There is no social change without coercion: Race, Baltimore, and how violence makes nonviolence possible

Knee-jerk condemnations of violent protest are counterproductive. The system handles it — or the community will

Published May 2, 2015 3:59PM (EDT)

  (AP Photo/David Goldman)
(AP Photo/David Goldman)

On the night of Freddie Gray’s funeral, violence erupted in Baltimore. It was immediately condemned by everyone, from media organizations to civil rights activists, and even by President Obama himself—with all parties referring to the rioters as “thugs,” and the violence as senseless and counterproductive.

We can set aside the clear double-standard of how rioting is depicted depending on the skin color of those involved; or the absurdity that most seemed more concerned about the destruction of property than of black lives. We can ignore the central role that Baltimore’s police department played in escalating the events of that night, which were neither random nor unprovoked—and paradoxically, the role that actual “thugs” and gangsters played in maintaining the peace. We can even set aside that the Gray family has condemned the riots. Because while the execution of their son was the catalyst for the current unrest, the protests are about more than just their personal loss.

Beyond the firewall of rhetoric about the crisis in Baltimore lies a stark reality: There is no social change without coercion. Authoritarians do not step down because people are saying mean things about them on Facebook or Twitter; social elites do not relinquish their privilege simply because they saw people walking down the street, arms locked, singing kumbaya. One has to speak to power in a language it understands. It must be made clear that there are consequences for ignoring dissidents, that a return to the status quo is not an option. Shy of this, there is no change.

Violence is always unfortunate, especially insofar as it is indiscriminate. However, these outbursts must not be reflexively dismissed—if for no other reason than because it is violence that enables nonviolent resistance.

The Paradox of Nonviolence

Pacifists are dependent upon violence in a number of ways: aggression against protestors helps transform local demonstrations into mass movements, or to provoke external intervention on behalf of a cause. Public arrests and wrongful imprisonment of civil rights activists and leaders, powerful images or video of violence against protestors and, at times, even martyrdom (sometimes self-imposed)—spilled blood is the lifeblood of social movements. Notice, the focal point of the current protests are the deaths of unarmed black men at the hands of law enforcement.

Realities such as these were not lost on organizers such Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., who often staged episodes of civil disobedience in the most hostile or dangerous areas, with the implicit intent of generating a heavy-handed response from the authorities or local community in a highly public and well-publicized setting—thereby advancing sympathy for, and awareness of, the cause. Pacifists gain moral high ground precisely by refusing to return violence in kind—a feat that is impossible unless and until they are confronted with unreasonable force.

Nonviolent movements also become more effective at bargaining through contrast with violence committed by outliers sympathetic to the cause. Episodes of rioting or looting create a credible implicit threat: If pacifistic movements consistently come away empty-handed, their leaders may lose credibility—but the bourgeoisie stand to lose a lot more than that.

Mobilizing waves of the disenfranchised to assemble at seats of power underscores this threat further: right now, the angry mob at your doorstep is committed to non-violence. But should they grow disillusioned with pacifism, they may return with torches and pitchforks—and under the sway of revolutionaries who will not be placated with piecemeal reforms or patiently strive to accumulate small concessions, nor will they turn the other cheek in the face of repression. That is, it is violent movements (or other forms of coercion) that motivate elites to engage at all, even if progressives and pacifists are their preferred interlocutors.

And finally, for those movements aimed at legal reforms, the essential goal is to divert the coercive apparatus of the state for alternative means, to co-opt the state’s supposed monopoly on legitimate use of force. For instance, when schools were mandated to be integrated, police and National Guard were deployed to enforce the law. The very presence of these security personnel entails a threat of reciprocal violence--indicating that those who try to harm black students, or prevent them from attending white schools, will themselves face sanctions, imprisonment, injury or even death. While certainly justifiable (perhaps necessary) in this and many other instances, it is problematic to deny the role threats and coercion play even when trying to work “within the system.”

In light of these nuances, it may be misleading to call movements nonviolent at all. It may be more accurate to say that progressives and pacifists enjoy a different relationship to violence than their revolutionary counterparts, or to the systems and institutions they are ostensibly resisting and seeking to reform. And they are often empowered to keep their own hands clean precisely because someone else’s are red. Accordingly, sanctimonious condemnations of violent protest are often misguided and misplaced.


There is a broader incoherence at work in these discussions, namely the notion that the aims and methods of civil disobedience must be amenable to the prevailing order. This is to completely miss the point of revolt. An uprising should not be comfortable for those in power; its leaders should not be beloved, but feared by those with a vested interest in the status quo.

In order to upend business as usual, for instance, companies need to know that even if the laws don’t hold them accountable, if they act egregiously they will face boycotts, smear campaigns, logistical disruption, employee strikes, and at times even vandalism and looting.

Cops need to know that if they abuse their position they will go to jail themselves. And if the system won’t deal with it, the community will: officers will face decreased public cooperation and increased hostility—rendering their jobs ever more difficult and dangerous until they change the way they operate.

Politicians need to know that protestors’ demands will not fade away, but will be forced onto the agenda one way or another. If leaders remain tone-deaf they will be voted out of office or be otherwise deposed.

Because so long as the status quo remains viable, change is not. To the extent that social elites believe that protestors can be safely ignored—that they will eventually return empty-handed to their jobs, to their schools, to voting the same people into office (or better yet, not voting at all)—they don’t have a reason to care. And they won’t.

And so while there is perhaps room to criticize unfocused violence, activists should not reflexively condemn the Baltimore riots. Instead, they should be using them as leverage--granting additional depth and urgency to the refrain, “No justice, No peace.”

By Musa al-Gharbi

Musa al-Gharbi is a Paul F. Lazarsfeld Fellow in Sociology at Columbia University. Readers can connect to his research and social media via his website:

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