Silence can be a mighty force. Those who practice prayer or meditation already know what a difference it can make on a personal level. But group silence has a different power of its own, which can be both negative and positive.
When several hundred people gathered in front of Alexandria’s beautiful police station on Tuesday night, for the first 15 to 20 minutes they sat or stood in silence. Many in the crowd held signs reading “End White Silence” and “Black Lives Matter.” They then began chanting “Black Lives Matter,” before reading aloud a list of black Americans who had been killed by police.
The silence was particularly powerful, perhaps because it stood in contrast to the tornado of disturbing images we have seen since, and including, the death of George Floyd, whose neck was crushed beneath the knee of a white Minneapolis police officer.
The silent protest was a symbol of positive silence. The silence condemned in the signs is another story. That is the silence of complicity, of pretending not to notice. That kind of silence is at heart an expression of fear and cowardice, and a lack of caring – a harmfully powerful silence when large groups partake in it.
The silence of complicity leads police officers to stand by while one of their colleagues brutalizes another human being over a petty crime. The silence of complicity is also the silence of white people who feel anger and sadness over racial injustice, but do nothing about it. Racial injustice isn’t a black issue, and until white people play a role with their actions and words, the systemic racism in our country cannot be fixed.
In contrast to complicity, silent protest is the power of shaming. It’s the power of being morally right. And just below the surface of silent protest is the unspoken threat of violence. It’s the tacit acknowledgment that, while destruction is not the preferred path to change, it is most definitely a tool in the toolbox.
Some people have obviously decided that peaceful protest is not advancing the cause of racial equality fast enough. And so police officers have been shot, stores looted, police cars destroyed and even churches burned.
There is not room here to discuss who is behind this violence or what additional political motives may be in play. Instead, it is instructive to turn once again to the example of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.
King’s brilliance wasn’t just his moral leadership, though that was remarkable and led many people, black and white, to follow him. But King’s effectiveness was also rooted in his understanding of human nature.
King understood that violence simply begets more violence. That even if one group temporarily attains control or achieves its objectives by violence, authority attained in that way isn’t lasting.
Instead, King worked to change hearts by consistently taking the moral high road – because he understood that change within individuals is ultimately what changes society. In “Bearing the Cross,” David J. Garrow’s Pulitzer Prize-winning biography of King, the author cites incidence after incidence of King’s almost superhuman restraint and patience in the face of setbacks and violence at the hands of segregationists.
It bears repeating that King’s response in the face of those setbacks was both moral and tactical. King knew that if his supporters rioted they would likely lose not only their lives – they would lose the battle of public opinion.
Likewise, those rioting in the past week have only harmed the cause they seek to advance, as their actions have given cover to those who wish to continue excusing systemic racism.
Silent protest ultimately forces people to look in the mirror and to change, but it’s slow. Violence shatters the mirror, and while it’s quick and gratifying in the short run, it harms the long-term cause.
There’s more power in silent protest.