The ethics of protesting: How far is too far in getting your message across

Oakland Mayor Libby Schaaf's home was vandalized by protesters with paintballs and spray paint. Photo courtesy of Brett Simpson.

Hanging governors in effigy. Vandalizing homes. Heckling political opponents in restaurants or dining outdoors. Death threats. Protest is getting personal — and raising real concern for the safety of lawmakers, policymakers, public health officials and those peacefully assembled.

Historically the success of sweeping social movements is aided by a swing of public opinion and subsequent public support, often because demonstrators draw public sympathy in the face of violent attacks from the authorities.

The current use of intimidation, personalized protest and political violence seems a risky gambit, one which could be judged unacceptable in the court of public opinion. Some insist, however, that it is the last viable path.

Is the nature of protest changing? Are the ideals of Gandhi and the Rev. Martin Luther King, Jr. becoming a relic of the past? To shed some light on the changing nature of public dissent I contacted three Minnesotans with expertise in the area of protest and ethics.

From left: Tamara Fakhoury, photo by Gavin Schuster; Charles Watson, photo courtesy of Minneapolis College; Sarah Holtman, photo by Matthew Weber.

Tamara Fakhoury is an assistant professor of philosophy at the University of Minnesota; originally from Beirut, Lebanon, Fakhoury studies political resistance.

Charles Watson was an adjunct professor in philosophy at Minneapolis College and is currently the college’s African American Education Empowerment Program coordinator. He is also a Josie R. Johnson Fellow at the African American Leadership Forum.

Sarah Holtman is a professor and director of Undergraduate Studies for the Department of Philosophy at the University of Minnesota. She studies ethics, political philosophy and philosophy of law.

Edited for length and clarity. 

Q: Let’s start with the ethics of protest in general. 

Sarah Holtman: Protest intends to send a message to the greater community: To encourage reflection, understanding and action to remedy a wrong. The fact that protest is a kind of communication doesn’t mean it should not make people uncomfortable. As Martin Luther King’s “Letter From A Birmingham Jail” emphasizes, the point of political protest may be to make people so uncomfortable that they become willing to look inside themselves and realize that they are acting hypocritically, that they are not doing enough, or that they are perpetuating an injustice.

Q: What about civil disobedience?

Tamara Fakhoury: Some of the most important and interesting work in ethics surrounds the question of how we should live when the world we inhabit is deeply unjust. For instance, which of our norms and traditions are oppressive? When you are treated with violence, should you respond in kind or turn the other cheek? What role do ordinary well-meaning people play in perpetuating systemic injustice? And what role can they play in dismantling it? More often than not, academic philosophers working on these questions disagree about the answers, but agree on the value of asking them.

Holtman: In King’s view, justified civil disobedience is done publicly and in a way that makes it clear that protesters have respect for justice and for their fellow community members. As King —and many others — hold, it also requires that those who break an unjust law be prepared to accept the legal consequences of their actions.

Q: What are the justifications, if any, for political violence?

Watson: King is very clear on this. The ends we seek have to be commensurate with the tools we use. So if justice is the end goal we seek you cannot use unjust means to secure a just outcome.

Dr. King believed the universe hinges on moral principles. I am struck by King trying to make the point that whatever non-violence is doing, whatever the goal, it doesn’t seek to humiliate. You always need to be able to be back in community with the people you are working to change.

For King, non-violence is both moral principle and strategy. Leaning into violence is easy. It takes moral courage to restrain oneself in a way that disrupts. In King’s view — and in mine — violence is not productive. Violence is reaction, not a constructive, creative, force.

Fakhoury: Some activists and intellectuals have justified the use of violence and intimidation on the basis that such tactics are sometimes necessary for liberation and self-defense. Malcolm X, for instance, famously argued that “where the government is either unable or unwilling to protect the lives and property of our people, our people are within our rights to protect themselves by whatever means necessary.”

Martin Luther King, Jr. worried that the use of violence and intimidation against oppressors would only place further obstacles in the way of creating a just and loving community. In his words, “The aftermath of nonviolence is the creation of the beloved community, while the aftermath of violence is tragic bitterness.” Even if violence is not morally ideal, we must at the very least listen to it as a desperate cry for justice, rather than demonizing it, or shrugging it off as either irrational or ineffective.

