by Christopher Caceres
In an effort to end racial segregation and discrimination against African Americans and to secure legal recognition and federal protection of the citizenship rights stated in the Constitution, Martin Luther King Jr. established a non negotiable set of rules for protesters eager to join the movement. Predicated on the ideals of nonviolence, protesters had to refrain from violence, abstain from instigating violence and, above all, promote a message of tolerance and love.
“Nonviolence is power, but it is the right and good use of power,” said Dr. King.
Last Wednesday night, students and local residents gathered at the University of California, Berkeley to oppose the scheduled on-campus appearance of a Breitbart News editor and infamous right-wing provocateur, Milo Yiannopoulos. The group threw rocks at police, assaulted fellow protesters, setoff “commercial grade fireworks,” smashed windows and threw Molotov cocktails.
From Washington, to Portland, to Oakland, protests have been outlets for a minority of radicals looking to perpetuate hate and violence under the belief that the end justifies the means.
The rioters were so consumed with hate that they attacked individuals with similar ideologies but different methodologies, forgoing progress for intolerance. What started as a peaceful protest became a riot, undermining the protesters message and putting an already vulnerable community of minorities at risk to backlash.
“When you use violence, two things happen,” said Pamela Oliver, a University of Wisconsin-Madison sociology professor who studies protests. “One is it justifies repression; and two, there’s many people who are kind of moderates who might be sympathetic, but who tend to turn against a movement if it becomes violent.”
Ironically, by preventing Mr. Yiannopoulos from speaking, they stripped him of his first amendment right, and by doing so became no better than the government and ideologies they so adamantly reject. As posed in a New York Times article, “What does this campus [UC Berkeley] represent if it doesn’t respect the rights of people with whom many of us disagree?”
Regardless of where you stand on the political spectrum, if you cross the line into a place where conflict and violence become an acceptable means of achieving your objectives, you lose credibility and commit to a world no better than the one you are in now.
What if a Trump supporter dressed as a Nazi had been killed? Would that have been acceptable? And if one is acceptable, what about two? If it is acceptable to take the lives of two people on the basis that they are intolerant racists, and it’s ultimately for the greater good, is it okay if a stray civilian gets killed in the process? And if losing one civilian life is okay, is three? There is a great distance between protesting for your beliefs and actively putting lives at risk to bring visibility to a cause. Martin Luther King understood that. Violence begets violence. Once you decide to step into a world where conflict and violence are an acceptable means to an end, there is no progress, only regression.
Civil disobedience is fundamental to a country’s growth. By peacefully challenging the status quo, you force citizens to view the world through an empathic lens. It defies the establishment while maintaining respect, which preserves the dignity and truth of a cause. To deviate from this principle is counterproductive and small.
To the Berkeley rioters and like-minded individuals, there’s a name for those who, through the use of violence, terror and fear attempt to achieve political, religious or ideological aims: terrorists.
Instead, look towards the Women’s Rights protesters and the Standing Rock protesters. They let their courage speak for them and for the merit of their cause. They are choosing to do what’s right over what’s easy. They are implementing a nonviolent approach established by their predecessors. There is an undervalued bravery in choosing peace over the instant gratification of rage and aggression.
When Rosa Parks refused to move from her seat on a segregated bus in Montgomery, Alabama; when Martin Luther King was beaten and unjustly arrested; when John Lewis had his head bashed in on the Selma bridge; when the Freedom Riders were assaulted almost to death in the South, they didn’t attack their attackers. They let what is right speak for itself, and by doing so changed the world. Their fundamental ideals captured the attention of the nation and brought about positive radical change.
“The ultimate weakness of violence is that it is a descending spiral; begetting the very thing it seeks to destroy. Instead of diminishing evil, it multiplies it. Through violence you may murder the hater, but you do not murder hate. In fact, violence merely increases hate. So it goes,” said Dr. King.
The courage not to fight is harder and less satisfying than provoking an opponent. It takes an inner strength few of us possess. The Berkeley rioters may have achieved their immediate goal, but the means by which the rioters went about accomplishing that end deepens our divide by strengthening the notion of “us” and “them” and compromises the ideals this country was founded upon.