Civil Liberties

Why Violent Protests Backfire

Martin Luther King explained why they are "socially destructive and self-defeating."


The writer and activist Vicky Osterweil is the latest and most strident defender of the violence and destruction that have accompanied some of the protests following the death of George Floyd.

Osterweil argues in her new book, In Defense of Looting: A Riotous History of Uncivil Action, that in the last years of Martin Luther King Jr.'s life, as his focus moved beyond desegregation and voting rights and toward promoting socialism, he had a change of heart about looting and destruction as a tool for social change.

"Though he wasn't calling for violent revolution," she writes, "neither was he chastising or rejecting rioters anymore."

Others have pointed to the famous King line, "A riot is the language of the unheard," as a moral justification for the riots of the 1960s.

In reality, King was unwavering in his commitment to nonviolence.

"My hope is that we are going to have a protest like this every summer," said in a 1966 interview with 60 Minutes' Mike Wallace, referencing protests in Chicago that turned violent. "My hope would be that they are nonviolent, because riots are self-defeating and socially destructive."

He tried to make his position crystal clear in that same that interview, saying, "I will never change in my idea that nonviolence is the most potent weapon available to the Negro in his struggle for freedom and justice."  

And less than a year before his death, King delivered a lecture addressing skeptics of nonviolence following the 1967 riots.

"Many people feel that nonviolence as a strategy for social change was cremated in the flames of the urban riots of the last two years," said King, before re-iterating his call for massive, sustained, nonviolent civil disobedience.

"In this world, nonviolence is no longer an option for intellectual analysis; it is an imperative for action."

Violent protests were self-defeating, King argued, because, "every time a riot develops" it makes "a right-wing takeover more likely," helping segregationists like George Wallace gain political power and influence.

Osterweil writes admiringly of the nationwide riots that followed King's assassination as "an act of pure mourning, grief, and rage" that perhaps "felt so natural, so immediate, so appropriate, even those who would normally marvel at their scale fell quiet."

These uprisings are "wildly understudied, theorized, or historicized," she writes, and, "the silence on the part of historians, scholars, and activists has been deafening."

But the Princeton political scientist Omar Wasow has studied the '68 riots in detail and argues that they helped Richard Nixon to beat Democrat Hubert Humphrey in that year's presidential race. As King understood, media coverage was why looting and violence backfired.

"A nonviolent protest today produced a headline about civil rights tomorrow. Whereas when protesters engage in violence that predicted a headline about riots tomorrow, a headline that was much more likely to focus on crime and disorder, and public opinion moves very closely with that," Wasow told Reason's Nick Gillespie in a podcast interview. "The tactics that are employed by protesters can really make a powerful impact on how the media tell the story, which in turn shapes public opinion."

Some media outlets have at times appeared to downplay some violence and destruction, but King's warning and Wasow's research still resonate today as polls show a sharp downward turn in approval ratings of the Black Lives Matter movement in recent weeks—including in Wisconsin, even before riots hit Kenosha.

And Democratic presidential candidate Joe Biden seems to fundamentally understand that.

"Rioting is not protesting. Looting is not protesting," said Biden in a speech in late August.

That might help explain how he's maintained a lead so far against an incumbent who's fanned the flames with his rhetoric, threatening to send the military into the streets to crackdown on protests and riots in early June.

King wasn't excusing riots by describing them as the "language of the unheard." He was imploring observers to acknowledge the unjust conditions that contributed to their emergence in the first place.

The paths forward to social change couldn't be more clear. Persistent, nonviolent resistance tied directly to concrete policy demands, as practiced by Martin Luther King, Jr., who helped achieve historic civil rights legislation; or rioting and looting promoted by activists who believe, "We need to argue for and defend every tactic that might help us to overturn this miserable world of white supremacy, anti-Blackness, cisheteropatriarchy, capitalism, empire, and property."

Produced by Zach Weissmueller; edited by Weissmueller and Regan Taylor; graphics by Lex Villena.

Photo credits: Cees de Boer, CNP AdMedia Newscom; Kheel Center, Gage Skidmore; John Lucia.

Music credits: "Vampire Cop," by Odonis Odonis; "Your Suggestions," by the Unicorn Heads.