After a third night of protests in Charlotte, North Carolina, many have expressed their relief at the lack of violence and their condemnation of the violence that did happen in the previous nights, according to the Washington Post. And while it's understandable to be concerned about loved ones staying safe, it's not understandable — or acceptable — to question and condemn the protesters and resulting violence.
Have you ever gotten really frustrated and angry and sad at the same time? I know for myself, if I get into a frustrating argument with someone or if a computer program repeatedly crashes, and I'm on the verge of tears, I might punch a pillow or kick a wall. Imagine that, but a thousand times worse, because life and death are literally at risk.
Black communities are experiencing an unimaginable amount of pain, frustration, and anger. They have seen their brothers, sisters, mothers, and fathers killed by authorities for seemingly no reason, they have peacefully protested for years, they have written letters and voted for leaders, and done everything they possibly can, but still, they haven't seen changes in our criminal justice system. I won't pretend to know what that feels like, or that my little analogy is even comparable to the pain they feel. But I do understand how frustration can become violence.
And before condemning violent protesters, we need to be asking what brought the community to this point. In Charlotte, it's a resegregated school system that concentrates poor kids into dangerous schools. It's gentrification that has pushed urban residents out of downtown and further from jobs. It's income inequality, unequal housing, and unfair policing; these are chronic problems that won't be solved with an acute solution like quelling protests. We can't focus on the violence and ignore the reasons behind it.
Even when we do start to have those important conversations as a country, we still shouldn't critique how communities of color respond to decades of mistreatment and oppression. Without having experienced it, I can't tell anyone how to respond to injustice, whether they choose to do so by sitting silently during the national anthem or by stopping traffic.
It doesn't help either that those who point to nonviolence in the past to prove why Black Lives Matter activists should discourage violence are mistaken about many aspects of the very movements they cite. Martin Luther King Jr. often talked about the need for activists to "dramatize the issue that it can no longer be ignored," even if that meant inciting violence. According to Simone Sebastian of the Washington Post, the Civil Rights Movement was seen as everything but nonviolent in its day.
Violence was critical to the success of the 1960s civil rights movement, as it has been to every step of racial progress in U.S. history.
Sebastian also notes that both the Civil Rights Movement and the Black Lives Matter movement have been criticized for their aggressive disruption and combative tactics. Some activists have even said the former wouldn't have been possible without violence. Insisting that the Civil Rights Movement was an entirely nonviolent movement only reinforces a dangerous narrative that black people must remain calm, quiet, and peaceful even in the face of their oppression and deaths.
Calm, quiet, and peace haven't exactly helped in the cases since the birth of the Black Lives Matter movement in 2014. The unrest following Michael Brown's killing is what brought national attention to Ferguson. That national attention also led to the Justice Department's investigation of the city's police department. But in many cases, even after all kinds of protests, nothing has been done to reform policing, criminal justice, or any other chronic problems black communities face.
I'm not saying we shouldn't be concerned for the safety of our loved ones. We’re certainly allowed to worry for our friends and hope that everyone remains safe. I texted friends in the area to make sure they were unharmed. That's an appropriate and natural response to reports of violence. But condemning the way a community grieves and expresses its frustrations? That's not appropriate. Instead of critiquing something we can't understand, we — as non-black people of color, as whites, as Americans — need to listen to what these communities are trying to tell us.