Shortly after the Ferguson grand jury announced its decision Monday night, President Obama said: “We need to accept that this decision was the grand jury's to make. There are Americans who agree with it, and there are Americans who are deeply upset, even angry. It's an understandable reaction. But I join Michael's parents in asking anyone who protests this decision to do so peacefully.” See here.
I am bothered by the statement that we need to accept that this decision was the grand jury’s to make. I read that as an appeal to the rule of law. But the rule of law is not merely procedural; the rule of law should not be construed to include blatant miscarriages of justice rooted in racism. It should not be construed to include denials of probable cause when probable cause so clearly exists. It should not be construed to include executions in the street. It should not be construed to include the legitimation of a police state.
I think it is important to be clear about why protests should be peaceful. One of the main arguments against revolutionary activity is that people are not entitled to “take the law into their own hands.” That argument assumes a legitimate state. If the rule of law existed we would need to accept that “this decision was the grand jury’s to make.” But the rule of law was abandoned in Ferguson Monday night – in fact well before. In these circumstances, we do not need to accept that this was the grand jury’s decision to make, and we should not. People are morally entitled to fight against this decision.
No part of the argument against violence should properly rest on an appeal to the rule of law. The arguments against violence either should rest on a general or narrower pacifist claim from a moral perspective or from a claim that violence will not help to bring us closer to a less illegitimate state or both. The effectiveness claim is empirical. It is also often wrong. Violence has led to better states in the past. Nonetheless, the claim seems right in this circumstance. Violence plays into the hands of those who would seek to change the subject from the injustice of Ferguson and it promotes the kind of racist appeals that turn human beings into demons.
Certainly from a moral perspective, violence directed against innocent victims who happen to own property is misplaced. Moreover, at a minimum, violence is not a moral good and should be resisted when more effective non-violent alternatives exist. Indeed, pacifist resistance draws its effectiveness in large part because of its moral thrust.
Nonetheless, we should remember that few Americans are pacifists. I am not surprised that some of those who live in an unjust community would react with violence. Nor is anyone else. The National Guard was called out even before the Grand Jury had announced its indefensible decision.
I am not surprised that authorities would call for black citizens to go quietly into the night. Nor am I surprised that many citizens are more outraged by the pockets of violence than by the injustice that prompted it.
I am not surprised (though I am bewildered) that many citizens honestly believe (including members of the Grand Jury) that there was no basis to indict Officer Wilson. That to me is the saddest aspect of this entire affair. Motivated cognition is a social fact. Conservatives and liberals – whites and blacks - often believe what they want to believe. The facts do not matter. Whether it is climate change or not, whether the poor are lazy or not, or whether the killing of an unarmed black man by a white police officer in St. Louis was a criminal action or not, the sides line up.
Don’t get me wrong: facts matter as a part of a political campaign for social change. But so does power. And civil resistance including disobedience is appropriate here even if it is not effective. Dissent against injustice is not just morally permissible; it is a moral imperative.