For the purposes of this essay I am intentionally setting aside the usually valuable virtue of intellectual disinterestedness. People are dying, and cities are burning, so disinterestedness seems less virtuous today in discussions of racial injustice. This essay brings together four loosely connected reflections. First, I offer the beginnings of an analysis of violence that complicates a mere “rioting is bad” narrative. Second, I appeal for additional organized and intentional nonviolent direct action, which I hope to participate in personally. Third, I argue against the use of Baltimore police officers for peacekeeping in Baltimore. Fourth, I explicitly reject the disproportionate and state sanctioned violence against black people that has been done in my name.
First: There seem to be at least two types of violence that have been unfolding against the black residents of Baltimore over the past several decades.
- Structural violence in the forms of poverty, and lack of access to public goods like quality education, healthcare, and employment, all of which leave real, lasting, and devastating effects on the population.
- Direct assault at the hands of the police force.
In the face of these kinds of violence it is actually remarkable that anyone in Baltimore continues to engage in nonviolent direct action. The fact that thousands of black residents of Baltimore actually manage to continue to protest these forms of violence without resort to force is a testament to their incredible faith in the efficacy of peace and love to transform human hearts and unjust structures. It is, as the father of Black theology, James Cone, teaches us, evidence of the resurrected presence of Jesus Christ in their midst, strengthening them for resistance against oppression. The fact that some of Baltimore’s residents have not managed to maintain a nonviolent stance must be viewed in the context of the overall and consistent structural and direct violence that has been part and parcel of living in Baltimore for the past several decades. The reality of Baltimore was one of violence well before this week’s protests and unrest. It is ethically invalid and frankly irrational to make moral judgments against the violence we’ve seen in the midst of these days of protest without clear reference to the sustained systemic violence that residents have endured for years.
Second: With this backdrop, I hesitantly suggest that the movement against racial injustice in the United States has not yet arrived at the point where resort to force is warranted. I make this suggestion in accord with the research I have been engaged in for the last several years on whether and when nonviolent movements against severe oppression can justifiably turn to armed resistance. I am hesitant because I recognize that members of the socially and politically oppressed are in the best position to determine what kinds of tactics are necessary to secure their liberation. Nevertheless, proceeding with caution: while it is true that nonviolent direct action is a performance to get the attention of the privileged and powerful, and even that acts of forceful resistance like smashing police cars may be a legitimate political strategy under certain conditions, I don’t think those conditions exist in the U.S. yet. Moreover, force seems to be counter-productive to the pursuit of justice in this context. At its best, nonviolent direct action is a performance of the very justice sought by those who perform it, and it is a performance of their human dignity in the face of those who have denied it. That is one of the reasons that lunch counter sit-ins worked well during the Civil Rights Movement — folks “performed” the justice of being able to sit at the lunch counter and they highlighted the injustice of folks who didn’t want them sitting there. I’m not yet sure what this kind of civil disobedience would look like when it comes to situations of police brutality. I trust that the black leaders in Baltimore will identify and raise up their most creative and committed activists to design the kinds of nonviolent direct action that can best promote justice. It is true that nonviolence will not always work, but I don’t think the situation of racial oppression in the U.S. is at the point where we can say that nonviolent direct action has been exhausted and is now a futile strategy of political resistance.
Third: That said, we have a very big, very obvious structural problem when the authority that is dispatched to protect people’s First Amendment rights to protest is the very authority that is being protested because of its incapacity to respect people’s rights. The local Baltimore police force is a completely inappropriate body for maintaining the law and order that Baltimore’s citizens need as they exercise their right to protest. In Ferguson, the governor of Missouri dealt with a similar dynamic in which the community did not, for good reason, trust the police by bringing in state troopers. State trooper Capt. Ron Johnson was himself a former resident of Ferguson and images of him marching alongside Ferguson’s protest inspire hope in the possibility of normalized, even positive, relations between black communities and police.
And finally: Over the last few days, I have been holding my children in my arms and considering how utterly demolished I would be if they somehow ended up on the wrong side of the powerful and potentially violent machinations of the state. I imagine how completely crushed I would be if I lost them in the violent and seemingly senseless manner that many black parents have lost their children. But I also know that my children are protected, at least somewhat; their skin is white. And this means they are safe from all kinds of biases, and presumptions, and knee-jerk reactions that put black lives in danger. I cannot dismantle white supremacy by myself. But I can be an ally in dismantling it. I can say to mothers who have lost their children at the hands of the state-sanctioned violence: I am sorry. I am sorry insofar as the forces that killed your children because of your skin color are the same ones that spare mine because of ours. And I can say to those forces: No more. Not in my name. No more slow deaths of grinding humiliation, harassment, and degradation in my name. No more brutality visited upon black bodies in my name. No more death penalties – judicial or extra-judicial – of black human beings in my name.
God have mercy on us and deliver us from the systemic evil of racism.
Anna Floerke Scheid, Ph.D. is an Assistant Professor of Theology at Duquesne University where she teaches and researches in the area of Christian social ethics with attention to the just war tradition, peacebuilding, and post-conflict forgiveness and reconciliation. She is the author of Just Revolution: A Christian Ethic of Political Resistance and Social Transformation (Lexington Books, Rowman and Littlefield Press, 2015). Her work appears in the Journal of the Society of Christian Ethics, Horizons, and Teaching Theology and Religion.