Unjust power structures will ignore calls for change if we let them

Like most people, I’d prefer to see our communities come together, make things, learn, build, enjoy art, and coexist in harmony with each other and nature. But we obviously aren’t there yet.

Instead we have a reality in which American billionaires increased their wealth by $434B while the rest of us have struggled to survive a global pandemic and economic depression. Where 1000 people each year are killed by increasingly militarized police forces, where black people are killed while sleeping in their homes, jogging, driving.

Power Asymmetry and Violence

The murder of George Floyd set off a cascade of demonstrations spawning uprisings in every state in the US and in many countries around the world in the spring of 2020. The unrest renewed a discussion about the morality and efficacy of the tactics used by people in the streets:

Setting aside the problems with these questions, I think most people would agree that, in a vacuum, person A inflicting harm on person B is immoral.

But, in the real word, we have to consider the mountains of inequality between actors: some have more wealth than entire nations, some have ancestry from centuries of chattel slavery, some are killed by agents of the state, some profit by closing community hospitals, some have legal teams, some can’t post bail, some can’t afford insulin, some poison the air that others breath, some write laws, some can’t vote, some work from home, some are essential workers, some suffer under broad systemic racism, others benefit from it.

This power asymmetry, in my view, is what matters most when we think about what tactics are strategic and moral toward the goal of achieving positive change.

First, let’s assume that the behavior of the system, with respect to power, follows a couple rules:

Given this, if demands on an unjust power structure can be ignored, they will be. Gains for regular people happen when their demands and actions can’t be ignored by the status quo and established power. This is why direct action that threatens, inflicts harm, costs, or at least inconveniences our opponents works. This is why it is effective to block traffic and shut down oil pipeline worksites. It stops business-as-usual, demands attention, and increases negotiating power.

I think much of the vandalism, broken windows, burned police stations, and looting is the manifestation of valid disgust and anger at an unjust system. Regardless of how valid or logical a human response one considers these uprisings, the fact that they are not under control by the beneficiaries of the status quo is what makes them potent and effective.

Peaceful Protest

Imagine a peaceful march that poses no inconvenience to those standing in the way of police reform. One that obeys the curfews imposed by the police, that stays on the sidewalks, and doesn’t affect the rush hour traffic (one that offers a Pepsi to a cop). Organizers can try to control the narrative and hope that the media reports sympathetically, that the police might be interested and open to listening to the activists’ speeches. Maybe the police chief will see the signatures on the petition and reevaluate their life’s work. Maybe its possible to appeal to the morality of officials to find legislative solutions.

I’m not suggesting that there aren’t alternatives to burning police cars and looting Walmarts. There are. But I do think we’ve waited long enough for demands to be heard and for police to stop murdering black people.

Our Opponents are Ruthless

If the tactics taken by the 2020 uprising seem too violent, consider the tactics used by our opponents: tear gas, rubber bullets, bullets, tanks, drones, mass surveillance, from Jim Crow, to the assassination of Fred Hampton, Martin Luther King Jr., lynchings past and present. Consider the lengths Charles Koch was willing to go to dismantle labor and environmental protections, and the ruthlessness of Jeff Bezos, the dishonesty of big tobacco, Exxon Mobile. Our opponents are not sitting idly by, patiently waiting to cast their ballot every 4 years. They are hardcore. They are radical activists fighting violently for power and self-preservation.

We’ve been in an unfair fight for decades - unless we recognize that and fight back we are going to continue to lose.