Martin Luther King Jr. and Malcolm X waiting for press conference, 1964. Photo credit: Marion S. Trikosko / Library of Congress.

How should we make sense of the political violence that has sometimes accompanied Black Lives Matter (BLM) protests? What about the state’s violent response to peaceful protest, or the dangerous acts committed by right-wing counter-protestors?

Speaking on Canadian radio in the wake of 160 riots that shook U.S. cities during the summer of 1967, Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. insisted on a conceptual and political nuance that remains pertinent today. “I am aware,” he noted, “there are many who wince at a distinction between property and persons — who hold both sacrosanct. My views are not so rigid. A life is sacred. Property is intended to serve life, and no matter how much we surround it with rights and respect, it has no personal being.”

Distinguishing violence against persons from damage to property, King told his audience that rioters in Detroit, Newark, and elsewhere had chiefly targeted “property rather than people.” Property, he added, “represents the white power structure,” which rioters “were attacking and trying to destroy.” King also conceded that “a handful of Negroes used gunfire substantially to intimidate,” but “not to kill.”

But frustrated with those who blamed the disorder on African Americans, King noted that violence against persons had been committed almost exclusively by overzealous — and sometimes openly racist — police and National Guardsmen. “It is clear that the riots were exacerbated by police action that was designed to injure or even kill people,” he emphasized.

Yet this was not what many frightened people in the United States had seen. In hindsight, we know that the riots helped galvanize conservative and moderate white support for Richard M. Nixon’s “law and order” presidential campaign and his election in 1968. This was a debacle King never lived to witness.

But he would not have been surprised by the backlash: he always feared that uncivil disobedience would alienate white Americans.

King’s desire to reframe the association of property damage with physical violence against other Americans was a crucial insight we need to return to. Property should serve to preserve and protect human life. It is a means towards an end, but only that end — human life — is sacrosanct or inviolable. Modifying some of his own previous claims, King’s word suggest that, by 1968, he perhaps believed that nonviolence principally prohibited only violence “toward persons.” 

Despite some superficial parallels, our contemporary political universe is quite different from King’s. Yet his distinction between violence against persons and harm to property offers a starting point for making sense of recent BLM protests and the right-wing obsession with the property damage that has sometimes followed in nonviolent activists’ wake.

The confusion, as it usually does nowadays, comes from the top, not the grassroots. President Trump not only conflates violence against persons with harm to property but often seems decidedly more vexed by the latter. At the very least, Trump’s obsession with guarding Confederate monuments, alongside his obstinate refusal to acknowledge the basic facts of systemic racialized police violence, suggest as much. From his perch, it is only protestors associated with BLM, some of whom have in fact desecrated both public and private property, who are “violent.” In contrast, police officers who teargas protestors and send them — including a 75-year-old Buffalo peace activist who suffered severe brain injuries — to intensive care units, are simply doing their jobs. Nor has Trump condemned the rash of car attacks on activists by counter-protesters and vigilantes.

Trump’s jaundiced view of protest-related violence is ubiquitous on Fox News and right-wing social media. Yet as King pointed out, even when property directly serves human beings, it possesses only a limited moral status. When an arsonist torches a private home and renders its residents homeless, his act poses a dire threat to what King called their “personal being.” In contrast, when activists tear down statues of General Robert Lee or some lesser Dixie traitor, no such threat to human life exists.

In fact, it would be absurd to justify protecting Confederate monuments on the basis of some purported contribution they make to human life: they are life-less tombs to white supremacy and our ugly racist history. To be sure, some protestors have engaged in acts that have physically harmed real people: two teenagers have been shot, one fatally, in Seattle. Such tangible physical violence — and there is no question we should characterize it as such, even as we argue about its moral and political significance — plays into the hands of Trump and those fantasizing about the prospect of a 1968-style right-wing backlash.

Genuinely violent incidents committed by protesters remain isolated, however. They also pale alongside the long history of racialized police violence and the disproportionate state violence unleashed on protesters in Minneapolis, New York, Washington, D.C., and elsewhere.

Trump’s extreme views inadvertently point to a more difficult question, however. Even if we acknowledge that property does not have the same moral status as human personhood, should protestors still be expected to respect some forms of property? How might we distinguish politically justifiable damage to property from criminal arson, looting, or vandalism?

Too little attention has been paid to this matter in debates about civil disobedience, political resistance, and social movements. It raises questions about how best to interpret and justify property, either in its public or private forms.

