Is Violence Always Counterproductive During Protests?

Back in 2015, then-President Barack Obama made a statement regarding the violence that broke out after the funeral of Freddie Gray in Baltimore. Obama said “There’s no excuse for the kind of violence that we saw yesterday. It is counterproductive.” Gray had died after being arrested by police.

It has always been the assumption by most people and the mainstream media that violent protests aren’t really protesting. They believe that the second that you introduce violence, the message is lost. But what if there was another way to think about protests, especially violence in protests?

Since their time in graduate school, Jennifer Kling, Assistant Professor of Philosophy at the University of Colorado Colorado Springs, and Megan Mitchell, Assistant Professor of Philosophy at Stonehill College, have had thoughts about these questions. After the protests in Ferguson and Baltimore, they decided that they wanted to write about the topic more in depth. Their research asks the question, “How should we think about protests in our world?”

“We live in a liberal society,” said Kling. “We have the right to vote, more or less. We live in a world where human rights are broadly recognized. Where equality and liberty are viewed as important. Yet, we live in a world of oppression – sexism, racism, ableism, homophobia, and the like.”

So, they posed the question: in a world that looks like this, what can and can’t we do in protest to bring about justice for all? And they propose that, in some cases, constrained violence can be an acceptable form of protest in societies like ours.

According to Kling, this thinking is contrary to what most people believe. In fact, most people would say that protests should be non-violent. They believe that violence never works in conveying a message and that it’s morally not okay. Kling and Mitchell, however, take an alternative view. Sometimes, violence can work in protests – as long as it’s constrained and not lethal.

Kling provides the analogy of a date that’s gone bad: “If I throw water in my date’s face, that’s communicative,” she explained. It’s saying that something has gone wrong with the date, and people understand it. In Britain, there were cases of people throwing milkshakes in the face of politicians. This was a way to communicate to the public that people shouldn’t listen to these particular politicians.

Oppression is systematic. While violence during a protest might not go against the person doing the oppression, it can be a way to force justice, and it can, Kling argues, be morally justified.

“This research matters because it gives us a way to start a conversation when asking people to come to the table politely doesn’t work,” Kling said.

Kling believes as a society we need to figure out how to make progress in situations of serious oppression without going to war. Society is stuck in many ways – we go back and forth but don’t move forward. In response to this, people have gotten radicalized. There are many people who now want to resort to revolution and start over.

This approach worries Kling deeply. Revolution and war can lead to many people dying, and the horrific things that happen during wars aren’t what most people think about.

“We need to figure out a way to shake people out of their problematic ideologies and get them to see that there are real problems that we can solve,” she said. “But they’ve got to see the problems first.”

And, sometimes, violence in protest can be a way to force people to see those issues.

Kling and Mitchell recently released a book that defends the viewpoint that sometimes, constrained violence in protests can be justified. “The Philosophy of Protest: Fighting for Justice Without Going to War” by Kling and Mitchell is available anywhere books are sold.