Source: The Guardian Unlimited

Nobody in their right mind wants more violent protests. But, as Martin Luther King said, ‘a riot is the language of the unheard’

In 1966, Martin Luther King started to campaign against segregation in Chicago only to find his efforts thwarted by violent mobs and a scheming mayor. Marginalised by the city’s establishment, he could feel that non-violence both as a strategy and as a principle was eroding among his supporters. “I need some help in getting this method across,” he said. “A lot of people have lost faith in the establishment … They’ve lost faith in the democratic process. They’ve lost faith in non-violence … [T]hose who make this peaceful revolution impossible will make a violent revolution inevitable, and we’ve got to get this over, I need help. I need some victories, I need concessions.”

He never got them. The next year there were more than 150 riots across the country, from Minneapolis to Tampa.

As the situation escalates in the St Louis suburb of Ferguson, Missouri, where police recently shot an unarmed black man as he walked down the street, many are clearly losing faith. As the first day of curfew drew to a close, hundreds of police in riot gear swept through the streets, using tear gas, smoke canisters and rubber bullets against an increasingly agitated crowd. Earlier this morning the governor, Jay Nixon, deployed the national guard.

Protesters insist the police action was unprovoked. Police say it followed shootings, firebombs, looting and, crucially, an attempted attack on the area they are using as a command centre. Ronald Johnson, the Missouri highway patrol captain drafted by the governor to take over security in the town and calm the situation down, blamed “premeditated criminal acts”. Late last week, Johnson was the darling of the crowds as he expressed sympathy with their cause and frustration with the tactics of the local police department. Now the situation seems polarised once again.

Johnson said the attacks were clearly provocations against the police. “We had to act to protect lives and property,” he says. In a statement explaining his deployment of the national guard, the governor, Jay Nixon, blamed “deliberate, coordinated and intensifying violent acts”.

“Tonight,” he said. “A day of hope, prayers and peaceful protests was marred by the violent criminal acts of an organised and growing number of individuals, many from outside the community and state, whose actions are putting the residents and businesses of Ferguson at risk.”

Such statements ignore the nature, scale and source of the problem. When an 18-year-old is shot in daylight for walking down the middle of the street holding his arms up; and when his shooter is whisked out of town by the state, then the residents of Ferguson were clearly already “at risk” from those who would commit “premeditated criminal acts”. What could be more “deliberate” and “coordinated” than releasing a video that claims to be of Michael Brown stealing cigarillos the same day the police finally release the name of the policeman who shot him, when the alleged theft had nothing to do with the shooting. (Even if it had, since when has the charge for shoplifting been summary execution?)

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