Is Violent Political Protest Ever Justified?
Christopher J. Finlay , 30 Mar 17
       

Umbrage. EPA/Alba Vigaray

The mass protests against Donald Trump’s election, inauguration, and executive actions might subside – but based on the scale and intensity of what’s already happened, there’s probably more to come.

So far, most protesters have limited themselves to marching, placard-waving, and other “peaceful” methods. There has, however, been some violence, and some demonstrators have adopted “disruptive” methods that fall somewhere between the purely peaceful and clearly violent. Obstructing access to airport terminals or blocking highways, for instance, needn’t involve violence, but such tactics can all too easily be reframed in ways that can turn public attitudes against them. This in turn could help legitimise legal sanctions against protesters.

Because disruptive methods are ambiguous and vulnerable to political manipulation, difficult questions are never far away – and one of the thorniest is the question of what the word “violence” actually refers to.

Many political thinkers have argued over the respective merits of narrow definitions (where “violence” is chiefly seen as physical attack) and wider ones (encompassing indirect, unintended harm). Given that today’s conscientious protesters face the risk that disruptive but nonviolent methods might be recategorised as violent security threats or their equivalent, a clear, narrow definition of violence is probably the safest for their purposes.

But there’s another question to answer: even if violence is defined as the intentional infliction of physical harm against people or property, is it always absolutely unacceptable for protesters to commit acts of violence?

The fine line

For current protester leaders to encourage violence would be both morally unjustified and a serious tactical mistake. The outcome of any struggle between them and the government will be decided in large part by public opinion: if protesters can be blamed for starting violence, that will elevate the administration and its supporters. And worse yet, it might also help legitimise harsher methods by the security forces in response.

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