Against rioting: The non-utility of political violence

In respect of the current riots in the United States, I would like to post the following excerpt from Martin Luther King Jr’s speech “Where do we go from here?”

Non-Violence, Peace, Transformation

Now, let me rush on to say we must reaffirm our commitment to nonviolence. And I want to stress this. The futility of violence in the struggle for racial justice has been tragically etched in all the recent Negro riots. Now, yesterday, I tried to analyze the riots and deal with the causes for them. Today I want to give the other side. There is something painfully sad about a riot. One sees screaming youngsters and angry adults fighting hopelessly and aimlessly against impossible odds. (Yeah) And deep down within them, you perceive a desire for self-destruction, a kind of suicidal longing. (Yes)

Occasionally, Negroes contend that the 1965 Watts riot and the other riots in various cities represented effective civil rights action. But those who express this view always end up with stumbling words when asked what concrete gains have been won as a result. At best, the riots have produced a little additional anti-poverty money allotted by frightened government officials and a few water sprinklers to cool the children of the ghettos. It is something like improving the food in the prison while the people remain securely incarcerated behind bars. (That’s right) Nowhere have the riots won any concrete improvement such as have the organized protest demonstrations.

And when one tries to pin down advocates of violence as to what acts would be effective, the answers are blatantly illogical. Sometimes they talk of overthrowing racist state and local governments and they talk about guerrilla warfare. They fail to see that no internal revolution has ever succeeded in overthrowing a government by violence unless the government had already lost the allegiance and effective control of its armed forces. Anyone in his right mind knows that this will not happen in the United States. In a violent racial situation, the power structure has the local police, the state troopers, the National Guard, and finally, the army to call on, all of which are predominantly white. (Yes) Furthermore, few, if any, violent revolutions have been successful unless the violent minority had the sympathy and support of the non-resisting majority. Castro may have had only a few Cubans actually fighting with him and up in the hills (Yes), but he would have never overthrown the Batista regime unless he had had the sympathy of the vast majority of Cuban people. It is perfectly clear that a violent revolution on the part of American blacks would find no sympathy and support from the white population and very little from the majority of the Negroes themselves.

Research at a global level supports MLK Jr’s claims. According to Chenoweth & Stephan (2011), non violent disobedience is far more effective in acheiving its political aims when compared to violent resistance. Some of the explanations Chenoweth & Stephan (2011) gives for this are:

  1. Non violent disobedience tends to attract more members than violent resistance
  2. Non violent disobedience tends to attract a more diverse range of members than violent resistance
  3. Repressive actions by those in power creates more backlash when made against non-violent demonstrations than against violent ones
  4. Non violent disobedience tends to be more innovative and adaptable to change than violent resistance

This point only covers the practical advantages of non-violent disobedience over violent resistance, and does not mean to respond to all moral arguments concerning the subject. Nonetheless, if one wants to challenge injustice, then seeking the method that is most likely do this effectively must be acknowledged. Extinction Rebellion have embraced such a philosophy in their use of civil disobedience to encourage action against climate change.

For more details on the subject, I highly recommend “Why Civil Disobedience Works” by Chenoweth & Stephan:

Published by

Andrew Tulloch

I have a Bachelor of Arts majoring in Philosophy and Sociology, with a Political Science minor. I also have an honours degree in Philosophy. I am currently studying for my PhD in Philosophy.

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