On Empathy for Baltimore

There’s an article by Ta-Nehisi Coates of The Atlantic that’s been making the rounds lately. And I’ve seen many friends from both law school and college cite it in an attempt to manufacture moral justification for the violence that erupted out of peaceful protests against police brutality in Baltimore this week.

I think TNC is just in his call for empathy towards rioters – we should all try to imagine ourselves in the shoes of West Baltimore’s people. We should look at the statistics and numbers, so that we can begin to reach to understand what this community goes through every day under the thumb of the BPD. We should stand with West Baltimore in its call for reform and for justice.

But the problem with the article is that it assumes every plea for non-violence is a request for submission to authority, and it sees every actor making such pleas as merely one part of a monolithic state oppressor. The reality is much more complicated.

Yes – some of those asking for peace have compromised their moral authority by allowing or encouraging the BPD to brutalize poor and black communities for decades. But among those pleading are politicians trying to preserve political will for reform. And activists, fighting and organizing for a better future. And parents and preachers who just want to keep their children safe. Can anyone say with a straight face that all of these people are agents of persecution?

The second problem is one of the underlying ideology that my friends adopt when they use this article to justify violence. It’s a “my way or the highway” kind of mindset. For some, this means that in order to be on the “same side” as oppressed communities, that you must be on board with whatever action members of that community take. Others go further. They believe that true solidarity is the exclusive possession of those willing to endorse radical, potentially violent action against the oppressor.

I find this kind of thought to be pessimistic, closed-minded, and in some ways, even hateful. By rejecting the legitimacy of non-violence as a form of protest – in labeling all its critics the enemy (or complicit with it) – in eschewing nuance for blind, raging tribalism, this kind of thinking reveals its self-righteous blindness.

In my opinion, this mentality closes itself off from love. It rejects agape, the unconditional love for all our fellow human beings that is the foundation of non-violent resistance. And because it is not motivated by a desire for peace, I believe it is an ideology that can never achieve it. But according to some, my voice doesn’t count. By preaching nonviolence and decrying its opposite, I am the enemy, whatever my motivations. I’m on the wrong team – and whatever “side” I’m on is overwhelmingly more important than the substance of what I believe.

Ta-Nehisi Coates is right to ask us to try and understand why these riots are happening. And he is right to point out how the disrespect many feel for “hollow law and failed order” has its roots in legitimate grievance and is a response to real, often fatal, persecution. But he is wrong to broad-brush all pleas for non-violence as the con of state authority. And my friends are wrong to use his over-generalization to justify violence and perpetuate a toxic political ideology.