Holtman: One risk of protest that threatens serious harm to property or human lives is that it will function as force. It will not communicate a message that the audience can grasp, consider and act upon. It will short-circuit their capacities for evaluation and lead them to do things from fear. Ultimately, I think, those who are committed to justice hope to govern and be governed by standards that members of the community accept together.

There are three important moral questions in play: What is the message? What is the relationship between the message and the course of action? And what kind of unjustifiable collateral damage might occur if the message is sent in this way? There is also a pragmatic question: Can I achieve my goal through the method I’m using or will the court of public opinion dismiss or disparage it because of the tactics that were chosen?

Q: Some have countered that the use of tactics like vandalism, shooting non-lethal projectiles, late night protests at individual residences, and so on, is justifiable because the fear or upset it causes is akin to the fear and discrimination that BIPOC people face every day. How do philosophy and ethics respond to this? And to the moral and ethical distinctions between protest and intimidation?

Holtman: If my reason for engaging in more extreme forms of protest is simply to do to another what they have done to me, that is revenge. It is not using the principles of justice to address a wrong. That steps outside the human aspiration to come together and agree on moral standards to govern our behavior. As Rousseau observed, what is right or just is conceptually distinct from (and opposed to) what someone achieves through might or power. If my reason for choosing violent protest is that it will give me the power to make your decisions for you, then I am appealing to power, not justice, and my reasoning conflicts with the aim of living together under shared laws and institutions that all of us can endorse.

Watson: We live in a weaponized moment, yet going to someone’s home is highly problematic. You immediately cast them in the position of self-defense. They feel a visceral threat. This isn’t a moment of political activism. It’s intimidation and coercion. There is no way we are having a conversation when you are threatening my home.

What is the end goal other than coercion and threat? Why involve someone’s spouse and children? If you use fear to coerce me, it does not create a strong bond, because the minute you turn your back, our alliance is tenuous. Strategically, all these methods do is give you a short term fix, a euphoria. These actions will not create deep loyalty. They will not create understanding or a lasting bond.

Always ask the question: “Whose interests are served?” Arguments are not pure and free. What interests are served by violence and intimidation? What agenda does violence advance? Primal impulses are served, but what else? How can we advocate for the vulnerable by trammeling others and making them vulnerable?

Fakhoury: I think that a distinguishing feature of intimidation is that it uses explicit or implied threats to control behavior, but I also think it would be overly simple to say that intimidation is always immoral or that activists should never use it.

For example, in the 60’s the Black Panthers used to perform open-carry citizen patrols in black neighborhoods to monitor police activity and prevent brutality. The goal was to intimidate the police officers so that they would not use excessive force against Black people, which they have a long history of doing. This was extremely effective while it lasted and instilled a sense of security among the Black community. Other times, intimidation gets used towards vicious ends, such as in voter intimidation, or when protestors block the entryway to women’s health. When assessing the ethical status of intimidation, it is important to be sensitive to its aims, effectiveness, and whether those being intimidated are the appropriate targets of such a tactic.

For instance, is the relevant authority actively and consistently using their official capacity to harm and oppress certain people? Has the system repeatedly failed to hold them accountable for criminal behavior? Have the protestors exhausted all other avenues of communication with the official who is responsible for representing their interests? Whether or not the relevant authority is entitled to protections from such protests completely depends on our answers to these questions.

Q: How do you apply ethics and societal norms to a system of governance that many argue is, at its very root, unjust?

Holtman: I’m personally someone who believes in vigorous protest — we are morally warranted in seeking to make people deeply uncomfortable in order to awaken them to injustice and get them to act. But political protest needs to be designed to show people in the community — people who may be less familiar with the issues at hand — what needs fixing and why. Going to personal homes or engaging in violence to property may not help the cause even if they are otherwise justifiable.

Watson: Near the end of Richard Wright’s introduction to Black Metropolis, he references the work of William James, the father of modern psychology. He writes about what someone would be willing to do in order to be seen. So much has been done to Black bodies that was invisible. What we are seeing now is a response to that.

Violence is the idiom that we have been socialized in. And now, when we see the chance to be heard, we speak back in the language that we have been spoken to for so long: the language of violence. We know how to speak back in that way.

Cruelty has become a tool and a weapon. That intimidation has been weaponized is a symptom of our time. It’s hard to believe in love when you see so much pain, but I would continue to defend and advance King’s theory of non-violence and the belief that love is the most durable and creative weapon.

Why would anyone want to be an emissary of menace? Why would anyone weaponize trauma in service of healing?