Does violence bring change?

Some commentators maintain that change in the United States comes only through violence of some sort.

They make a strong case. Is the theory true? Violence that has accompanied recent antiracist protests across the nation makes it a relevant question today.

Massive change in our nation’s history does seem to happen in conjunction with violence. 

America was born in military struggle over six years, from 1775 to 1781. Much of our continental geographic expansion resulted from war against Mexico in 1846, and we acquired the Philippines, Puerto Rico and many of our Pacific island possessions through war against Spain in 1898. 

Our acquisitions of Hawaii in the 1890s and the Canal Zone in 1903 came about through American conspiracies with local anti-government revolutionary forces. And the end of slavery and the reunification of the nation resulted from the four-year Civil War from 1861 to 1865. 

For a century after the American Revolution, and for nearly three centuries before it, our ancestors drove Native Americans from their lands and decimated their population and way of life.

We would not be the United States as we know it today without wars of revolution, wars for freedom and wars for conquest. We’ve engaged in all three types.

On the other hand ...

The United States acquired the vast Louisiana Purchase, which included what is now Iowa, by accepting the French offer of sale from Napoleon Bonaparte in 1803.

We acquired Alaska through purchase from Russia in 1867. 

We gained what are now the far southern strips of Arizona and New Mexico through the Gadsden Purchase from Mexico in 1854.

There was no violence, nor threat of violence, connected with the transfer of ownership of any of those acquisitions.

Violence doesn’t appear to be a necessity in all instances of national expansion, at least for the United States.

But what about major internal change, particularly regarding civil rights and civil liberties? Does equality before the law, and in society generally, come only through violence?

When Martin Luther King Jr. and the Southern Christian Leadership Conference organized the civil rights movement in the 1960s, they strongly advocated peaceful civil disobedience as the proper method to achieve an end to Jim Crow in the South. But they fully expected violence to result, specifically from Southern whites and law officers.

They were right.

White Southern police and sheriffs’ departments used violence in making arrests of peaceful demonstrators, and the TV coverage of the brutality eventually galvanized presidents and Congress to enact the Civil Rights Act and the Voting Rights Act of the mid-1960s. 

A legitimate question is whether Washington would have reacted as it did if the officers had simply stepped back and allowed the civil rights marches and peaceful demonstrations to take place without violence. I think it’s an open question, with an answer we’ll never know.

Today in America, more than 50 years later, the question still remains. 

The vast majority of police and sheriff’s officers in the United States try to do their job without overreacting. A few unfortunately employ illegal force in making arrests, and when it’s against people of color, racism naturally is suspected.

Tens of thousands of people of all races have demonstrated in cities and towns since late May, when George Floyd, an African-American in Minneapolis, died with a white policeman’s knee on his neck for more than eight minutes. The vast majority of the demonstrators have been peaceful. But a few in the crowds took the opportunity to destroy and loot property.

Is violence against persons during arrests on occasion inevitable? Is violence during peaceful demonstrations on occasion inevitable? 

Cellphone recordings of activity in both instances show the good and the bad, and television news spread the visual news worldwide. 

Maybe I’m wrong, but I suspect TV coverage of demonstrations would consume much less air time if no violence occurred. 

Does that mean the looting and destruction keep the issue of events like George Floyd’s murder in front of the American public?

These are thought-provoking questions that have no easy answers. Politicians on both ends of the spectrum sometimes find it convenient to mine instances of police brutality and mob violence for their own purposes, rather than trying for a meeting of minds to solve both activities.

Try to find an official or a politician who decries both police brutality and mob violence. There aren’t many.

Does violence usually accompany major social change?

The jury’s still out.

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