On Ferguson Protests, the Destruction of Things, and What Violence Really Is (And Isn’t)

by Mia McKenzie


Since the announcement on Monday that Darren Wilson, the police officer who shot and killed unarmed teenager Michael Brown in Ferguson, Missouri, wouldn’t be brought to trial, huge protests have broken out all over the country, from Ferguson (where the community had already been protesting for over a hundred days, since the day Michael Brown was killed) to Philadelphia, Denver, Oakland and D.C., to name just a few places. Most of these protests have been peaceful, though in some places there’s been looting and property damage.


The killing of Michael Brown is one in a long line of murders of Black people, including women, children, and men, by police. In the past few months alone, Eric Garner, Darrien Hunt , John Crawford, Ezell Ford, Vonderrit Myers, Akai Gurley, Tanisha Anderson, Michelle Cusseaux and Tamir Rice have been killed. Most of them were unarmed. None of them had guns. Unless they were pellet guns, as in the cases of John Crawford and Tamir Rice. Rice was playing with a pellet gun on a playground when someone called the police. Even though the caller told the 911 operator that the gun was “probably fake,” Tamir was shot by police in the stomach and killed. He was 12.


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This piece isn’t about the narratives surrounding the murders of Black people by police, which I wrote about back in August when Michael Brown was first killed. This is specifically about narratives around violence.


In the wake of the Darren Wilson decision and the ensuing protests, I’ve been hearing the word “violence” thrown around by journalists and social media commentators alike. It’s strange to me, because when these people use the term violence, they’re not talking about what happened to any of the people named above. The brutal and unnecessary killing of unarmed Black women, children and men by police officers isn’t called “violence” by any of these people. They’re also not talking about protestors of this police violence being tear-gassed or shot with rubber bullets by police for exercising their right to peaceably assemble. That, to these journalists and Twitter trolls, isn’t “violence,” either. What is “violence” to these people? Property damage. Looting. The destruction of things.


Let me say that again, louder, for the people in the cheap seats:


The killing of unarmed Black people, including children, by police: not violence.


The destruction of white people’s things: violence.


I don’t think that word means what you think it means.


To help you get un-confused (because some of you are hella confused), here’s a list of some things that are violence, and one thing that isn’t.


Things that are not violence:


1. Looting

There’s lots to be said about looting and the way it’s characterized depending on who’s doing it. The way it’s lauded and made the stuff of heroic patriotism when it’s white men in Boston in 1773 resisting the power of the state, as in, you know, the Boston Tea Party (which John Adams originally called “the Destruction of the Tea in Boston”) and condemned when it’s Black people resisting the power of the state—a state that allows police officers to murder them and their children with impunity, in Ferguson or Philadelphia or Chicago or anywhere else. Looting by white people—which, along with brutal mass murder of Native Americans, is how they got this country—is worth waving a flag about. Looting by Black people, even without the accompanying genocide…not so heroic for some reason. I could go deep into the reasons, and maybe I will another time, but that’s not even what I want to say right here right now. What I want to say is this: whatever you think of looting, it isn’t violence. Because violence against property isn’t a thing.


Violence is something that living beings experience. People and animals experience and inflict violence against other people and animals. The violence that’s inflicted on us has an impact on our bodies, minds, spirits. Buildings don’t have bodies, minds, or spirits. Buildings can neither inflict nor experience violence. That’s why stealing a TV from a Walmart isn’t the same as taking a human life. Whatever it is, it isn’t violence. And if you really believed that Black people are fully human, you wouldn’t be equating our lives with your things.


Things that are violence:


1. Cops Killing Unarmed Black People

I know it’s difficult for non-Black people to see Black people as fully human. Part of the reason for this is that for hundreds of years Black people were considered property. And just as property doesn’t have a mind or spirit, enslaved Black people were portrayed as not having those things, either. That legacy of non-humanness still exists in the way Black people are viewed. White people think we have a higher tolerance for pain than they do, for example.


