George Floyd was just a guy. He was a guy at the margins, allegedly writing a forged check to pay for some groceries. He was a guy who should still be alive.
He was murdered. Police arrogated to themselves the roles of arresting, convicting, and summarily executing a man whose crime was nonviolent and minor. This is utter abuse of power, misuse of public trust.
Sadly, but understandably, riots are the response from frustrated folks in the town where police murdered him, my hometown, Minneapolis.
Riots are ineffective, counterproductive and contribute mightily to polarization.
If the reactionary forces in Minneapolis could get demonstrators to riot, they could make the rioters look like the forces of chaos that need to be subdued. They could restore dependence on armed agents of the state — troops, cops, et alia.
When riots have happened in the U.S., average citizens have shifted their opinions away from the protesters’ complaints and instead tended to be increasingly grateful for the thin blue line, the cops, who will protect them from the window breakers and fire-starters.
This is history. In the Civil Rights Movement, for example, strong nonviolent discipline for about a decade, 1955-’65, racked up victory after victory. When riots broke out, gains stopped.
And here we are again.
Some campaigns that have not overtly and consistently committed to nonviolence are easily infiltrated by agents provocateurs, who then urge violence, often framing it as self-defense and the only true justice. They act outraged and claim that nothing else is radical enough — and some are very persuasive.
How I wish folks in Minneapolis were not susceptible to being provoked to violence. I raised two African American sons, some of the years in Minneapolis and some in the north, by Lake Superior. I tried to teach them to have no contact with police if at all possible. Black boys can go from prankish to dead in a heartbeat when they wander into the range of white cops.
So. Are there agents provocateurs operating to prod demonstrators to commit acts of violence in Minneapolis? That is very hard to prove. Occasionally it can be proven, as was the case, for example, in Minneapolis years ago, when agents provocateurs infiltrated the Honeywell Project and instigated violence back in the ’60s. After it was indeed proven, Honeywell settled for $70,000, and the plaintiffs, the Honeywell Project, sent half that to victims of Honeywell’s cluster bombs in Vietnam, and then poured the rest back into creating another campaign to get Honeywell out of the bomb business.
The agents provocateurs were successful in the 1960s in promoting violence against Honeywell, and windows were broken, property damaged, and the movement was thus alienated from the public. We didn’t do any of that the next time. We had a strict nonviolent code, we had training that instilled nonviolent discipline, and we kept the peace even as we escalated and eventually got Honeywell to sell off its military side.
Are there agents provocateurs operating in Minneapolis again, right now? We do not know, though those are the rumors and activists are trying to confront suspected agents. But if it’s ever proven, it will be too late. The crime committed against George Floyd was heinous and yet rioting is going to alienate the public and make them turn back to police for protection, so the usual ineffectiveness of violence will be evident.
Is anger inappropriate? Oh, hell no. Indeed, when asked what motivated her, Rosa Parks said that it was deep and abiding anger at what happened to Emmet Till, the 14-year-old black boy savagely beaten to death by whites for supposedly whistling at a white woman.
Martin Luther King Jr and Mohandas Gandhi both wrote a fair bit about anger. Gandhi, who was born in the Steam Age, said anger is like steam; it can build up and eventually explode, or it can be harnessed to do a great deal of productive work.
Nonviolent discipline has been understandably but regrettably lost in Minneapolis. Analyst George Lakey points to many times when a campaign breaks out in violence and manages to reset and proceed using strong strategic nonviolence, on to a string of victories. Violence is a setback, not an end.
It is not too late to reset. It is never too late to decide to develop and maintain nonviolent discipline to increase chances for success. I hope that happens in my birthplace. Bless your hearts, Minneapolis. Sending love and anger and hope.
Tom H. Hastings, Ph.D., is the director of the Oregon Peace Institute’s PeaceVoice Program, assistant professor in Portland State University’s conflict resolution department and the author of the book, “A New Era of Nonviolence,” which can be found at mcfarlandbooks.com/product/a-new-era-of-nonviolence/.