But the issue remains central. Many and probably most BLM sympathizers were alarmed by the massive property damage suffered by small, immigrant, and minority-owned businesses during the Minneapolis protests. Was this a sensible reaction? Probably, and King’s comments explain why. This type of property, unlike Trump’s beloved Confederate statues, directly supports human beings who rely on it for their existence and well-being.

These are also the communities, and people, that BLM is fighting for. When protestors, intentionally or not, burned down Bolé Ethiopian Cuisine, a family-owned business where my Minneapolis-born daughter and I shared dinner last January, their acts had devastating consequences for real people, not a corporation or history enthusiasts. Theirs was an assault on property that “served life.” The same applies to many other devastated businesses and ventures, including Migizi, a Minneapolis nonprofit that runs programs for Native American youth, and Town Talk Diner, a popular family-owned South Minneapolis restaurant.

Yet not all property does serve life, and perhaps this explains the more mixed reactions to the torching of the Minneapolis Third Precinct Police Station. We still do not understand all the circumstances surrounding its destruction, though it seems to have been fueled not just by gasoline but by inebriated protestors plundering a nearby liquor store. Three men, described by the New York Times as “unfamiliar to protest organizers,” have since been arrested and charged. But we also know that BLM protestors cheered as the station went up in flames.

An institutional site directly associated with discrimination and the real physical (police) violence experienced by people of color, to many in Minneapolis, the Third Precinct Station hardly served human life. An embodiment of racist policing, the station represented a very different type of property than Bolé Ethiopian Cuisine or Migizi.

I am not advocating burning down police stations — and King might remind us of the authoritarian backlash we may still experience from this event. Torching a building in a crowded city neighborhood is always risky and reckless. Yet if Minneapolis’s Mayor Jacob Frey had heeded the advice of those who wanted police officers to defend the station, surely there would have been violence against human beings. Pundits would now be dissecting the resulting bloodshed, not just a gutted police station.

Nonetheless, we need to make some distinctions as we interpret this and similar political acts. A more difficult case than the Confederate monuments, the Third Precinct Station also failed to represent what the feminist and peace activist Barbara Deming characterized in Two Essays: On Anger/New Men/New Women (1982) as “the kind of property that has deep life-meaning for people.” Such property, Deming suggested, was deserving of greater protection than property lacking “life-meaning.”

Because of police violence towards them, many in south Minneapolis no longer viewed the Third Precinct Station as having such “life-meaning,” while the police officers who worked there did not rely on the building to retain their employment.

One might be tempted here to see the crucial difference as falling conveniently between public and private property. But that too would be too simple, in part because the corporate private sector too often supports public violence. In 1980, Daniel Berrigan and other Plowshares peace activists broke into the General Electric nuclear missile facility in King of Prussia, Pennsylvania. They damaged nuclear missile cones, reentry vehicles, and poured blood on documents. Could anyone except Dr. Strangelove claim with a straight face that the damaged General Electric property directly supported life?

Private, as well as public, property can lack “life-meaning.”

Admittedly, this is not the kind of debate that occurs in the midst of an uprising. What does it mean to describe property as supporting life or having “life-meaning”? But that, in a sense, is my point: we need to think harder about how to evaluate politically motivated harm to property. A tradition of associating violence broadly with what the Oxford English Dictionary describes as an “exercise of physical force so as to inflict injury on or damage to persons or property” [my emphasis] needs to be challenged, as King grasped in 1967.

Unfortunately, ignoring King’s conceptual refinement, practitioners of nonviolence instinctively reject property damage, interpreting it as violence we should always and everywhere abhor. Civil disobedience is then interpreted as prohibiting violence against both persons and property. Meanwhile, those jettisoning nonviolent civil disobedience for its violent uncivil cousin, as has happened in Hong Kong, often do so partly to justify militant protests harmful to property.

We cannot talk loosely about political violence, as if it were all made from the same cloth, and categorically justifiable or not. Both political approaches neglect the difficult questions at hand. If we are to overcome social injustice and racism, which types of property can be violated, and which deserve protection? How might protestors help ensure that property damage is not conflated with arson, looting, or vandalism? In our own long hot summer of political upheaval, we could do worse than to tackle these questions — and then act on the answers we provide.

William E. Scheuerman is Rudy Professor of Political Science at Indiana University and the author of The End of Law: Carl Schmitt in the Twenty-First Century.