Despite what white and other non-Black people think, though, we are fully human. We really, really, are. We feel just as much pain as everyone else. Being shot by police officers is very, very painful for us. It’s painful for our families. For our friends. For our communities. It’s violence, and we feel it. It has a tremendous impact on our bodies, our minds, our spirits. Which we have. Because we’re not buildings. We’re people. And we are victimized by police violence at higher rates than anyone else.


Narratives of anti-blackness, however, tell us that Black people are never victimized. We are only the perpetrators of violence. That means that even when we are the ones being victimized by the state, or by individual white people wielding the power of the state (which they do, often), we are still seen as the villains, the criminals, the animals, the violent perpetrators. There is no space in the narrative for our innocence, even our children’s innocence, ever. So we can be brutalized by the state with impunity. This is violence.


2. Revisionist History

Your revisionist history is violence. It inflicts harm on the individual Black people onto whom you vomit it and on our communities and movements as a whole. Translation: Keep Martin Luther King, Jr.’s name out of your mouth. You obviously haven’t bothered to read anything the man wrote or study anything he did. If you had, you wouldn’t be invoking his name only to tone-police and silence Black people who refuse to be “nice” to you about racism and police violence (seriously, I never hear these people mention King at any other time). “MLK wouldn’t approve of what you’re doing!” is cried by white people anytime Black people do anything they don’t like. Really? Hmm. Let’s ask King what he thinks. Oh, wait, we can’t because white people shot him in the face. And, seriously, where’d you get your info about King, anyway? I’m guessing Fox News? Or absolutely nowhere? If you did read about him, you might found out that while MLK didn’t approve rioting, he did understand where it comes from:


I think we’ve go to see that a riot is the language of the unheard. And what is it America has failed to hear? It has failed to hear that the plight of the negro poor has worsened over the last twelve or fifteen years. It has failed to hear that the promises of freedom and justice have not been met. And it has failed to hear that large segments of white society are more concerned about tranquility and the status quo than about justice and humanity.


But you wouldn’t know that. Because reading history isn’t even required before revising it to suit your half-assed, oppressive arguments.


Further, not every Black person in the Civil Rights Movement agreed with Martin Luther King or his methods. Many, many, many people, including other civil rights leaders (the ones you NEVER mention), did not. Any and all assertions that the Civil Rights Movement was exclusively non-violent are revisionist nonsense. The Civil Rights Movement was both non-violent and violent. Violent uprisings, such as the Watts Rebellion of 1965, as well as uprisings all across the country, were just as instrumental in bringing about change as were non-violent protests. In fact, the attention garnered by violent protest was often what forced the hands of those in power to finally yield to demands. Revising history so that it suits your oppressive agenda is an insult to everyone who fought in the Civil Rights Movement, in all the different ways they fought, and it’s harmful to the people fighting for justice now in Ferguson and all over the country. It is emotional and psychological violence.


3. Your Ignorance of the Above Points and Of So Many Other Things

Despite what you’ve been led to believe by the coddling narratives of privilege that assure you that you is kind, you is smart, you is important, and that you get a gold star and a box of cookies just for trying to be anti-racist, even if you’re failing miserably at it, your ignorance actually isn’t benign.


Your ignorance is why your irrational fear of Black people means we might be shot in the head if we knock on your door to ask for help. Your ignorance is part of the reason police officers can kill unarmed Black people and call it justified every time and have you believe it, even when the story is unbelievable. Your ignorance is why a Prosecutor can get on TV and sound like he’s working for the defense and call it “fair” because he knows you won’t think hard enough or read enough to know it isn’t. Your ignorance, when you have plenty of resources for learning, for understanding, for seeing, isn’t harmless. It’s violence. Real violence. Not a smashed store window or a car on fire or a stolen Xbox. But violence that impacts the bodies, minds and spirits of human beings who have been crushed under the weight of your ignorance, and the ignorance of others like you, for centuries.


So. There you have it. One thing that’s not violence and a few things that are.


I just needed to clear that up.


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IMG_3727-1Mia McKenzie is an award-winning writer, a speaker, and the creator of Black Girl Dangerous. Bring her to speak at your college or community event.




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