By Anisha Padma:
I turned on the television yesterday to see yet another reductive coverage of the protests and demonstrations occurring in the wake of Freddie Gray’s murder; a reaction rooted in the frustrations of structural injustices pervasive in communities. I found myself fuming over the biased commentary centering the vandalism and plunder of shops and cars in Baltimore over the violent torture and murder of Freddie Gray. I see the rebellion in Baltimore as a visual language expressing the grief and anger of the black youth. I see the resistance as the culmination of words falling on deaf ears and institutional inaction.
As soon as the demonstrations began in Baltimore, my Facebook timeline flooded with sentiments such as “Violence is not the answer!” and “What are these riots going to achieve?” to #PoliceLivesMatter and #BlueLivesMatter. These remarks came from mainly people who identified themselves as white. But surprisingly, I found that some of my desi friends liked these statuses and shared these opinions by referencing Mahatma Gandhi and Martin Luther King Jr.
King’s 1968 speech quickly began surfacing on my newsfeed. However, individuals took one sentence or a phrase that suited their needs rather than understanding the full context of his message:
“I would be the first to say that I am still committed to militant, powerful, massive, non-violence as the most potent weapon in grappling with the problem from a direct action point of view. I’m absolutely convinced that a riot merely intensifies the fears of the white community while relieving the guilt. And I feel that we must always work with an effective, powerful weapon and method that brings about tangible results. But it is not enough for me to stand before you tonight and condemn riots. It would be morally irresponsible for me to do that without, at the same time, condemning the contingent, intolerable conditions that exist in our society. These conditions are the things that cause individuals to feel that they have no other alternative than to engage in violent rebellions to get attention. And I must say tonight that a riot is the language of the unheard.”
King recognizes the significance of rioting and addresses that if rioting is occurring, we must try to determine its root cause rather than condemning it completely.
Baltimore City Councilman Nick Mosby, explained to a Fox News anchor that the rioting points to a larger problem of structural violence in Baltimore. “A lack of education, commercial development, lack of opportunities…this could occur anywhere in economically-deprived America.”
But the problem remains that when violence is exercised by white individuals, it is justified and legitimate, yet when people of color take to the streets, they are called “criminals” and “thugs” as President Obama most recently did. There needs to be a serious interrogation on what constitutes violence and its legitimacy.
Does the colonization of indigenous land and the killing of innocent brown and black bodies not constitute violence, when the destruction of shops and cars do? Ta-Nehisi Coates points out the absurdity and violent nature of Freddie Gray’s arrest and subsequent death. “They arrested him while he yelled in pain. And then, within an hour, his spine was mostly severed. A week later, he was dead.”
Are brown and black bodies afforded any humanity? We must also wonder why the non-violent protests honoring Freddie Gray failed to receive mass-media attention but the visibly “violent” forms of resistance did. And finally we must continue to ask ourselves, why are the narratives of successful liberation and independence movements led by people of color against their colonizers painted as “non-violent” in the history books when it took decades of blood, sweat, and tears to achieve?
In American elementary schools, we are fed the positive, non-violent elements of Martin Luther King Jr., Nelson Mandela, and Mahatma Gandhi. Not only should we pursue a nuanced approach to their rhetoric, we should also introduce thinkers such as Malcolm X, Angela Davis, and B.R. Ambedkar.
In an interview featuring scholar and activist Angela Davis, she comments on the double-standard existing between people of color and white people on what legitimizes violence. She said, “That’s why, when someone asks me about violence, I just, I just find it incredible. Because what it means is that the person who’s asking that question has absolutely no idea what black people have gone through, what black people have experienced in this country since the time the first black person was kidnapped from the shores of Africa.”
So, when we watch the demonstrations and protests happening in Baltimore, we should remember the organization of black-led movements that addressed structural violence and that rebellion is a form of communication responding to aggregated disenfranchisement and erasure.