MLK's use of Violent Protest

In a recent conversation about people's first amendment right to freedom of speech, a topic that often came up is what we determine as violent speech and what we see as imminent threat. On the one hand, things like Westboro Baptist Church protesting at a funeral was considered constitutional in that they were not posing a physical or imminent threat, however in the discussion it was also acknowledged that theie very presence and use of signs were offensive, damaging and violent dispite their lack of physical threats etc. What does it mean for people to verbally perpetuate power structures that hurt people every day and all day? What seperates emotional, mental, and psychological violence from physical violence? These are questions that I thought about for a while.

Then I came to the conclusion that perhaps there is no difference but we have acknowledged that we are okay with certain levels of violence. That is because I cannot call Westboro Baptist Church's actions as non-violent at all, and I am sure many would agree that to some extent their actions were violent. This takes me back to some recent articles in a local newspaper about protests that happened on the San Mateo Bridge.

Those articles detailed at length how the Stanford 68 were tarnishing MLK's use of non-violent legacy. To make a comparison, with respect to people's response to MLK's actions and with his assassination, I can say with confidence that some people found MLK as a violent figure. On another dimension, all of what MLK did was to disrupt the status quo that was quickly serving up injustice black and brown bodies. Equally, Stanford 68 can be seen as performing a similarly disruptive action.

We could debate the lawfulness of tactics but I would much rather like to bring into the debate a more critical understanding of what it means to be violent. If violence is only physically defined then perhaps there is no room to discuss why Westboro was morally and ethically at fault. However, if we accept a more broad definition of violence, we must recognize that MLK was both respectable and violent and we must consider what that means for our assessment of his tactics.





Hi Malcolm, this is a really

Hi Malcolm, this is a really thought-provoking post. I'm not sure exactly what to think about all the ideas in here, but I think you are getting to some of the main issues. One other thing to consider is whether there is a difference in the way that violent speech does harm that may be mitigating (namely, the possibility of avoiding it) in comparison to other kinds of violent activity. Again, I don't quite know where I land on much of this. Also, do you have a take on Butler's view on this matter in Excitable Speech?

Thanks Calvin

Hey Calvin, I need to check that (Judith Butler's Excitable Speech) out and I would be down to discuss this some more because this has a lot of implications for own philosophy as well.