Misunderstanding the Civil Rights Movement and Diversity of Tactics

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By Lorenzo St. Dubois
The Hampton Institute
May 28, 2015

It’s gotten to be a pattern on the Left. When Black protest erupts into insurrection, as it did in Ferguson and Baltimore, most liberals and white radicals express empathy for the cathartic release of anger, but urge the oppressed that this is not the way. This is “not strategic,” says the leftist concern-troll. This is “what the police want.” Most of the time they manage to stop short of asking “why are they burning down their own neighborhood?” –if only to be mindful of clichés—but some can’t even help themselves there. In the aftermath, Amy Goodman (seemingly channeling Alex Jones) will spread conspiracy theories on how the government “orchestrated” the rioting.¹ The respectability politics of nonviolence will return.

It’s hard to believe that anyone who has paid attention to Black Lives Matter takes these positions in good faith because, of course, the riots in Ferguson were objectively the best thing that happened to a movement that was already more than a year old. In August 2014, Trayvon Martin and George Zimmerman had been almost completely forgotten by white America except as grim punchlines, while national civil rights leaders were more concerned with Chicago’s gang killings than with the national wave of police terror. Yet by December, in the wake of recurring rioting in both Ferguson and the Bay Area, the Ferguson PD was under investigation by Amnesty International, the Justice Department and the United Nations ( and #BlackLivesMatter had been named Word of the Year by the American Dialect Society ).

This month the pushback comes with Jonathan Chait’s promotion of a scholarly paper on the effects of rioting on Black liberation in the 1960s. Chait’s argument can be critiqued on just about every level: the paper has a distorted idea of what liberation is (apparently, it means electing Democrats), an undefined idea of what rioting is, and on top of that the paper isn’t even accredited scholarship, in the sense that it hasn’t been peer-reviewed by anyone (except of course by Jonathan Chait).

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