Protestors in Minneapolis on May 30, 2020. Photo credit: David Brickner /

Now everywhere quoted, Martin Luther King Jr.’s 1966 declaration that “a riot is the language of the unheard” serves as a thoughtful shorthand for understanding the jagged edge of today’s unrest. But even in Dr. King’s time, it was not particularly radical wisdom.

In 1967, the Kerner Commission was tasked by President Lyndon B. Johnson to make sense of the bloody “civil disorders” that had erupted that summer in Newark, Detroit, and elsewhere in the United States. The Commission affirmed Dr. King’s words in the great thrust of its research. “Our nation is moving towards two societies,” the Kerner Commission Report concluded, “one black, one white — separate and unequal.”

Whether people should have rioted was, for the Commission, irrelevant. Its challenge was to disclose the specific conditions behind black rage and propose comprehensive remedies — to translate the language of the streets into the language of policy.

The Commission’s report was laid at America’s door, bearing both hope and a warning: Let us forge a more equal union — or we shall reap the whirlwind again.

Virtually none of its recommendations were instituted: not massive investments in health care, housing, and education; not jobs programs in urban empowerment zones; not community policing and meaningful civilian review. Whether these measures would have been adequate to the problem is debatable. But the country did not even try.

The consequence has been another half-century of grinding poverty, police predation, and despair, made worse by mass incarceration and a racism expanding far beyond black and white.

The whirlwind came in recent days, in a national explosion of sorrow and fury following yet another police murder of a black man. The very sense of deadly repetition — the terrible familiarity of it all — has been at the heart of today’s anger. (The Newark uprising of 1967 had been incited by the police beating of an African American taxi driver.)

And yet hope has been renewed as well. It rises in the prospect that this time, enough may really be enough: that the outrage has been too passionate, too loud, too broad, too multi-racial, and too unruly to go unheard.

Encouraging signs abound. By nearly universal agreement, George Floyd was a victim of a grave injustice, in a long line of similar injustices. (In contrast, the killer of Trayvon Martin in 2012 had legions of vocal defenders.) Floyd’s killer and his accomplices, god willing, will be convicted of serious crimes. Public officials widely endorse the protestors’ central cause, even as they struggle to contain physical destruction. Once the rhetoric of radicals, “systemic racism” and “white supremacy” are now part of a mainstream conversation. Criminal justice reform and even prison abolition are robust movements, gaining footholds within the institutions they condemn.

As never before, the future of the Democratic Party, with black women as a vital base, is staked on making genuine progress with respect to race. The Republican Party is increasingly an unhinged citadel of white male grievance, poised to be overrun by a changing America.

Even police officers taking a knee with protestors seems like more than a hollow gesture. Many police are ashamed of the conduct of their colleagues; some can likely be made to question their role as the front-line enforcers of de facto racial and economic apartheid.

Finally, the movement for racial justice itself is gaining by the day both momentum and sophistication. Part of its power is precisely to recognize the country’s long history of failure and to push America into new and uncomfortable places.

To be sure, every major public official, no matter how enlightened, has one hand on the lash of oppression by virtue of their institutional role. In the streets, some police have shown the ugly face of their raw power, engaging in unprovoked attacks against protestors.  Black suffering has been endemic to the entire history of the American republic. Fully undoing it may require not just moral renewal and sweeping reform but a new, national founding, lying beyond the reach of the possible.

These stark realities speak to the very premises of the movement for racial justice. They should not be taken as reasons for resignation or the categorical dismissal of potential partners within the current system as hypocrites. Worse still would be a stand of all-or-nothing that castigates any incremental gain as a ploy to co-opt the seething masses and thwart true justice. Even the Black Panthers, the standard-bearers of militant anti-racism, enumerated social demands achievable within a reordered society. A radical analysis that inhibits actual change, they understood, is self-defeating. Their work of climbing the ladder of justice began at the community level.

Already started, today’s work can take place most anywhere, from the streets to the ballot box.

The current promise was born in part from the dense energy of violence.

The instigating violence was the murder of George Floyd and the long train of murders before that. But violence has been a hallmark of the current protests as well. A far deeper reckoning with that violence is required, and now.

The uncomfortable but undeniable truth is that the pervasive arson, window-smashing, and other mayhem has helped the uprising command attention that other protests have not. That effect speaks to violence’s communicative power, not its morality. A black woman protestor, who claimed both to disapprove of and “understand” the violence, perfectly captured the dilemma of means-and-ends it poses: “We’ve done the peaceful. The peaceful hasn’t worked for us.”

Violence has also been the currency of a rough justice. Late on the night of April 29, the unthinkable happened: The Minneapolis Police Department’s unguarded Third Precinct, home to George Floyd’s killers, was burnt to the ground. Here lay the steely logic of payback, the politics of enough is enough by the arsonist’s match. “You lynch a black man, and we’ll burn your house down.”

Pummeled for letting this happen, Minneapolis’s (white) progressive mayor Jacob Frye appeared overmatched by events. At a hurried press conference, he remarked that “brick and mortar is not as important as life.” Some on the right saw his inaction as a cowardly, a weak liberal’s move to pacify the mob by giving it a pelt. But I saw a brave nobility in the mayor’s words and conduct. A symbol of institutionalized white power, the police station appeared a sacrificial offering in a gesture of retributive justice.

The violence in Minneapolis was occasion for another, equally stunning sacrifice. The daughter of an Indian restaurateur, Hafsa Islam personally witnessed the murder of Floyd. Her family’s restaurant, just blocks from the Third Precinct, was also destroyed by fire. Yet her heartbroken father said: “Let my building burn. Justice needs to be served. Put those officers in jail.”

Her father’s words prompted Hafsa’s own epiphany:

We can rebuild a building, but we will never reclaim the life George Floyd didn’t get to live. For years, protesters tried peace. It didn’t work. If this is what it takes to get justice, then it will have been worth it.

