“…One nation, under God, indivisible, with liberty and justice for all.” In America, we often recite these words when saying the famous “Pledge of Allegiance; the covenant of the United States government. Yet is there really liberty and justice for “all”, or are some of us left out of this American promise of “life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness”? Well, throughout the history of the world, many people were denied these human rights and had to fight very hard to get them back. Sometimes succeeding, and other times failing. But how did they fight; using violence, or peaceful protests? Which method proved successful?
The question has often been raised: Is non-violent protest more or less effective than violent protest when people are trying to gain the rights that are being denied to them? In order to properly study this question, we must first define the difference between the two, and then examine some results of each action. Let’s start with non-violent protest.
Boycotts, marches, refusal to purchase goods and services, persuasion speeches, picketing, etc; the list goes on an on. These are all some of the numerous ways that people can display non-violent protest. The nature of non-violent protest can be basically summed up into one question; how can I change or manipulate a situation to get a desired result without causing physical harm to myself or others? Over time, many people have come up with some pretty creative and effective ways of getting what they want in a controlled and peaceful manner. However, on the opposite side of the coin, protest that uses violence wants no part of the word “peace”.
Violent protest can probably be best described by remembering the words of the famous Muslim leader Malcolm X “by any means necessary”. In other words, those who choose to protest through violence are only concerned about the end result; regardless of who gets hurt or what gets destroyed along the way. History has shown that violent protest usually stems from extreme situations that people feel require extreme measures.
Despite the extreme procedures of violent protests, is it more effective at
“getting the job done” than its peaceful counterpart? The answer to that question is no.
While violent protest comes with force and determination, it also brings with it a lot of death and destruction. Often times, violent protesters find themselves in a worse situation than when they started. Let’s, look at some examples of this.
One of the most popular struggles for personal rights occurred in the United States during the American Civil Rights Movement which lasted from the early 1940’s into the late 1970’s. During this time, African-American people in America were fighting for equal rights for basic living conditions such as education, health, employment, the use of public facilities, and a host of other basic, everyday rights. Most of the leaders who guided this movement practiced non-violent protest. However, there were a select few who didn’t.
The Black Panthers were a group of African American men who were tired of dealing with racist, white police officers in America. There were an abundance of inappropriate force, arrests without cause, harassment, and even murder suffered by black Americans at the hands of racism driven police officers. The Black Panthers were a militant group who felt like the only way to stop the continuous cycle was through violence.
The Panthers were at the heart of many race riots that began to comb through different states in America. In these riots, blacks began burning homes and businesses of white residents in their neighborhoods in an attempt to get back at them for the suffering that had endured. One of the worst riots was in Los Angeles in 1965 in an area called Watts that lasted six days and left thirty-four people dead and almost $30 million dollars in property taxes. There were other riots that followed in Atlanta, San Francisco, Baltimore, Newark, Chicago, New York City, and Detroit. The riots in Detroit were so bad that many whites began to leave the city which was coined the term “white flight.” However, the living conditions in the area did not improve much and actually became an unsafe place for both blacks and whites to reside in.
Another example of violent protest that was very ineffective and deadly was the rise of the Ku Klux Klan. These were a group of white supremacists who were also on the rise during the American Civil Rights movement who felt that black Americans and anyone else who was not of pure White decent was not equal to them and needed to be destroyed to make the world a better place. In order to create these results, the Klan performed murder by hangings, house burnings, political racism, extreme acts of violent confrontations, and anything else that would cause harm and fear to the black people, predominately in the southern states. Yet, after all the murders of both black and whites together and many innocent bystanders, their goal was not achieved and America is today a melting pot of not only blacks, but many other races as well.
Now, let’s look at why non-violent protests were more effective in the civil rights movement. One of the most famous names from the civil rights movement is Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. He was very pro-active in supporting non-violent acts to gain justice in America for blacks. Under the influence of Mahatma Gandhi, one of the original creators of non-violent protest from India, King lead and supported acts such as boycotts, marches, sit-ins, religious practices, and educational public speaking to name a few in order to influence the media and government regarding equal rights for blacks. One of his most effective moments was the “I Have a Dream” speech that he spoke at the March on Washington on August 28, 1963 that is still celebrated and cherished today. While this process took longer and was not free of fatalities and casualties of not just blacks, but people of all races. Positive changes began to happen which is one of the reasons blacks enjoy the many freedoms of today’s society.
Other non-violent acts that had effective results during the civil rights movement was the Montgomery Bus Boycott led by Rosa Parks that allowed blacks to sit wherever they wanted on public buses instead of rendering front seats to white citizens and standing when there weren’t any seats available. There was also the Brown vs. Board of Education hearing where blacks used psychological testing and experimentation to show that inadequate educational facilities that were not equal to the education provided to whites were damaging the development of black children. This led to legislation that improved the conditions of black schools and integration with white schools.
The American Civil rights movement was just one example of how non-violent protest compares to violent protest when people are trying to achieve rights that they have been denied. There have been a host of many other situations across the nation where similar issues were at hand and even today are still being resolved.
In 2005, residents in Huaxi, China in a city called DongYang began an act of violent protest of a riot with police due to sever environmental pollution coming from local chemical plants. Many people were sick from contaminated food and water and the government was not doing anything about the situation. The rioting eventually caused the government to order the chemical plants in the area to move elsewhere, however the rioting led to many injuries, arrests, and some deaths.
Judging by these examples, one can attempt to argue that non-violent protests are not more effective than violent protests because people still end up dead or injured and often it takes much longer to see the desired result. This indeed is a true statement, but we have to ask ourselves this question “What price did we pay to achieve the desired goal?” If the price was loss of life, destruction of property, and just plain chaos did we eventually become the enemy we were fighting against?
Non-violent protest also teaches us that the human mind is more powerful than any weapon created. It is the mind that controls the use of the weapon. Therefore, if we use our minds to resolve conflicts and problems we have forced our opponent to not only act on our behalf, but also to think. That is true bravery. Even a small child can operate a weapon such as a gun, or light a match and burn down property. A child can easily say foul, hurtful words that can tear their enemy down. However, it takes a mature and wise person to fight with the most powerful weapon of the mind. From the mind stems the root of all solution; reason and understanding.
- Chemical & Engineering News: 26, September 2005: Volume 83, pgs 21-28
- Wikipedia: American Civil Rights Movement
- Stanford University Research: Various authors: 1997