From George Takei voicing his displeasure on Facebook about the violence of the Baltimore Uprising to Wolf Blitzer from CNN asking a protestor whether he believes in non-violent protest, Baltimore onlookers are derailing the conversation about police brutality to ask “What would MLK do?”
The Baltimore Uprising is not unique in this — in Ferguson last year people were constantly haranguing Black protestors for not adhering to the way of Dr. King. This is never a question posed to white or non-Black protestors.
Discussing Martin Luther King, Jr. and Mahatma Gandhi as paragons of saint-like non-violence is an attempt to distract away from the real issues. Journalists and commenters want to believe that any form of violence in dissent is deplorable and that the only way to protest injustice is through steadfastness and purity of spirit. But in selectively quoting King and ignoring many of Gandhi’s philosophical faults, the discussion about police brutality is only silenced and ignored, not furthered.
It’s important to note that non-violence, in the case of King, was always strategic. American history books often talk about Rosa Parks’ pivotal move during the Civil Rights Movement where she sat in the whites-only section of the segregated Alabama bus and refused to move. These textbooks extoll her strength but also discuss it like it was a spontaneous act of rebellion. It wasn’t. Parks, like many other Civil Rights activists, planned and trained for her action. Her non-violence was strategic. The violence she faced as a result of her protest made her look more the victim, highlighted her cause to a previously un-sympathetic audience, and made those who acted against her both angry and culpable.
Non-violence was never meant to be inaction. It was calculated in every circumstance. Those who advocate for non-violence in situations they aren’t in are usually doing so with a misinformed belief that it is somehow the better, more righteous way. They are quick to denounce any and all forms of violence, not because they hinder the cause or force onlookers to the opposing side, but because they’re deemed dishonorable. This isn’t the non-violence King intended for.
Even those who bring up Gandhi don’t seem to fully understand what they’re suggesting. Mahatma Gandhi believed in non-violence to a fault. In various places he advocated that women, in order to shame their rapists, should kill themselves before being raped. He is also on record saying that the Jews suffering under Hitler’s reign should have “offered themselves to the butcher’s knife” to alert the world to what was happening in Germany. Gandhi believed in killing yourself for the sake of non-violence and that some sort of “shame” would ultimately right the situation. This is an obviously problematic philosophy.
King’s desire for racial equality was never a card to be played in any racially tense situation and it was never meant to silent protest. He even said in a speech denouncing the Vietnam War:
As I have walked among the desperate, rejected and angry young men I have told them that Molotov cocktails and rifles would not solve their problems. I have tried to offer them my deepest compassion while maintaining my conviction that social change comes most meaningfully through nonviolent action. But they asked — and rightly so — what about Vietnam? They asked if our own nation wasn’t using massive doses of violence to solve its problems, to bring about the changes it wanted. Their questions hit home, and I knew that I could never again raise my voice against the violence of the oppressed in the ghettos without having first spoken clearly to the greatest purveyor of violence in the world today — my own government.
It is dogmatic to dismiss violence outright. In the case of Baltimore and Freddie Gray, another unarmed Black man who died as a direct result of the police, violence has already been dealt out to the people. Black people in America, with Black trans women being the highest, are being killed now at rates comparable to the Jim Crowe era. Their deaths occur in suspicious circumstances, remain un-investigated or unreported, and often see the killer going free. To ignore all this while simultaneously becoming upset over a looted CVS store is hypocritical.
Discussing non-violence in the case of Baltimore and Ferguson is an act of violence in itself — it is dismissive of the protest and it distracts from the issues of police brutality, inequality, and white supremacy. This ultimately sentences millions of Black people to violence and often death. This is not what Dr. King would have done.