Recently, the city of Baltimore saw civil unrest following the death of Freddie Gray while in the custody of the Baltimore Police Department. Shown on national news night after night, the uprising contained no shortage of outraged privileged people calling for “peaceful protest” while deriding the people in the streets as “thugs” and “looters.” Online comments were filled with images of Martin Luther King, Jr. and quotes about non-violent resistance. Violence, these well-meaning people reminded us, is not the answer and it won’t change the system.
Unfortunately, as recent actions in Charleston have shown us, non-violent action isn’t an answer either. Take the threat by some protestors to close the Ravenel Bridge during rush hour traffic one afternoon. That threat — a move to show their anger against police violence — was met with total horror by most of the people of Charleston and Mt. Pleasant, earning the would-be protestors few, if any, new supporters. This group later held a protest on the Crosstown, but that action barely even registered on the public radar.
Meanwhile, Black Brunch, in which members of the Charleston Black Lives Matter group interrupted that celebrated meal at several of Charleston’s most well-known spots, was also met with disdain, both from our status-quo loving daily paper and this very alt-weekly, which mocked the action in a front-page tag line.
Apparently, the message that is being sent to the disaffected and disenfranchised peoples in America is simply this: “Just shut up and go away.” All of this is a reminder that the proper amount of protest and outrage that the media and the masses will tolerate against this nation of ours is exactly zero. Unless, of course, you’re protesting for the cause of wealthy Americans. We should not forget that last year, armed protesters not only flocked to the aid of rancher Cliven Bundy in his fight against the Federal Bureau of Land Management over his continued illegal use of public lands to graze his livestock on, but his supporters actively pointed their weapons at federal officials.
This is not surprising, though. After all, we’re taught in school that the Founding Fathers stood up to the oppressive British and their taxes by conducting the Boston Tea Party. If there is any particularly good reason why the act of destroying private property was a valid protest against oppression by our Founders while the people of Baltimore burning down a CVS is not, I’d like to know what it is. In truth, the only difference between these two actions is that the Boston Tea Party is a romanticized slice of American mythology. It’s a story that shows what patriotic resistance looks like, but also that it should never be used to justify what is happening now because we are a more civilized society.
The only problem with this line of thought is that we are not a civilized society. When American police officers kill between one to three people a day, and when those same police are allowed to walk away from any sort of criminal charges, we have a far more serious problem on our hands than the petty talk of “taxation without representation” spouted by Tea Party “patriots.”
The other convenient part of the Boston Tea Party myth is that it portrays the Founding Fathers as acting in a more-or-less non-violent manner. No one was hurt, right? It was just a bunch of tea being thrown in the harbor? But colonial history is replete with stories of patriots burning and looting the homes and businesses of British loyalists in the months before the Declaration of Independence. Some were tarred and feathered and run out of town. But these are not the pretty images we teach children when we’re trying to instill in them a sense of civic pride. Instead, we teach them about the non-violent protests on the American side and the atrocities on the British side, such as the Boston Massacre.
Today, this legacy lives on. As a nation, we are horrified by some acts of violence — protests, riots — and yet somehow strangely comforted by the violence committed by unmanned drones and police officers. And we tell ourselves that the victims of the latter two brought down the hammer on themselves. Some might even say they were punished for questioning the American system of government as the pinnacle of human achievement.
Well, I’m sorry, it isn’t. America falls far short. It’s just too bad that most people won’t stop to see that until some rich, white person they care about is being oppressed, and then they’ll cry out “police state,” riot, and get away scot-free. In the meantime, millions of people are being actively denied social, economic, and cultural rights. Even worse, they seemingly have no legitimate recourse to claim those rights which the rest of us so freely enjoy.