09/02/2014 12:36 pm ET Updated Dec 06, 2017

What Would MLK Say About Ferguson?

Robert Cohen - St. Louis Post-Dispatch/AP Photo

Over the past few weeks, the killing of Michael Brown has ignited anger and frustration in Ferguson, Missouri, and throughout the nation, as eyewitness reports claim that a local police officer gunned down the unarmed African American teenager who had his hands in the air. The heavy-handed militarized actions by law enforcement in Ferguson attempted to suppress protests in the days that followed, causing the community to experience several long and hot confrontational nights.

While most protesters participated in peaceful demonstrations, it is amazing that critics questioned why a small number of young African American men would clash violently with law enforcement.

"As I have walked among the desperate, rejected, and angry young men, I have told them that Molotov cocktails and rifles would not solve their problems. I have tried to offer them my deepest compassion while maintaining my conviction that social change comes most meaningfully through nonviolent action."

These are the words of the Rev. Martin Luther King, Jr., not directly to those in Ferguson, but for those "in the ghettos of the North" during the urban unrest of the 1960s. Even as King urged a peaceful approach, he offered his "deepest compassion" to these young African American men in 1967.

This compassion stemmed from "an even deeper level of awareness" gained through his experience working in low-income urban communities. Fifty years on we still struggle to understand our young men's frustrations and actions as King did in the sixties.

Why do most people still condemn African American men who use violence as a form of protest or self-protection, even as we condone the violence of others, including our nation's military overseas?

Urban Uprisings in a Historical Perspective
From 1964-1971 there were 752 "race riots" -- perhaps more aptly termed urban insurrections or uprisings -- where U.S. citizens engaged in open revolt against the harsh inequalities they experienced in their communities. More than 69,000 people were arrested, almost 13,000 injured, and 228 killed during these uprisings.

The 1960s brought militarization into civilian streets similar to what was seen in Ferguson in August 2014, and likewise, those who clashed with law enforcement were labeled "rioters," "looters," and "thugs."

Certainly military technology has been upgraded over the years and local police are definitely now more equipped than they were fifty years ago. This is thanks to local police forces buying up U.S. military surplus. Our tax money goes through the wash twice on this type of arms spending -- first when the national government purchases the weapons, then again when state officials spend our local tax dollars to secure those same weapons from the feds.

When protesting against police with assault rifles, body armor, and armored vehicles, it seems that nonviolent action would be a sensible approach, yet should it be the only approach? On this point there has been little debate.

Violent vs. Nonviolent Protest: Where's the Debate?
The majority of people in the U.S. probably agree that peaceful protest is the correct response to police brutality, yet is this the only response we should expect from young African American and Latino men who are daily stopped, frisked, harassed, beaten, tazed, and shot at by law enforcement officials? Even those who are nonviolent still sometimes end up the victims of police brutality (see Eric Garner among others).

During the Ferguson uprisings the overwhelming majority of the protests were peaceful. As it often does, the media largely overplayed African Americans "looting and rioting" disproportionately to peaceful actions. Major news outlets lightly noted that locals organized to stem violence, removed provocateurs from marches, and protected businesses at night. Almost everyone criticized those who destroyed or took property as opportunists.

There were people from a variety of ethnic backgrounds and walks of life who came to Ferguson to aggressively engage police. To be sure, some local African American men vented their anger and frustration over problems that accompany poverty, inadequate job prospects, and their disregarded position in U.S. society.

Still, most failed to take a closer look at the real issues behind these young men involved in looting and clashes with police. While criticizing them for using violence, many of us showed that we lack King's great ability to seek a deeper understanding of their motivations. Is it really fair to ask these men to always seek nonviolence?

Our government certainly thinks so. In a message to the people of Ferguson, U.S. Attorney General Eric Holder called for "an end to the acts of violence in the streets." He noted that only a small group, both from Ferguson and elsewhere, committed these acts. Holder said "they seriously undermine, rather than advance, the cause of justice. And they interrupt the deeper conversation that the legitimate demonstrators are trying to advance."

It's easy for Holder, and us, to support community activists and others who organize to work peacefully towards the goals of civil and social equality. Supporting disgruntled young men and women who might be seen as using Michael Brown's killing to advance theft and violence is a bit tougher.

However, it seems a bit hypocritical for Holder and the U.S. government to call on its citizens to use restraint at home while it simultaneously orchestrates dozens of airstrikes against people overseas.

"What about Vietnam?" -- What about Iraq, Afghanistan, etc?
In the 1960s, young African American men asked Martin Luther King, Jr. why they should take a nonviolent approach to gain civil rights as the U.S. government carried out the military destruction of Vietnam. On April 4, 1967, King relayed the conversations he had with these young men:

"But they asked, and rightly so, 'What about Vietnam?' They asked if our own nation wasn't using massive doses of violence to solve its problems, to bring about the changes it wanted. Their questions hit home, and I knew that I could never again raise my voice against the violence of the oppressed in the ghettos without having first spoken clearly to the greatest purveyor of violence in the world today: my own government."

This was the first speech where King publicly came out against the war in Vietnam. A year to the day after King spoke these words he fell to an assassin's bullet. Urban uprisings erupted in over 100 cities across the nation in the following days.

If King were alive today, would he have condemned the violence in Ferguson? Again, according to his own words he would not speak out "against the violence of the oppressed in the ghettos" before he spoke out against U.S. violence overseas. Are we doing the same?

Arguably, those who took what did not belong to them in the Ferguson uprisings are not all that different from the U.S. government and business interests, who utilize violence on a much larger scale to achieve their goals. Do we really think ISIS is a threat to citizens on U.S. soil and believe that's why we're bombing them, or might some resources in the region still motivate us?

The Value of the "Violence of the Oppressed"
We can stand up for protests that rely upon nonviolent direct action while still being sympathetic to the "violence of the oppressed." Though certainly different in many facets, they are still both forms of social protest.

Looting may be seen as crude or rudimentary, yet it is still a form of protest. Many have noted that theft is an illegal act and sheds negative light on nonviolent protesters. These points are true, but without people resisting militarized police forces in Ferguson and surrounding areas, larger media outlets would not have covered the story as intensely (this is why so few of us know about the deaths of Ezell Ford and countless others).

Indeed, it is unfortunate that the media overplays "looting and rioting" much more than it covers the thousands who peacefully protest everyday for justice. However, it should be recognized that Michael Brown's death would not have become worldwide news if those young African American men were not in the streets protecting the people by throwing tear gas canisters back at law enforcement.

Presenting Power with a Choice: "Either Words or Blows"
Though we might not condone the violence that came out of Ferguson and other places, those who stand for peaceful civil disobedience can use it to their advantage. Leadership from Martin Luther King, Jr. back to Frederick Douglass understood this when negotiating for the peaceful advancement of African Americans.

The government was much more willing to work with MLK because it was critically aware of the messages of Malcolm X, Stokely Carmichael, the Black Panther Party for Self-Defense, etc. King understood this and so have others.

In 1857, Frederick Douglass said:

"Find out just what any people will quietly submit to and you have found out the exact measure of injustice and wrong which will be imposed upon them, and these will continue till they are resisted with either words or blows, or with both."

So when young African American men, women, and other oppressed peoples use "words or blows" to strive for their equality, we might reconsider that the freedom struggle has always included many different tactics to achieve the goal of equality.