Let it Burn

On the limits of nonviolent protest

Mark Weiss
May 29, 2020 · 6 min read
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Protestors in Minneapolis on May 26th, 2020 | Stephen Maturen/Getty Images

I approach this topic with caution. There are colleagues of mine who have written more about nonviolent protests than I will ever be able to read, who have approached the subject with an objective eye and a scholarly mindset, who have made significant contributions to the academic understanding of the politics of resistance.

I have no such goals here and I will not delude myself by proclaiming such expertise. Instead, I will write about what I, a white American, have observed in the past few days — and hope that it resonates with others.

Let us begin with a tweet from Tomi Lahren, who, for those fortunate enough not to be acquainted with her work, became famous after a mysteriously unhinged rant about Colin Kapernick’s protest against police brutality. Lahren called the NFL player a “whiny, indulgent, attention-seeking crybaby” for having the audacity to kneel during the national anthem. She proudly proclaimed that the First Amendment protects her right to “shred” him for daring to speak out, after which she berated Kapernick for three minutes in a red-faced barrage that would make Bill O’Reilly blush (a blotchy face, coincidentally, is actually something he is somewhat remembered for).

About halfway through, she criticized the specific means through which Kapernick protested:

There is certainly a lot going on there, and to seriously critique each line would be as tedious as it would be redundant — there is, indeed, no shortage of Tomi-Lahren takedowns on the internet. What I’d like to draw attention to is Lahren’s insistence that kneeling is an illegitimate form of protest, that a gesture which harmed nobody and started a national conversation about race is somehow “selfish” and warrants unending criticism from her.

Several months later, in an interview on The Daily Show, Trevor Noah asked her about methods of protest and almost got an answer:

Lahren stuttered her way through a meaningless word salad with red, white, and blue dressing — a comment here about “the flag,” another there about the troops. She never directly answered Noah’s question.

But that in itself is enough of an answer.

Four years later, as Minneapolis grieves for George Floyd and Atlanta for Ahmaud Arbery (may they rest in power), Tomi Lahren is still unsatisfied with Black America’s cries for justice:

Yes, the pundit who has yet to offer a statement of condolence for Floyd or his family is calling those reacting to the unjustified killing “sick.”

It’s certainly a common reaction among opponents of racial progress — a label I use despite the insistence of its bearers that they are not “racist” at all. Those who have said nothing of the murderous police officer who killed Floyd are quick to share articles from outlets like Newsweek which report that Floyd’s girlfriend expressed dissatisfaction with the violent nature of the riots. They decry the destruction of private property before grieving for the lost and assert the moral high ground despite an obvious indifference to the slaughter of unarmed, powerless black men. They gleefully appeal to MLK’s nonviolent philosophy while conveniently forgetting his Letter From a Birmingham Jail, a beautifully-written takedown of the white moderate who demands order in the face of injustice:

History, I’ve heard it said, doesn’t repeat itself — it rhymes. The police officer in the Floyd case, whose lethal “kneel” is apparently an acceptable form of violence for Tomi Lahren, continued his unlawful hold despite the insistence of the poor man that he couldn’t breathe. It’s a pity there isn’t an afterlife, for at least then Floyd could then spend eternity in the comforting company of Eric Garner, whose death just six years ago was brought about in an almost identical fashion. The“compression of neck” and “compression of chest” which took Garner’s life forced him to cry out “I can’t breathe.”

For both Garner and Floyd, these were among their last words.

And so the violence against African Americans which is painfully routine leaves the sympathetic among us feeling powerless. Any attempts to draw attention to the issue peacefully and through a large platform are condemned as “childish,” the more direct actions as “violent.” In the eyes of the white supremacist system in which we live, there is no acceptable form of protest for African Americans — and we are reminded of that continually so that we don’t dare forget it. Nowhere is this more clear than in the president’s evil suggestion that the “thugs” rioting be shot.

I ask again — what choice is the disillusioned African American truly given? If he kneels, he is “a son of a bitch”; if he takes to the streets, he is a “thug” who deserves to die. These are not the words of a random ignorant racist, but the words of the current President of the United States, whose election emboldened white nationalists and who won his election because of white resentment, who called Nazis “very fine people,” who referred to his impeachment inquiry as a “lynching,” who earned the endorsement of David Duke, who discriminated against blacks for decades as a property owner, who called for the death penalty for five Black men falsely accused of a crime, who questioned the legitimacy of the first African American president's birth. He tells us, like the Orwellian monster that he is, to reject the evidence of our eyes and ears, to believe that he is “the least racist person.” But what message does he send to people of color?

No options, no progress. That is the unfortunate reality of the oppressed person of color today. You will have to forgive me, after cataloging all of the above, for not feeling a modicum of sympathy for Target’s lost profits, or even a city on fire. Let it burn.

The Polis

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