In his book, United, Senator Cory Booker speaks about social activism and racial tensions in the United States. He shares some thoughts from Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. that helped him make sense of the difficult state of race relations in the United States. A passage from Booker with influence from King Jr. reads, ““It’s much easier to guarantee the right to vote than it is to guarantee the right to live in sanitary decent housing conditions. He condemned riots and violence as “socially destructive and self-defeating,” creating more problems than they solve. But he also called riots “the language of the unheard.””
The Civil Rights Movement is looked back at with fondness from both white and black people in the United States today. We have somewhat romanticized the time period, elevating figures like Dr. King Jr. and remembering demonstrations as solely peaceful. In our minds, freedoms were quickly forthcoming and there were no violent riots and protesters had a clear message and simple demands for fairness.
I have not studied the Civil Rights Movement in depth, but I have a sense that this idealized notion of the movement does not match the reality of the time. We want to look back and believe that all demonstrations were non-violent from the start, but I’m not sure that is the case. This is important because how we look back on that period of time shapes the perceptions we build regarding racial minorities today.
In 2017 there seems to be less of a racially charged atmosphere than existed in 2015 when multiple black men died in police interactions as a result of police officer discretions and interpretations of the situation. The response has been demonstrations, calls for greater recognition of institutional racism, and in some instances riots. What I have seen from our society is a lack of understanding of how we should respond when racial minorities call for action, demonstrate, or even riot. I agree with Dr. King that riots become devolutionary and take the focus off of the issue originally being pursued and limit the discussion that we should be having regarding race relations in the United States, and at the same time I agree with the last part of the quote that Booker shared, that riots are the voice of the unheard. I have seen many marches and demonstrations at the University I attend and across the country, but non of the non-violent demonstrations seem to get much attention, and most often the responses I hear from white people are dubious of the claims of solved racial disparities in our society.
Turning to riots and violence seems like a logical response for a group that has been ignored and criticized when demanding acknowledgement of injustice. I think we ought to ask ourselves not just whether we think a group has a right to demonstrate or riot, but how a group should behave when they perceive that they are being victimized. We all love a peaceful protest, but at what point does a group demand more and allow frustrations to bubble over in the hopes that a message is truly communicated or at least addressed?