It’s time to shut up about nonviolence

In the wake of the Freddie Gray killing while in police custody in Baltimore, I would have thought I’d have little to add to my previous comments on racism and self-righteousness about that racism in law enforcement.[1] What’s new is, to me, revealing about the white and faux liberal response to unrest.

On one level, it’s little surprise that many whites and faux liberals (not to mention mostly white conservatives) have condemned the violence in Baltimore that has arisen in response to yet another extrajudicial killing of a Black man. Even President Obama joined in, forever sealing the word ‘thug’ as the new ‘N-word,’ in deploring the violence.[2] What’s disturbing to me is that they do so in the name of a much-vaunted nonviolence, a tactic so admired that it leads to something just short for deification of Martin Luther King, Jr., and for Mahatma Gandhi, among others.

In part, this is  about ignorance. People don’t realize that nonviolence has been tried. Repeatedly.[3] And the truth of nonviolence is that it is a tactic, among other tactics. The story of its successes,  failures, and ambiguous outcomes is much more nuanced and much less laudable than its advocates pretend.[4]

Non-violence is a type of political performance designed to raise awareness and win over sympathy of those with privilege. When those on the outside of struggle—the white, the wealthy, the straight, the able-bodied, the masculine—have demonstrated repeatedly that they do not care, are not invested, are not going to step in the line of fire to defend the oppressed, this is a futile political strategy. It not only fails to meet the needs of the community, but actually puts oppressed people in further danger of violence.[5]

In large part, I see hypocrisy. We who are white or otherwise relatively privileged do not face the criminalization and police brutality that Black people, especially men, simply for being of color, face on a daily basis.[6] To tell people who are actually in that situation what they should do and how they should do it from afar is indistinguishable from elitism. Whites and honorary whites, such as Barack Obama, should check themselves, especially when they stoop to appeals to rely on a system which is so manifestly not about justice and is so manifestly a failure.[7]

Even if we accept the dubious proposition that nonviolence is an appropriate response to state violence, we must ask how many Black men must die while we satisfy ourselves with slow, hard-fought, iterative, and incremental change that preserves the status quo by enabling it to adapt at a non-threatening pace.[8] What this acquiescence suggests to me is not a desire for urgently needed change, but rather for the preservation even of relative privilege. To me, that’s a disgrace.

  1. [1]David Benfell, “Rich judging poor, whites judging Blacks, and men judging women: How so-called ‘justice’ is blind to privilege,” Not Housebroken, March 26, 2014,; David Benfell, “It’s so much easier to wave a Confederate flag,” Not Housebroken, August 30, 2014,; David Benfell, “Answering Brad Friedman: Why the discrepancy in police response to Ferguson versus Cliven Bundy?” Not Housebroken, October 24, 2014,; David Benfell, “We need to change,” Not Housebroken, November 25, 2014,; David Benfell, “Cops and complicity,” Not Housebroken, December 6, 2014,; David Benfell, “Holding Blacks to white standards,” Not Housebroken, December 25, 2014,; David Benfell, “Itchy trigger fingers,” Not Housebroken, December 25, 2014,; David Benfell, “Time to take the guns away,” January 6, 2015,
  2. [2]David A. Love, “Calling people ‘thugs’ solves nothing,” CNN, April 29, 2015,; Ahiza Garcia, “Conservatives Delight As Obama Uses ‘Thugs’ To Describe Baltimore Violence,” Talking Points Memo, April 28, 2015,
  3. [3]David A. Love, “Calling people ‘thugs’ solves nothing,” CNN, April 29, 2015,
  4. [4]Benjamin Ginsberg, “Why Violence Works,” Chronicle of Higher Education, August 12, 2013,; Benji Hart, “Baltimore’s violent protesters are right: Smashing police cars is a legitimate political strategy,” Salon, April 28, 2015,; Charles Lemert, “The Golden Moment: 1945-1963,” in Social Theory: The Multicultural and Classic Readings, ed. Charles Lemert, 4th ed. (Boulder, CO: Westview, 2010), 275-286.; Steven W. Thrasher, “The real looting of Ferguson: its black citizens never had a chance to get by,” Guardian, August 19, 2014,
  5. [5]Benji Hart, “Baltimore’s violent protesters are right: Smashing police cars is a legitimate political strategy,” Salon, April 28, 2015,
  6. [6]Charles M. Blow, “Michael Brown and Black Men,” New York Times, August 13, 2014,; Melissa Harris-Perry, “Trayvon Martin: What It’s Like to Be a Problem,” Nation, March 28, 2012,
  7. [7]David Benfell, “Juries and injustice: The fools call me in again,” Not Housebroken, April 27, 2015,
  8. [8]Bill Moyer, with JoAnn McAllister, Mary Lou Finley, and Steven Soifer, Doing Democracy: The MAP Model for Organizing Social Movements (Gabriola Island, British Columbia, Canada: New Society, 2001).