Is violent political protest ever justified?

Umbrage. EPA/Alba Vigaray

The mass protests against Donald Trump’s election, inauguration, and executive actions might subside – but based on the scale and intensity of what’s already happened, there’s probably more to come.

So far, most protesters have limited themselves to marching, placard-waving, and other “peaceful” methods. There has, however, been some violence, and some demonstrators have adopted “disruptive” methods that fall somewhere between the purely peaceful and clearly violent. Obstructing access to airport terminals or blocking highways, for instance, needn’t involve violence, but such tactics can all too easily be reframed in ways that can turn public attitudes against them. This in turn could help legitimise legal sanctions against protesters.

Because disruptive methods are ambiguous and vulnerable to political manipulation, difficult questions are never far away – and one of the thorniest is the question of what the word “violence” actually refers to.

Many political thinkers have argued over the respective merits of narrow definitions (where “violence” is chiefly seen as physical attack) and wider ones (encompassing indirect, unintended harm). Given that today’s conscientious protesters face the risk that disruptive but nonviolent methods might be recategorised as violent security threats or their equivalent, a clear, narrow definition of violence is probably the safest for their purposes.

But there’s another question to answer: even if violence is defined as the intentional infliction of physical harm against people or property, is it always absolutely unacceptable for protesters to commit acts of violence?

The fine line

For current protester leaders to encourage violence would be both morally unjustified and a serious tactical mistake. The outcome of any struggle between them and the government will be decided in large part by public opinion: if protesters can be blamed for starting violence, that will elevate the administration and its supporters. And worse yet, it might also help legitimise harsher methods by the security forces in response.

But it’s also a mistake to overstate the case against violence. For one thing, the claim that violence is never permissible under any circumstances probably isn’t true – at least not if you’re committed to the sort of liberal, republican, and democratic ideas that the US’s founding fathers believed in.

Modern democratic thought has long held that individuals have a right to resist and rebel against tyrannical government and political injustices, and that defeating these great social evils may sometimes demand the resort to armed force. Properly understood, these sorts of ethics are highly restrictive: it’s probably not justifiable for opponents of injustice to instigate violence. But if the defenders of an unjust government take the initiative, using violence as a means of deterring protest, that is a different matter.

As the English-American revolutionary Thomas Paine wrote in his 1776 pamphlet Common Sense, when struggling to defend rights against tyranny, “it is the violence which is done and threatened to our persons … which conscientiously qualifies the use of arms”.

Tension in the air at a Black Lives Matter protest. EPA/Alba Vigaray

This view of armed resistance still finds plenty of support across the spectrum of the US’s political culture, though it’s more frequently cited on the political right than on the left. And its roots date back right to the start of the American project.

The right to resist tyranny and grave injustice was well understood by the 18th-century American revolutionaries, who drew inspiration from John Locke’s Second Treatise of Government, published in 1689. Locke argued that if rulers exceeded their constitutional authority, the people would in principle be justified if they resorted to armed revolt. And when he drafted the American Declaration of Independence, Thomas Jefferson treated this idea as “self-evident”.

And then there’s the US Constitution’s Second Amendment. Nowadays, the “right to keep and bear arms” that the amendment enshrines is most often defended by right-wingers, but it originated in 18th-century debates about the danger to the republic posed by permitting the state to monopolise the means of violence through the creation of a standing army. Proponents of the right to bear arms believed that a citizen militia would be a better bulwark against both foreign enemies and would-be tyrants within.

Another view widely accepted in the US (especially among advocates of gun ownership) is that innocent victims of violent attacks have a right to defend themselves. Nowadays, this right is more often discussed in cases of home invasion or other types of crime. But as Paine thought, the right to self-defence must also apply to those peacefully resisting injustice: if they are threatened with wrongful violence, then they too have a moral right to self-defence.

These core American beliefs all point to the same commitment: that civic resistance is sometimes justified, and that those who oppose injustice and tyranny are sometimes permitted violence in self-defence. To be clear, this isn’t the same as suggesting that protesters ought to resort to arms. But if the left too eagerly rejects the idea that armed resistance can ever be justified, its leaders and footsoldiers will be vulnerable on two fronts.

Own goals

First, it’s naive to imagine that protest leaders are always in total control. Violence sometimes happens whether they sanction it or not.

This was the argument Nelson Mandela made to justify the ANC’s use of sabotage: given the intensity of popular anger and outrage in South Africa, he said, the question wasn’t whether violence would occur, but how to limit and guide it. The US certainly isn’t at that point yet, but at least some outbreaks of violence are inevitable, and they might get worse over time.

Second, when violence does occur, those who are most hostile to the protesters will inevitably describe it as a self-evident wrong, morally as well as legally. An indiscriminate rejection of popular violence by protest leaders will be matched by that of the security forces.

The political scientist Erica Chenoweth rightly argues that any violent outbreaks now could seriously undercut the moral case Trump’s opponents are trying to make. But if advocates of civil resistance stick to the line that “justified violence” is a contradiction in terms, they will simply hand the other side an argument to be used against them.

If violence seems likely for whatever reason, the opposition needs to be able to defend its members against any misrepresentation of their intentions. Refusing to acknowledge even hypothetical justifications for violence gives up on a vital line of defence.