Peaceful protesters lament violence at George Floyd demonstrations, but understand rage behind it
Calvetta Williams, founder of Mothers Against Violence in Des Moines, Iowa, is all about peaceful protest. She organized a march through the city Saturday that began and ended without a hint of violence.
Yet, one day earlier, as the 49-year-old watched people smash windows in a haze of tear gas, she understood the frustration and rage that caused some to lash out.
"I'm angry, too," Williams said. "I'm a black mother with two black sons, and I'm tired of using hashtags with the names of people murdered by police officers. … We can't just sit on the sidelines anymore."
Her words typified the complicated, conflicting reactions among activists, community leaders and civil rights historians to the violence sparked by the death of George Floyd, an unarmed, handcuffed black man who died in the custody of Minneapolis police.
On the one hand, violence sabotages a message of social justice and may prove counterproductive. On the other, fury over Floyd's death is understandable – and it could be effective in changing public consciousness.
Over the past several days, some demonstrations in cities across the USA have turned violent – resulting in vandalism, looting, arson, tear gas and arrests.
Even after four officers involved in Floyd's death were fired, and one was charged with third-degree murder and manslaughter, violence extended from D.C. to LA. President Donald Trump vowed to "stop mob violence and stop it cold" and blamed "radical left-wing" agitators.
Protesters set Minneapolis police's 3rd Precinct ablaze May 28. Protests continued around the city after the death of George Floyd, a black man who died in police custody.
A half-dozen states activated National Guard troops Saturday. Mayors across the country imposed curfews. Still, one overriding image on cable news Saturday was a burning police car.
Williams said she does not condone such conduct, but she recognizes violence is a statement of community anger about police brutality.
"I think it enhances the message" of demonstrations, she said. "How many times do we have to say our lives matter? … A building can be put back up. George Floyd, he can't be put back home."
In Minneapolis, Korey Dean Sr., 46, founder of the Man Up Club, which mentors young black males, said he helped former NBA player Royce White organize a demonstration Friday beginning at U.S. Bank Stadium.
A small group of pro basketball players and their friends, dressed in black, led a parade that quickly swelled in numbers.
Marchers knelt in silence at bridge crossings, prayed and delivered speeches during a 3-mile walk that ended long before curfew. "We started with 300, and we finished with 15,000 people," Dean said. "Not one fight, incident or argument. That is absolutely phenomenal."
Former Iowa State basketball player Royce White speaks as peaceful protesters take over the Hennepin Avenue Bridge in Minneapolis on May 29.
Dean said the event was a statement of unity against injustice – a manifesto that "police brutality can no longer be tolerated in our city."
Though the message of peace succeeded locally, he said, it didn't get national news coverage. Instead, media focused on looting, burning buildings and vandals.
"But that's only by a small population in the Twin Cities, and in no way represents the people of goodwill who are out here," Dean said.
'Throwing tea into Boston Harbor is looting'
Michael G. Long, editor of "We the Resistance: Documenting a History of Nonviolent Protest in the United States," said mayhem is not an effective tool to achieve the goals of a movement.
"Riots alienate sympathizers," Long said. "They alienate the people who can affect policy."
At the same time, he said, rioting is a way for the abused to defend themselves or to be noticed. Sometimes, that's the point: "The thing about violent protests is they get wider societal attention. It can be effective in raising public consciousness," he said.
Long noted that Martin Luther King Jr. saw violence as "a cry of the oppressed" but denounced it, in part because he believed, like Mahatma Gandhi, that a peaceful goal requires peaceful means.
Long said violence against injustice and abuse is a founding principle of the USA, starting in the Revolutionary War. "Throwing tea into Boston Harbor is looting," he said. "The U.S. was formed in the crucible of violent protests."
Though the historic impact of ongoing demonstrations remains to be seen, Long said, "You can be sure after these protests – these peaceful and violent protests – there will be reforms."
Robin Kelley, a professor of history at UCLA, credited uprisings in approximately 125 cities from 1964 to 1972 with more robust public oversight committees and the Kerner Commission report in 1968, which found institutionalized racism was driving urban violence.
"Reforms have been implemented ... in response to rebellion, in response to unrest, in response to disruption," he said.
Kelley said a victory to come out of more recent uprisings has been the new wave of district attorneys elected in places such as Philadelphia and Chicago who prosecute police officers more aggressively. He noted that without past uprisings, it's unlikely the four officers involved in Floyd's death would have been fired so swiftly, days after video of his final moments went viral.