Why Violent Protests Backfire
The writer and activist Vicky Osterweil is the latest and most strident defender of the violence and destruction that have accompanied some of the protests following the death of George Floyd.
Osterweil argues in her new book, In Defense of Looting: A Riotous History of Uncivil Action, that in the last years of Martin Luther King Jr.’s life, as his focus moved beyond desegregation and voting rights and toward promoting socialism, he had a change of heart about looting and destruction as a tool for social change.
“Though he wasn’t calling for violent revolution,” she writes, “neither was he chastising or rejecting rioters anymore.”
In reality, King was unwavering in his commitment to nonviolence.
“My hope is that we are going to have a protest like this every summer,” said in a 1966 interview with 60 Minutes‘ Mike Wallace, referencing protests in Chicago that turned violent. “My hope would be that they are nonviolent, because riots are self-defeating and socially destructive.”
He tried to make his position crystal clear in that same that interview, saying, “I will never change in my idea that nonviolence is the most potent weapon available to the Negro in his struggle for freedom and justice.”
And less than a year before his death, King delivered a lecture addressing skeptics of nonviolence following the 1967 riots.
“Many people feel that nonviolence as a strategy for social change was cremated in the flames of the urban riots of the last two years,” said King, before re-iterating his call for massive, sustained, nonviolent civil disobedience.
“In this world, nonviolence is no longer an option for intellectual analysis; it is an imperative for action.”
Violent protests were self-defeating, King argued, because, “every ti
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