The words “peaceful protest” dominated headlines last weekend as citizens across our nation took to the streets, demanding justice for George Floyd, following his murder by four Minneapolis police officers. Everyone from President Obama to local faith leaders urged the protestors to remain peaceful. Listening to them, I thought of the students I have taught over the years in a college writing course entitled “Peace and Protest.” We read various texts defending and critiquing nonviolence. My students’ reactions help me reflect critically on our current moment and the public emphasis on keeping the peace.
The ideal peaceful protestor in the American imagination is, of course, Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. But King was not always universally applauded for his protesting tactics. The “Letter from Birmingham Jail” (1963) reports that he and fellow Black Christian leaders were labeled “outside agitators” by the mainstream media when they traveled to Birmingham to join demonstrations against segregation. White religious leaders criticized the demonstrators for engaging in civil disobedience, which they said provoked violence, and praised the police department for maintaining law and order – even as those officers unleashed attack dogs on the nonviolent protestors and beat those who had been jailed.
My students admire the 1960s Civil Rights activists for their courage and willingness to suffer police brutality without retaliating. However, they are powerfully persuaded by the skeptical argument of Ta-Nehisi Coates’ Between the World and Me (2015), written after the acquittal of police officers who killed Michael Brown in Ferguson, MO. Coates recalls growing up as a black boy in 1980s inner-city Baltimore, watching videos of Civil Rights “heroes” – black people knocked down by fire hoses and beaten with clubs in the streets. Coates remembers wondering, “Why were only our heroes nonviolent?” The morality of nonviolence, he realizes, is specially enforced upon people of color.
Coates’ question exposes a double standard that we saw play out again last weekend. The American public expects peaceful conduct from citizens who are protesting the extrajudicial killing of unarmed black men and women. These protestors come from communities oppressed for decades by police brutality, racism, and white supremacy. Handling the protestors – ensuring that they remain “peaceful” – are police and National Guard forces armed with military-grade assault weapons, firing into crowds with rubber bullets and tear gas, and physically taking unarmed people to the ground.
These violent tactics are supposedly justified by instances of looting and vandalism. But there is an undeniable power differential here. It strikes me as deeply hypocritical for this country to demand respect for private property – the symbol of a capitalist economy – while training and arming police to use lethal force against private citizens. In this military-capitalist state, black and brown lives are deemed expendable, apparently less worthy of protection than store-front windows. To reinforce this message, the White House has threatened to send the U.S. military, “thousands of heavily armed soldiers,” to “dominate the streets” and “protect the rights of law-abiding Americans, including your second amendment rights.” The very law-abiding, white citizens who, mere weeks ago, brandished their guns outside state capitals to intimidate public officials trying to save lives in the midst of a pandemic.
If peaceful protest is to be more than a byword of the white power structure in this country, all Americans must hold our government to a rigorous standard of peace-keeping that does not harm, threaten, or intimidate. We cannot demand nonviolence from the oppressed while allowing the government and law enforcement officers to commit murder in the name of our safety and public order. If we are to speak authentically to our young people about justice and peace, we must live out of the truth that we preach, as Jesus and St Dominic did. Openly carrying arms does not witness to nonviolent commitment – or to the inviolable dignity of human life.
There are immediate actions to take to address current tensions, and they do not include deploying the National Guard. First, charges must be brought against the other three officers responsible for George Floyd’s death. But the issue is obviously much larger than any four individuals. To work for systemic change and racial justice, police training needs to be overhauled in favor of nonviolent conflict resolution, and Stand Your Ground laws overturned. Ultimately, we must heed the Black Lives Matter movement and demilitarize the police.
As people of faith committed to preaching the Reign of God, we remember the vision of the prophet Isaiah: “They shall beat their swords into plowshares and their spears into pruning hooks; One nation shall not raise the sword against another, nor shall they train for war again” (Is. 2: 4). May we commit ourselves anew to working nonviolently toward a just peace.
34 responses to ““Peace and Protest” after the Murder of George Floyd”
Thank you, Annie. People of non-violence need to “stand our ground” together. Your conviction is amazing graqce!
Your words and insights are prophetic. Please publish and share this far and wide. I’m sending them to my family and friends.
Thank you so much Annie for your reflection. I wonder if you know that George Soros pays any one to protest in ways I feel bring more conflict and not peaceful means. Then the Black People are blamed for protests when it may be White supremacy to get paid for riots and violence. It is so so sad to me that there are white people working against our country. Yet, I know our God is One of Justice and Peace.
Continued blessings on your Preaching the truth,
YES!!! The non-violence of Jesus all His human life and unto death as a criminal calls every human to live the same.
