Civilization can be summed up as the collective struggle to master our nature, that in which we live and that which lives within.
Embedded in our human DNA, in a code born from our instinct to survive, is an innate understanding of violence. It provokes a response hardwired into our brain – the most nascent primitive instincts whiplash to the surface when violence shows itself. We use it. We run from it. But one way or another, it moves us.
And for the greater balance of human history, the most consequential changes in our societies have had violence central to their narratives.
There’s been much ink spilled over the nature of protests that have followed the lynching of George Floyd in Minneapolis. Their peaceful starts. Their turbulent ends. A common refrain I see repeated over and over again: “I was with them until they turned violent. Peaceful protest is the only way.”
We have to be honest about ourselves. Nearly every movement that’s ever seismically recalibrated American society has been built, stitched, molded through violence. The destruction of property in the Boston Tea Party. The spilled blood in the Civil War. The Stonewall Uprisings. Violence.
Some would posit a retort to this idea – the nonviolent organizing strategy that dominated the earlier years of the Civil Rights Movement. But that analysis sterilizes just how rugged those sisters’ and brothers’ movement was. We mischaracterize the deftness with which Fannie Lou Hamer, Martin Luther King Jr., and Medgar Evers had diagnosed the human condition.
Quite the contrary, their peaceful demonstrations were designed with violence in mind.
Student Non-Violent Coordinating Committee and similar organizations’ trained organizers not to harm but be fully prepared to receive it. Their resolve deliberately and strategically presented their beaten and jailed bodies as the mirror to the soul of these United States, their flesh and bone the canvas for the critique to its Constitution. Walking through the crucible of white supremacist violence, those freedom fighters leveraged those images into law, catapulting us further toward justice than we’d been years before.
Yet in 2020, America must again reckon with its roots in violence. The blessed curse of social media has shown black and brown bodies disproportionately suffering violence at the hands of policing systems widely and repeatedly known. George Floyd’s death is just the latest viral image that lit the flare, illuminating another crevice in this civilization’s crust. His life violently leaving his body on mobile screens across the globe broke the dam that’s fissured with wave after wave since Trayvon’s fateful walk in a hoodie.
It’s both tragic and wholly unremarkable that the reaction has included violence. Whether from the conscientious protestors or from anarchical actors is immaterial, the reciprocal rage and the violence’s impact on lives and livelihoods are real. And, in the most utilitarian assessment, it has our attention.
The tragedy as we stare at the blaze-lit tableaus, light dancing across shattered glass adorning sidewalks in Dallas and beyond, is that we didn’t have to be here. From kneeling to singing to writing to screaming, those with a voice have used it. And not just with ire but with ideas. There have been consistent calls from groups like Mothers Against Police Brutality, Faith in Texas: Live Free campaign, and others to decriminalize nonviolent offenses, end “broken windows” policing, reallocate budgets from an increasing police armament to instead funding crime-reducing services like economic empowerment, housing, and mental health services.
There’s been some progress, including recently increased accountability through the Community Police Oversight Board due to the work between the Dallas Community Police Oversight Coalition organizers and the city of Dallas. This is a major step forward and we acknowledge the distance left to go to build trust through results in this new process.
There haven’t been any shortage of ideas, but the public will to embrace urgent change at the magnitude that black and brown people feel maligned by the policing and justice systems in this country has not materialized.
That is, without violence. In Dallas, July 2016 and May 2020. A tale as old as civilization itself.
But we have the power to change this. It’s time for civilization to grow up.
As James Baldwin reminds us, to be alive and believe in the human condition forces us toward optimism.
The next step in the evolution of this American civilization is to embrace an empathy that demands when your sister or brother cries guttural from the pangs of inequity and racism, believe them. Do not wait for their blood nor stand idle until they draw yours. Call on your city and county officials and support the work of reimagining how life can be when peaceful living doesn’t ask people of color to capitulate their dignity or numb their sense of justice.
What history has told us is that civilization will evolve and power will shift. The moral arc of the universe is indeed long. And violence has been its companion in both this city’s and this nation’s history. Our urgency to evolve will decide whether we want it to continue to be our future.
Byron Sanders is the president and CEO of the Dallas-based youth empowerment nonprofit Big Thought.