America's original sin, the 1787 Constitution's failure to abolish slavery, haunts us still. It's the essence of fateful tragedy: The new nation could not have been born without this concession to a depraved practice.
The Black Lives Matter movement is a sign of hope. Like the civil rights movement of the 1950s and 60s, BLM extends America's drive for liberty, equality and justice.
BLM came alive in the wake of the May 25 killing of George Floyd by Minneapolis police. It's been clear for decades that America's violent approach to criminality is counter-productive and in need of a deep reform that extends to police, prisons, criminal law and an underfunded social system that often treats poor people, mentally ill people, minorities and others as though they were criminals. America, world leader in per-capita incarceration, by far the leader among the industrialized world in per-capita murders, and where guns are bizarrely given special constitutional protection, is a rough and tough country. But our people need assistance and understanding, not beatings and prisons. BLM should keep up the pressure until we reach true reform.
BLM is a continuation of the earlier movement for voting rights and racial integration led by (among many others) Bayard Rustin, John Lewis and Martin Luther King. King was the foremost thinker, participant and leader of the movement, and in my opinion the greatest American of the 20th century. His leadership of the American effort to peacefully free its citizens of color was comparable to Mahatma Gandhi's leadership of the effort to peacefully free India's citizens from Great Britain.
News reporting of BLM protests have focused overmuch on the associated violence and insufficiently on the protests' deep causes. This movement is about more than criminal justice reform. It's about an imbalanced social system that relies more on punishment than it does on education and assistance to solve its many inequities. A careful study by the nonprofit Armed Conflict Location & Event Data Project (ACLED) and reported in the Washington Post states that 93% of the racial justice protests sweeping the U.S. have been peaceful and nondestructive.
However, there has been violence, some of it by right-wing provocateurs but much of it by BLM supporters such as Antifa, which advocates violence against far-right activists and police. Protestors have been involved in injury to police and others, looting and riot declarations; they have thrown rocks and bottles at police, smashed windows (note: destroying property is a form of violence), shined lasers into people's eyes, broken and entered, started fires and thrown incendiary Molotov cocktails.
Physical violence is nearly always morally wrong. The only exceptions I can think of is self-defense when escape is impossible, and the Allied response to German and Japanese aggression in World War II. Violence makes almost every bad situation worse. The old chestnut is quite true: "An eye for an eye, a tooth for a tooth, and soon we're all blind and toothless."
King was morally opposed to violent protest. His life was rooted in nonviolent resistance. At the height of his career, in 1959, he toured India for five weeks, meeting with Gandhian social activists, government officials and many others. The trip had a profound effect. As he put it: "Since being in India, I am more convinced than ever before that the method of nonviolent resistance is the most potent weapon available to oppressed people in their struggle for justice and human dignity. In a real sense, Mahatma Gandhi embodied in his life certain universal principles that are inherent in the moral structure of the universe, and these principles are as inescapable as the law of gravitation."
During the '60s, '70s and '80s, I participated in and helped organize many Fayetteville civil rights and anti-war demonstrations. Pre-protest instructions in the moral virtue and tactical necessity of nonviolence were standard procedure. The movement's lasting successes were testimony that King's nonviolent approach was not only a moral requirement but also a tactical necessity in the long struggle for liberty, equality and justice.
Violent protestors bring shame on the otherwise positive BLM movement. This is not a "big tent" situation where violence can be regarded as a tolerable deviation by a minority. One can empathize with protestors' strong feelings, without supporting any actual violence. Indeed, violence strikes at the heart of everything BLM stands for.
We Black Lives Matter supporters should actively oppose violence and shun protestors who practice it. Violence feeds upon itself and can only magnify the brutal tendencies that BLM opposes.
Art Hobson is a professor emeritus of physics at the University of Arkansas. Email him at [email protected]