It’s by now a well-worn script: faced with social injustices and unaddressed grievances, mass numbers of people mobilize to protest publicly, and sometimes that action spills over into acts of violence and vandalism. Government officials then pounce on the opportunity to denounce the protest movement as immoral and reprehensible, and cast protesters as rioters, extremists, even terrorists.
We’ve seen this play out in Hong Kong over the past year. In July, protesters smashed their way into the city’s legislature, destroying the interiors of the chamber. The vandalism was a scathing and symbolic critique of what protesters saw as a corrupt and unrepresentative political system that had for too long disenfranchized and marginalized much of the citizenry. A slogan spray-painted on a pillar, and that has since been a central philosophy of the protest movement, captured the sentiment: “It was you who taught me peaceful marches are useless.”
The government didn’t see it that way. It condemned the “radical” protesters’ acts of “extreme violence,” perhaps hoping that the protest movement would lose public support. In fact, the opposite happened: public sentiment stayed aligned with the protest movement, and people’s support for such “radical tactics” actually grew, according to polling (pdf). In August, the movement looked at risk of splintering when more radical protesters beat up two men who they suspected of being undercover Chinese agents at the airport, much to the shock of moderate protesters. But the movement apologized, reflected and recalibrated, and moved on.
Since last summer’s storming of the legislature, Hong Kong’s opposition has largely come to terms with at least tolerating, if not accepting, the targeted use of violence and vandalism as more aggressive forms of protest in the face of an unresponsive government and an unaccountable police force. Frontline protesters have damaged subway stations, because the railway operator is seen as pro-Beijing. Businesses with China ties have been boycotted and smashed up (though to date there have been no known incidents of protest-related looting). Some protesters even put up notices on targeted storefronts to explain why they are attacking a particular establishment.
While there were initial worries that the use of more militant tactics would drive divisions within the movement, protesters have stuck to a mantra of “no splitting, no severing of ties” in a bid to put solidarity above tactical differences. Their message is clear: this isn’t violence for violence’s sake, but an intentional act of destruction as a collective expression of defiance and an urgent demand for their voices to be heard.
The rhetoric with which the Hong Kong and Chinese governments sought to discredit the protest movement now finds itself echoed by officials in the US as protests erupt nationwide over the police killing of George Floyd. Just as Beijing has painted Hong Kong’s protesters as rioters and terrorists backed by foreign forces, so US president Donald Trump has threatened to designate anti-fascist group Antifa—which he claims is fomenting the violent unrest—a terrorist organization. Never mind that Antifa is a loose, leaderless coalition of activists fighting white supremacy and neo-Nazism, and that no legal statute could categorize it as a terrorist group. The aim, for both the Chinese state and Trump, is to thoroughly discredit the opposition as a threat to national security, and to grant the state sweeping powers to curtail citizens’ rights to protest.
It can be tempting to idealize protests as peaceful, and civil disobedience as just that: civil. But an uncritical rejection of more forceful protest methods can obscure uncomfortable and complicated truths: for example, that state violence, whether in the form of institutionalized racism or the deployment of so-called “non-lethal” weapons like rubber bullets and tear gas, is normalized and accepted, whereas protesters are condemned as violent mobs as soon as a brick is hurled and a barricade burned. Governments often preach the value of “civility,” calling for calm dialogue over street clashes, without acknowledging its own repressive incivility. As the political philosopher Candice Delmas writes in her book A Duty to Resist, in which she makes a case for uncivil disobedience, “Incivility calls civility’s bluff.” And while protests can draw agent provocateurs and opportunistic looters, blaming all violence on outsiders conveniently ignores a more crucial question, as the journalist Masha Gessen notes in an article this week in the New Yorker: “Why would you expect protests against state-sanctioned racist murder to be peaceful?”
Nor is violent protest necessarily senseless or counterproductive for protester demands. Research published last year by political scientists Ryan Enos, Aaron Kaufman, and Melissa Sands found that the 1992 Los Angeles riots actually caused a marked and persistent liberal shift in policy at the polls in line with protesters’ demands. In Hong Kong, the pro-democracy camp scored an overwhelming victory at district elections last November, less than two weeks after some of the movement’s most violent clashes with police at university campuses. Successive polls over the course of several months late last year also showed an increasing number of people blaming the government and the police for the rising violence, even as protesters adopted increasingly militant tactics. Similarly, a Reuters poll released yesterday shows that most Americans sympathize with the protests and disapprove of Trump’s response.
For months, a rallying cry of Hong Kong protesters has been, “There are no rioters, only a tyrannical regime.” In the US, protesters chant, “Hands up, don’t shoot”—but are tear gassed and shot with rubber bullets anyway, so as to clear a path for Trump to stage a photo-op at a church. Governments will always seize on demonstrators’ extreme actions to discredit a protest movement, but protesters have a simple answer in response: take a closer look at the state’s extreme actions, too.