Hafsa here both echoes and goes beyond the street protestor and the mayor. Her family’s loss to violence, she suggests, is not redeemed by the depth of righteous anger that caused it, nor by the constructive attention it may bring. Rather, it is redeemed by the future realization of justice, for which the conviction of the officers is only a small part.

This sentiment points back to the movement itself as the potential bearer of that justice and the threat violence poses to its important work. It likewise summons the more familiar wisdom of Dr. Martin Luther King in his resolute commitment to non-violence.

Indeed, King spent much of the last year of his life pleading with fellow blacks not to forsake a collective commitment to non-violence, even as that commitment grew ever more difficult — both viscerally and politically — to maintain. The era’s antiwar and radical student movement also veered towards violence, rejecting calls for restraint like Dr. King’s. Much could be said about that generation’s struggle over the question of violence and its relevance to today’s protests. I draw here a few connections that seem most urgent.

Historically, the tendency of protest violence is to develop a logic, momentum, and appetite of its own. When met by repression, it is especially prone to escalation in upward spirals of tit-for-tat assaults. At a certain point, violence dominates the movement’s public image, and the immediacy of its legal and paramilitary struggles with the state overtakes all other issues. Internally, the political struggle tears apart over what is permissible and useful to do in its name.

This dynamic is already faintly apparent today, starting with optics.

The political Right is eager to discredit the entire movement as Democrat-enabled anarchy threatening law, order, and some vague sense of Christian virtue.

Meanwhile, the liberal media has been desperate to legitimize the movement within the language of sanctioned, peaceable dissent. To do so, it draws a crude distinction between the protestors, the anarchists, and the opportunists. The first are good, because non-violent and genuinely concerned with police brutality. The second are bad, because of the intent to hijack the movement for their own violent ends, all but welcoming state repression. And the last are somewhere in between — pitiable as poor people looting free stuff, but still a grave danger to the movement’s good reputation and purpose.

By the same token, liberal outlets have been admirably disciplined in neither sensationalizing the violence nor having it dominate their reportage. In the face of bursts of violence and flak from the Right, they have consistently linked coverage back to the memory of George Floyd and the central issues of police brutality and racism animating the protests. 

Setting aside media simplifications, there is a titanic struggle in the movement itself over what image to project, rooted in a struggle over what the movement fundamentally is.

The question of core morality is what most concerned Dr. King and his pacifist cohort. They feared not only the power of violence to beget more violence, but also its power to corrupt its agents.

Violence, they prophesied, would fail to be its own cure. In 1970, Father Daniel Berrigan, a towering moral voice of his own, admonished young white radicals poised to wage a “guerrilla war” against the American state. “The mark of inhuman treatment of humans is a mark that also hovers over us,” Berrigan insisted:

It is the mark of the beast, whether its insignia is the military or the movement […] A revolution is interesting only insofar as it avoids like the plague the plague it hopes to heal […] and will be no better and no more truthful than those who it brought into being.

Today, the mark of dehumanization is already evident in slogans like “All Cops Are Bastards” (ACAB) — especially irksome when brandished by kids of the white middle class, with no experience of police as daily adversaries. And while no one is talking seriously of guerrilla war, the issue of the value placed on life already looms.

Any number of the arsons so far could have killed someone; should they continue, someone is bound to die. At that point, the arsonist will be a murderer, tainting the entire movement with their act.

Circumstances matter and rage may explain a lot. But it does not excuse the snuffing out of a life, nor suspend the same basic accountability now demanded of police. Bystanders have already died in the tumult, people who neither deserved to be victims nor chose to be martyrs.

Finally, careful thought about consequences must be part of any political calculus.

The possibilities are as terrifying as the danger is real. The chaos of 1968, we are daily told, gave us the “law and order” presidency of Richard Nixon, removed in his second term for impeachable crimes. We already have the criminal, impeached presidency of Donald Trump, as yet impervious to all checks. Amidst dual crises, Trump has abdicated the responsibilities of his office while making a pathetic play for authoritarian powers.

We may be, as Van Jones warns, one video of a police murder away from serious unrest, beyond anyone’s power to constructively guide. We may also be one lethal act of protest or riot away from the extra-legal imposition of martial law, sure to terrorize the most vulnerable.

A movement for change should not be captive to the whims of a deranged, would-be dictator. Democracy must be saved by means of democracy. Baiting its suspension, in the face of vast firepower, cedes the very ground that must be preserved as the condition for future justice.

Mass civil resistance and the casting of votes — not scattershot violence that frightens, wounds, and provokes — is the way to hold that ground now.

With singular moral authority, a voice rising from the crucible of pain and anger has best made the case for the way forward.

On Tuesday in the streets of Minneapolis, George Floyd’s brother Terrence implored his community:

We not gonna be repetitious. In every case of police brutality, the same thing has been happening. Ya’ll protest. Ya’ll destroy stuff. And if they don’t move. You know why they don’t move? Because it’s not their stuff, it’s our stuff, [and] they want us to destroy our stuff […] So let’s do this another way.

He then stressed the importance of voting (including in primaries), self-education, and non-violent protest.

Already, this language of non-violent resistance appears to be resonating in the streets. For the first time in many nights, defiant protests throughout America on Wednesday, June 3 did not give way to destruction. What such gatherings lack in excitement and edge, they may gain in political power, should they be sustained.

The voices of the unheard, amplified by violence, have delivered the message that enough is enough. If the same can be said to the violence itself, absent any major provocation by the state, that message has the best chance of becoming true.

 — June 4, 2020, 9:00 am

Jeremy Varon is professor of history at The New School for Social Research and Eugene Lang College and a member of Historians for Peace and Democracy.