After Missouri police officer, Darren Wilson, shot and killed Michael Brown on August 9th, Ferguson experienced protesting continuously throughout the following weeks. The controversial issues of police brutality and racism turned many protestors violent. The grand jury ruled Darren Wilson not guilty on November 24th and that night, angry citizens surrounded the Ferguson Police Department.
What began as an angry, but nonviolent, protest intensified throughout the night until buildings were burned and businesses were looted. To fend off the violent protestors, police launched tear gas and plastic bullets into the crowd. While protests in Ferguson have not all taken such dramatic turns, this was not the first violent protest. While citizens of Ferguson maintain their right to speak out about what they perceive, or what might actually be, injustice, do they have the right to break the law while doing so?
MLK Jr.’s theory of civil disobedience, referenced in Letter From a Birmingham Jail, provides an interesting contrast to the events in Ferguson. From his writings, I think MLK would disagree with the violent protests occurring in Ferguson. However, it is crucial to remember, MLK, in his letter, is speaking about the injustice of laws that naturally oppress African Americans when he mentions “unjust laws,” not laws that are relevant in supposed unjust situations. MLK reminds his readers, “Sometimes a law is just on its face and unjust in it’s application” Some believe this is the case in Ferguson.
On protests, MLK writes, “One who breaks an unjust law must do so openly, lovingly, and with a willingness to accept the penalty.” What MLK advocates is civil disobedience, which, at its core, is meant to undermine the law, not break it completely. When done correctly, peaceful demonstrations can unveil the ridiculousness of injustice, and this way, gain sympathy and traction to the cause. While yes, those in Ferguson are making a statement by looting and destroying in the name of justice, I believe they are losing the traction they could have had with peaceful protests and, furthermore, distracting attention from the peaceful protests that are not dangerous, and could perhaps, in the long run, inspire more change than violence.
As mentioned in the Melian dialogue, and proved in Ferguson, often times violence begets more violence. As MLK suggests, and numbers of historical protests such as the Civil Rights Movements, the Arab Spring, Gandhi and Indian Independence prove, the most meaningful political change comes from nonviolent action.