Thank you for your very clear stance and for passing it on to your students and all of us!
Annie, thanks so much for you challenging words and beautiful reflection. I have read it several times and each time I see more that I can hold in my heart. Peace, dear one!
Your reflection gives so much clarity in the midst of so much conflict and chaos. Your gift of preaching is so appreciated. We miss you in New Haven
Annie, i can hear our founder Dominic saying with his great enthusiasm: Fortiter! Fortiter! In this way and Spirit, we continue together.
Thank you Annie, for your powerful, insightful reflection!
Thank you, Annie, for your clear and insightful preaching.
Annie, I see that “Peaceful Protest” has captured your attention and captured you heart. And it has mine also, for many years now, but to a greater extent with the recent developments. Thank you for expressing this in such a way that is clear, bold, incisive, and compelling. Indeed, you express it for many…..
Annie, I remember sitting in on a few of your seminar classes when you were teaching at Yale. You encouraged all of your students to participate and obviously listened to every one and even more, it was obvious they all adored you. We miss you so much here in New Haven and hope the Dominicans realize what a treasure they have in you. I agree with all the comments that are published on this sight and hope you will take the advice of Sr. Shirley Bodisch and send this to be published. Judy Brennan
Your students are very fortunate to have you as their teacher. I hope they live your teachings as well as listen to them. Thank you for your honesty and courage.
You make us proud, Annie!
Thank you, Annie, for your powerful preaching. We need to continue to ponder this deeply.
Annie, have you thought of sending your reflection article to the newspaper? It ought to be printed as an op ed. Thank you for your thought-provoking words.
Ann, your deeply insightful reflection is preaching in the Dominican Sisters’ style: grounded in truth and courage, you give us facts, analysis, action.
Thanks for the line, “The morality of nonviolence…is specially enforced upon people of color.”
Thank you, Annie, for expressing so eloquently the truth needs to be shouted from the mountain tops.
Well written, Annie. I enjoyed your insight and experience with your students. Thank you.
Thank you, Annie, for your thought provoking article. Wouldn’t be wonderful if every police department could receive a engraved copy of just this ONE sentence:: ” “We cannot demand nonviolence from the oppressed while allowing the government and law enforcement officers to commit murder in the name of our safety and public order.”
So true. Our double standard is assumed to be just fine. So fine that a large number don’t even recognize its existence.
Thank you for your inspiring insights.
Annie, this is a well thought out and beautifully written analysis and call to appropriate action. Thank you!
We, of all people, who bear the name of peace and claim it as our charism, must be upfront in ways to dismantle the environment of police brutality and restore the right and duty of peaceful protest. It will be difficult since we also bear the weight of 400 years of racial oppression. Thank you, Annie, for ‘naming grace;’
Great insight around the dichotomy of attitude around violence and looting and armed military force.
This is amazing insight and understanding of the true history of protests! Thank you for sharing this view so eloquently! Praying peace prevails!
You are so right. We need to make our voices heard. As we prepare for an upcoming Assembly we need to brainstorm ways in which we can help turn the tide do racism in the US.
What would Catherine of Siena be saying about all of this?
Good , Annie. The search for nonviolent resolution needs much research in the nation’s Police Departments.
Job Well Done! Thank you so much for your reflection, Ann.
Peace and God listen to your plea!
Job Well Done, Ann! Thank you for your beautiful reflection.
Peace and may God listen to your plea.
Thank you Ann for preaching truth. We need to be shouting this from the rooftops.
Rosie Blackburn OPA
Well written and oh so true. Thanks Annie.
Powerful and chlalenging words and insights, Ann E! Thank you!
Thank you, Annie. We all need to read Martin Luther King’s “Letter from a Birmingham Jail”. The truths King wrote in 1963 were and are timeless; applied to the entire country then as now. When the ‘power deferential’ breach is so great between people of white–often corporate- and people of color, keeping demonstrations peaceful after decades of broken promises is difficult. Some of the demonstrators made that point of how to get powers’ attention to the point of really listening and changing course. King in the Letter lists 4 basic steps for us all to follow: collection of facts, determination whether injustices are alive; honest negotiation, self-purification and direct action.
One other truth raised which applies to each and every group which has experienced some type of oppression: the need to create the kind of tension in society that will help [us] rise from the dark depths of prejudice and racism that will inevitably open the door to negotiation.
Thank you for your insightful and challenging blog. This is the time–past time–to reject power over and move toward power with.
It’s schizophrenic to “demand non-violence from the oppressed while allowing the government and law enforcement to commit murder in the name of our safety and public order.”
I hope the upcoming Assembly will give priority to promoting systemic change and racial justice.