“You can breathe. You can blink. You can cry. Hell, you’re all gonna be doing that.”
Negan’s pre-baseball-bat-beating line from The Walking Dead hit different for me during a rewatch this week. Something about the on-screen situation was just too real.
As protests against racial injustice continue, I read and hear plenty of comments from non-supporters which are disappointing, but unsurprising. A sentiment that keeps coming up even from supporters, however, creeps coldly under my skin every time I see it:
“I’m all for the protests; just keep it peaceful.”
This statement is often supported by maxims circulated around mostly peaceful communities: “An eye for an eye leaves everyone blind,” “Two wrongs don’t make a right,” “Violence is never the answer.”
Perhaps it’s just my social circles. As a former teacher, outdoor educator, camp counselor, and recreation program manager, many of my friends are people who work or have worked in youth programming. In case it isn’t obvious, non-violent conflict resolution is pretty critical in youth programming. We get fairly good at it, and good at teaching it, and good at seeing how in an ideal world, it’s the only kind of conflict resolution we’d ever need.
(It’s also a great life skill. Seriously, please, as the pandemic shapes and strains our interpersonal relationships, brush up on conflict resolution skills and use them.)
Here’s the thing, though: peaceful conflict resolution does not work in some (often not-PG13) situations. Particularly, in situations where one party has guns, legal protection to use them, a kill count, and demonstrated unwillingness to wield their power responsibly.
We don’t live in an ideal world. We live in a world where people who live in peace and have their conflicts resolved peacefully are experiencing privilege. As just a few examples, you’ve enjoyed the privilege of peace if:
- you’ve seen desired change in the issues you care most about by writing and calling representatives
- you’ve seen positive outcomes from donating to, volunteering with, or otherwise supporting causes you care about
- you’ve had success with petitioning or protesting within the bounds of legal restrictions set by your government and/or law enforcement
- registering to vote and voting is relatively easy for you, you feel safe voting, and you feel voting matters
- the police have only ever been a helpful or neutral presence for you, or if they weren’t, they were held accountable for their actions
- you feel reasonably safe day-to-day, and attribute at least some of this sense of security to the police and/or justice system overall
For many people, especially many who work to reduce police violence, few or none of the above things are true. The people most affected by racial discrimination, the people being murdered because of it and watching their friends and family disproportionately beaten, incarcerated, and permanently designated as non-voters, have written and called representatives, have donated and volunteered, have petitioned and protested lawfully, have tried to overcome obstacles to voting, and still, their communities are ravaged by police. The system remains the way it is even after decades of peaceful effort.
Peace hasn’t worked.
The reason Negan’s line stood out to me last week was this: he was delineating the acceptable boundaries of reaction for Rick’s group while he beat one of their friends to death in front of them. Rick’s group is virtually powerless — unarmed and on their knees, surrounded by 100 or so of Negan’s armed people. Negan tells them not to move or speak. Just breathe. Scream. Cry.
None of the permitted modes of expression threatens Negan, of course. And even when Daryl breaks the rules to tackle Negan and beat him by hand, Negan’s in no real danger. His people quickly drag Daryl away to lock him up in their complex, and as further punishment, Negan beats another beloved character to death.
Imagine claiming to be Daryl’s friend, but tsk-tsking him for his actions. “I agree with Daryl’s anger, but he should have followed the rules.”
That’s how you sound when you say protestors should “keep it peaceful.”
To tell protestors in the face of hundreds of years of disproportionate discrimination and murder to “stay within the lines” while protesting is, frankly, abusive. It’s acknowledging someone’s pain at the hands of others and telling them to keep bearing it. “Just protest peacefully. You know, do that thing that hasn’t worked for decades but is a good outlet for your emotions. Just express your pain, scream it out, and then quietly slip out of the spotlight again while nothing changes or inconveniences me and people I don’t personally know keep getting killed.”
If you agree that we have a problem with abusive police, then you’re asking people being abused to be peaceful as they fight back. Would that be okay with you in any other abusive situation? Is that really who you want to be?
I know that uncertainty is scary. People protesting and demonstrating outside of the written boundaries of acceptable expression doesn’t feel good. It feels uncomfortable, especially to the peacefully privileged. But how valid is peace borne on the backs of others living in a constant state of fear?
It’s time to be uncomfortable.
If property damage and loud nights bother you more than the fact that people are still being abused and killed every day by police even as all this is going on, you’ve got deeper issues to address. It’s time to take the blinders off and look beyond your own life experience.
In the meantime: no justice, no peace.