As I said in my previous response to the Baltimore riots, I do not believe that I—an outsider in so many ways—have a right to condemn or endorse these events.
In following media (and Facebook) coverage, however, I notice that many have taken it upon themselves to employ the words of two well-known figures to exactly that end.
History has crowned Martin Luther King Jr. and Mahatma Gandhi as two of the greatest champions of non-violent resistance who ever lived.
And they were.
We all know that MLK famously said, “Darkness cannot drive out darkness; only light can do that. Hate cannot drive out hate; only love can do that…” and Gandhi, “Nonviolence is a weapon of the strong,” amongst many other wise things. These are words to inspire change and compassion, and we are right to repeat them.
But before we become too smug, we should note that these men also said the following:
“I will continue to condemn riots, and continue to say to my brothers and sisters that this is not the way. And continue to affirm that there is another way.
But at the same time, it is as necessary for me to be as vigorous in condemning the conditions which cause persons to feel that they must engage in riotous activities as it is for me to condemn riots.
I think America must see that riots do not develop out of thin air. Certain conditions continue to exist in our society which must be condemned as vigorously as we condemn riots. But in the final analysis, a riot is the language of the unheard. And what is it that America has failed to hear? It has failed to hear that the plight of the Negro poor has worsened over the last few years. It has failed to hear that the promises of freedom and justice have not been met. And it has failed to hear that large segments of white society are more concerned about tranquility and the status quo than about justice, equality, and humanity.
And so in a real sense our nation’s summers of riots are caused by our nation’s winters of delay….as long as America postpones justice, we stand in the position of having these recurrences of violence and riots over and over again.
Social justice and progress are the absolute guarantors of riot prevention.” ~ Martin Luther King Jr.
“…you throw in my face the facts of murders by persons reputed to be Congressmen. I see the fact of murders as clearly, I hope, as you do.
My answer is that the Government goaded the people to the point of madness. They started leonine violence in the shape of the arrests already referred to. That violence is not any the less so, because it is organized on a scale so gigantic that it displaces the Mosaic law of tooth for tooth by that of ten thousand for one—not to mention the corollary of the Mosaic law, i.e. of non-resistance as enunciated by Jesus Christ. I cannot interpret in any other manner the repressive measures of the all-powerful Government of India.” ~ Mahatma Gandhi
If we are going to quote these incredible human beings, we don’t get to pick and choose.
Yes, MLK and Gandhi promoted non-violence. Absolutely, no question.
However, they also understood that violent resistance (or rebellion, or riots…the choice of language, really, is a matter of perspective) was the product of and natural response to a violent system.
They did not elect to judge those who followed this course; they understood that such events would continue in response to injustice so long as injustice existed.
They did seek to inspire their followers to go a different way.
My position, I maintain, leaves me no space for judgment calls. Personally, I believe in non-violent resistance. Nonetheless, I understand that violent conditions will almost inevitably produce violent reactions.
“…it is as necessary for me to be as vigorous in condemning the conditions which cause persons to feel that they must engage in riotous activities as it is for me to condemn riots.”
Let’s take this opportunity to discuss those conditions. Let’s not be distracted by a fruitless argument over the “rightness” of one violence while ignoring the absolute wrongness of another.
Let’s recognize what these two oft-quoted supporters of non-violence always knew: riots are not the sole responsibility of the rioters, and cannot be resolved as such; riots are a response to oppressive governments and a complacent public.
As part of that complacent public, we are part of the problem.
Let’s focus on the cause here, not the reaction.
Read the full citations here:
“The Other America” by MLK
Selected Writings of Gandhi, page 227
Author: Toby Israel
Editor: Renée Picard