly encouraged by the results it has yielded so far.  

In D.C., Mayor Muriel Bowser (D) launched a national trend by ordering “BLACK LIVES MATTER” painted just across from Lafayette Square and the White House. Though many saw this act as a benevolent and powerful gesture, local Black Lives Matter (BLM) activists pointed out the move’s distracting symbolism and blatant hypocrisy; in a budget released in May 2020, Bowser called for D.C. police to receive $45 million in additional funding for new cruisers, motorcycles, and vehicles. BLM added a crucial and rectifying amendment days later: “Defund the Police.” 

On June 7, Minneapolis announced its decision to disband its police force, after calls from activists to transfer funding from law enforcement to invest in more productive services, such as those tackling mental health, domestic violence, and homelessness. On June 12, San Francisco police announced that they would no longer respond to noncriminal calls

Both moves represent steps in the right direction. The over-policing of Black Americans goes back centuries and bears a direct lineage from antebellum slave patrols. Moreover, evidence abounds that police target and harm Black Americans at higher rates than other demographics, a large reason why, in many Black and brown communities, police are not seen as the benevolent forces they are commonly made out to be. This perception is compounded by the fact that police are frequently called into situations where other services may be more helpful. As noted in a June 2020 Brookings Institution report, “Data show that 9 out of 10 calls for service are for nonviolent encounters. Now, this does not mean that an incident will not turn violent, but police at times contribute to the escalation of violent force. Police officers’ skillset and training are often out of sync with the social interactions that they have.” Given this experience, it only makes sense to invest in resources that speak more to the actual needs of a community.

As these debates surrounding police intensified, problematic statues began falling in the United States and abroad. In my own hometown of Philadelphia, city officials decided on June 3, amid ongoing protests, to remove a statue of former Mayor Frank Rizzo that sat directly across from City Hall. Rizzo famously told his constituents to “vote white” while running for a third term in 1978. Meanwhile, protesters in Belgium began toppling and defacing statues of King Leopold II, who, during his reign from 1865 to 1909, oversaw the brutal exploitation of the Congo — a Belgian colony at the time — resulting in an estimated 10 million deaths. And on June 20, a day after the first nationwide celebration of the increasingly popular Juneteeth holiday, a statue depicting Confederate General Albert Pike came crashing down in Washington.  

These and other developments instill in me the hope that we have finally moved beyond the point of expecting societal change from subtle reforms alone. As Trump continues to dishonor the First Amendment by broadcasting his anti-protest views and conspiracy theories on social media, citizens have a responsibility to take more meaningful action. We cannot wait for hostile regimes to fix themselves. After all, George Floyd died under the knee of a police officer, but also under the suffocating weight of centurieslong oppression and ineffective efforts at modest change.