Even as we begin Black History Month in 2023, the powers-that-be insist on adding new entries into our long history of violence and inequality. Fresh in many of our hearts is the brutal murder of Tyre Nichols by Memphis police in early January. There has been some initial accountability, as five police officers have been fired and charged, and three EMTs were fired for failing “to conduct an adequate patient assessment.” But that accountability cannot erase the tragedy of Tyre’s death, or the continued brutal assault on marginalized, especially Black, communities by those with power and authority.
There is much to be said and done in response to this violence and in honor of Tyre’s life. As a White person, I especially urge White folks to seek out and listen to Black voices at this time. I do feel compelled, however, to respond at least briefly to one specific issue. I have lately and repeatedly heard the cries around me, mainly by people who are not Black, demanding that protests of Tyre’s murder be peaceful and nonviolent. We’ve heard it even from the highest levels, including Attorney General Merrick Garland, FBI Director Christopher Wray, and President Joe Biden. Garland went out of his way to say:
“I do want to say, and I want to repeat what the family has said, that expressions of concern when people see this video, we urge that they be peaceful and nonviolent.”
President Biden’s official statement similarly reminded us that:
“Outrage is understandable, but violence is never acceptable. Violence is destructive and against the law. It has no place in peaceful protests seeking justice.”
And Wray, while emphasizing how appalled he was by seeing the video of Nichols’ beating, also emphasized that:
“As far as preparation, all of our field offices have been alerted to work closely with their state and local partners, including in particular, of course, in Memphis in the event of something getting out of hand. … there's a right way and a wrong way in this country to express being upset or angry about something. And we need to make sure that if there is that sentiment expressed here, it's done in the right way.” (Wray)
In each of these cases, there is a firm awareness that what was done to Tyre Nichols was wrong. It was so wrong that they can anticipate that people’s grief and anger will be justifiably strong. But their shared concerns about violence betray our history of inaction. It is an admission that we, especially marginalized communities, have little to no trust in our justice system to be fair and impartial. At the most, we may see some limited accountability, but I do not know of anyone who thinks that this time, we’ll get it right.
People within marginalized communities have the right to frank conversations about what their response to injustice will be and decide what is best for their personal and collective wellbeing. But it is a very bad look for outsiders to those communities, especially those who wield power and influence over the violent systems themselves, to tell victims of violence that they must be nonviolent. I say this as a person who has spent a lifetime deeply committed to both the ideals and the practices of nonviolence. The calls for nonviolence by people who lead violent systems ring hollow to me and feels hypocritical. I have not, for example, heard any of our leaders call for the police to act nonviolently in response to protestors. Instead, I see authorities preparing to enact violence on protestors if their grief and rage “get out of hand.” You know what is out of hand? Police brutality and systemic racism, to name just two. But this violence is part of the status quo; it is normalized and not viewed as a threat.
Martin Luther King, Jr. knew well this pain of always being asked to bear the burden of this acceptable, state-sanctioned violence. His “Letter from Birmingham Jail” put it into words the exhausting frustration that comes from the constant demand to protest in an acceptable way:
“We know through painful experience that freedom is never voluntarily given by the oppressor; it must be demanded by the oppressed. Frankly, I have never yet engaged in a direct-action movement that was ‘well timed’ according to the timetable of those who have not suffered unduly from the disease of segregation. For years now I have heard the word ‘wait.’ … This ‘wait’ has almost always meant ‘never.’ It has been a tranquilizing thalidomide, relieving the emotional stress for a moment, only to give birth to an ill-formed infant of frustration. We must come to see with the distinguished jurist of yesterday that ‘justice too long delayed is justice denied.’”
If we spent more time and preparation considering the right way to establish justice, dismantle White supremacy, end poverty, and otherwise bring about an end to oppressive systems and cultures, people wouldn’t have so many reasons “to express being upset or angry.” People’s anger and grief at injustice is not the root problem here; what is out of hand is over five centuries of violence, so much of which has been tolerated and often protected by the powers that be. As Dr. King wrote:
“I would not hesitate to say that it is unfortunate that so-called demonstrations are taking place in Birmingham at this time, but I would say in more emphatic terms that it is even more unfortunate that the white power structure of this city left the [Black] community with no other alternative.”
The best way to prevent violent protests is to create a just, equitable, compassionate society. We would love to simply celebrate Black lives, creativity, persistence, and joy this Black History Month. We would rather not grieve again, now for Tyre Nichols and Anthony Lowe. We would rather celebrate their lives.
We would rather not have to protest at all.