Are Violent Protests Justified?

Violence in protests is often a point for criticism by the political left and right. Often, it is such a point of condemnation that it overrides the preceding story of why the protest started. The protest of Milo Yiannopoulos at UC Berkeley reignites the debate and poses some questions: are violent protestors personally justified, are violent protests as wholes justified, and particularly, was the UC Berkeley protest justified?

The first question, whether violent protestors are justified, can be answered by examining from the perspective of the protestors. This is independent of reality, but only relies on what they thought of reality. For example, if extremely, they thought setting fires was akin to creating rainbows, then it might be said they were morally justified. Or, if their information led them to reasonably conclude violence was necessary for media exposure, to make a strong point for what they believed in, it could be said they were logically, as well as ethically justified. This second example is not far off the usual case, I think. Violent protestors of killings by cops often seem to employ this—the point seems to be to yell until they are heard and helped. This can also be achieved through other measures such as blockages of highways or major centers of commerce, but such organization is not always easy, and perhaps in the protestors’ minds, not always achievable. Violence where they stood may have seemed more realistic, and created the same effect of exposure as largely organized peaceful protest. This exposure also creates real results, as how violent protest following black deaths ignited national dialogues which led to major police reforms like bodycams.

Besides making a strong message, it should also be considered the message by violent protestors may have good intentions. Again with protestors of cop killings, they felt it was paramount to speak to save themselves from unfair arrest and killings.

There is also the factor of unification in violent protests. By unification, I mean the result of emotionally bonding with like-minded people and letting them know beside them is a tangible, allied front. This paves the way for future progress within the respective area, in the way of more speaking out, more interested people, who may lead for better organization, as well as its efforts (which may include charity, volunteering, etc.), and eventually, a change in political atmosphere that will impact policymaking. As with making a message, while unification does not require violence, if we are judging the protestors themselves, we should again consider their expectations of success: violent protests require low organization and skill to accomplish, whereas peaceful equivalents may be more unattainable. With this in mind, unification is a valid aim amid violent protests.

With the reasons of making their morals known, having good morals, and encouraging unification, violent protestors seem both logically and ethically justified. The changing factor, if any, would obviously be if they did not in fact aim for these things during protest, but perhaps violently protested for no reason and carried no positive emotion, such as feelings of protection or prevention. This seems extreme; I think each of these things will always realistically be represented in some form. If anything, it may be said the protestors are more or less justified depending on the degree to which they aim these factors. So, if through violent protest, protestors really wanted media coverage and unification, and really wanted to defend current victims and prevent the forming of future ones, then it could be said they were very logically and ethically justified, and vice versa.

The second question, of whether violent protests as wholes are justified, reality must be considered and the intentions of all actors can be dropped. Generally speaking, the outcomes I said protestors aimed for—amplification and unification—seem to be generally fulfilled. It is not controversial to say violent protests effectively garner attention. And through this attention, it is reasonable to think an atmosphere is created which allows for greater unification of like-minded people. These are good things in and of themselves, but would be meaningless to point out if they were not weighed against the harm violent protests bring. First are the inverses of amplification and unification; that is, for one message to be amplified, another must be silenced, and in unifying like-minded people, violent protests seem to further distance unlike-minded people. Then is the obvious claim they damage the economy around where they protest, as well as physically damage people and create fear. The pervasiveness of these harms seems to be evident, seeing as half the country voted in the presidential election against the liberal ideals many of these protests support, and referred to themselves as the “silent majority.” This indicates the issues associated with violent protest were largely present—alienating unlike-minded people, and silencing them. The issues with economic and human damage are also evident: the Ferguson riots over Michael Brown saw 25 businesses burned down, 13 injured, and 1 killed; the Baltimore riots over Freddie gray incurred $9m in damages; and the anti-Trump Portland riot incurred over $1m in damages. And from this, it can be assumed significant fear was created.

While it can be seen many of the effects associated with violent riot are prominent within the country’s social climate, we sadly cannot isolate the effects of violent protest to be observed, save economic damage and injuries. And, even if we could, the measures would still be subjective—who is to say what is “significant” silencing or alienating of unlike-minds? This makes it difficult to take the harms which violent protests bring, and weigh them against the good which violent protests bring. It is somewhat disappointing to say we may not know if violent protests bring a net harm or net good to our country or the world. It would ultimately fall to one’s subjective interpretation of each harm/good of amplification/silencing, unifying/alienating, economic and human damage, etc., to weigh them against each other and make the value judgment of whether violent protests produce a net benefit. It may be easier to determine the direct impact of protests on a smaller scale—such as within their community, or closely related communities, although I think the good that comes from violent protests is often embedded within a large scale, beyond the community and within the national social atmosphere.

The last question falls upon whether The UC Berkeley protest, in particular, was warranted. The case of UC Berkeley brought physical violence, destruction, and an obstruction of the planned speaker. That much is undeniable. I don’t think the benefits I mentioned violent protests can bring effective apply here—the Berkeley protestors amplified an existing message that does not need amplifying at this point, and because the message was already known, they likely did not gain any new supporters of the anti-Trump front. Perhaps they sent some message to Milo Yiannopoulos, the man whom they protested, and I believe he and his advocates do need to learn the lesson free speech should not be pursued for its own sake. But even then, he is unlikely to have then changed his mind about preaching obnoxiousness and obscenity. The biggest benefit was likely the message sent to his followers, that free speech for its own sake, in the form of obnoxiousness, would not be tolerated; I think there was a more real, serious quality in physically protesting rather than verbally protesting. It can be seen as an extension of alt-right leader Richard Spencer’s punch to the face. That was certainly more effective in silencing him than peaceful protest would have been; a case of such would likely have him dismissing the protestors as “snowflakes.” I believe this real, physical message to obnoxiousness was the only redeeming quality of the protest. Not because its subject of attack is simply distasteful, but also unconducive to any meaningful dialogue. That is, if the object to be silenced was the notion to ban abortion, then a silencing protest would be wrong, because the discussion of abortion is valid to affect our policy and many lives. But the message silenced in the protest was something more like screaming for the sake of screaming; it is frankly annoying and does not actually progress public dialogue meaningfully.

Violent protests are not always easy to see good from, because our instinctual disinclination for violence overrides consideration of any other important aspects. But it ought to be considered protestors, and the protests themselves, bring an overall good. In the case of protestors’ justification, I think it is typical they are on the right side of ethics and reason. In the case of justification of protests as wholes, I think it varies, although it is often ambiguous to even determine if they brought about a net good or bad on a large scale. And in the case of UC Berkeley—it probably did not bring a net good, although the methods used, as argued, had a very real chance of bringing a net good.