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When "peace and love" became propaganda

Celebrities, politicians, government leaders — they’ve all been gaslighting protesters. As riots erupted in cities across the country following the deaths of George Floyd, Breonna Taylor, Ahmaud Arbery, Tony McDade, and Rayshard Brooks, stars and politicians alike have issued a single clarion call to demonstrators: Fight hate with love. Government leaders have condemned the destruction of property and called for peace and unity instead.

This may seem harmless — perhaps idealistic, but in the end, benign. But it’s not. These people have done this largely while failing to highlight the violence against those murdered by police. Peace and love language has become a permanent fixture of social justice uprisings; the words have been said so much that they’ve lost all meaning. Calls for peace, love, and unity during rebellions are usually thinly-veiled attempts to shame the oppressed into compliance. Like tear gas, guns, and tasers deployed by police, this language is weaponized against groups demanding change.

It’s time for this language to be exposed for what it really is: a manipulation tactic. When peace and love become propaganda, lasting change becomes more elusive than ever.

“In the face of all of this racist violence, the insistence on ‘peace’ or ‘non-violence’ by white liberals is a tactic to deflect and silence righteous anger. This is a common tactic that abusers use to dominate and manipulate survivors. It feels no different here,” Alice R., an organizer with the abolitionist group Survived and Punished New York, tells Mic. “The magnitude of harm that the state and police have [inflicted] and continue to inflict surpasses and justifies any damage that protesters could cause.”

She adds: “For white neo-liberals, this is a moment of political education. Their discomfort is the point of our protest. If their lives are not interrupted, if there is no conflict and tension, we are not actually challenging the social-political order.”

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In other words: The conflict is the point. And yet responding to civil unrest with an insistence that protesters simply embrace “peace and love” is a strategy that has played out over and over again. In 2017, President Trump urged the public to “rediscover the bonds of love” after a white supremacist rally and counterprotest in Charlottesville, Virginia, led to Heather Heyer’s death and Deandre Harris’s beating. He also called the neo-Nazis involved “very fine people.” In 2014, politicians told angry protesters to dismantle structural racism in a “peaceful manner” after a grand jury failed to indict Darren Wilson, the cop who killed Mike Brown in Ferguson, Missouri. In 1986, religious leaders called for “reconciliation and peace” during protests after Michael Griffith was murdered by a racist mob in the Howard Beach neighborhood of Queens, New York.

Peace and love rhetoric is one of white supremacy’s most injurious tools because it overshadows valid cries for justice while vilifying the groups demanding it. It distracts from the carefully built systems that lead to the deaths of Black people. Simply calling for peace and love is really just a way of silencing dissent; it works to erase the harm of white supremacy and place the burden of societal change on the oppressed instead. The logic — if only the protesters would embrace their oppressors, if only they would show these wrongdoers love, if only they wouldn’t make such a fuss, then maybe they could get what they want — is maliciously flawed.

In reality, violent rebellions have always been an effective political tool — for white people. Consider the Battle of Lexington and the American Revolution. But this form of activism is routinely denied to Black people. When we rise up, we’re called “thugs,” and told to “get a job.” The same words always appear to disparage the oppressed and assign blame for a system that is stacked against them.

When it comes to the criticisms hurled at protesters, the subtext is that no resistance will be acceptable to white people.

“Never in history has violence been initiated by the oppressed. How could they be the initiators, if they themselves are the result of violence?” Paulo Freire writes in Pedagogy of the Oppressed. “Violence is initiated by those who oppress, who exploit, who fail to recognize others as persons — not by those who are oppressed, exploited, and unrecognized.”

When it comes to the criticisms hurled at protesters, the subtext is that no resistance will be acceptable to white people. This is not because of some supposed moral conviction, but because Black efforts for liberty and justice have always been viewed as a threat to white supremacy and white freedom. According to historian William Horne, co-founder of The Activist History Review, this language stems from what is known as “Edward’s thesis,” named for 19th-century historian Bryan Edwards.

Edwards’s theory was that enslaved people were inherently docile and compliant, but abolitionists spurred them to rebel. Edwards studied the Haitian Revolution and declared that enslaved people didn’t have a natural desire for freedom, and would in fact live in peace, if only abolitionists were gone. Therefore, any call for peace would be a call for the enslaved to return to their supposed natural state — that is, compliant and long-suffering.

Edwards’s account was widely disseminated and became the most influential pro-slavery interpretation of the Haitian Revolution. Slavers in America clung to his theory because it absolved them from the moral atrocity of slavery; if Black people were supposedly naturally docile, and only moved to violence when told they were being oppressed, then slavers could convince themselves they were somehow acting justly by keeping Black people oppressed and not telling them about it. Additionally, Edward’s thesis worked to prop up the widely-held belief that Black people’s freedom would lead directly to white people’s oppression and even genocide.

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“The ‘peace and love’ tactic really reminds me of the way enslavers juxtaposed Black freedom as being a threat to white peace and love. [Edwards’s] idea was that Black freedom innately leads to white genocide, that conspiracy theory,” Horne says, because free Black people would diminish labor sources at best and rise up against whites at worst. “When I see calls for peace and love — even after the most peaceful protests like Colin Kapernick’s — I can’t help but look back at this very early idea that Black freedom is somehow a threat to white existence. This is a very longstanding tactic.”

History has proven repeatedly that rage is an effective, appropriate engine for change. The Stonewall riots, the Haymarket Affair, the Boston Tea Party, the Attica Prison riot — these were all violent uprisings that either led to lasting progress, or launched movements that did.

But protests do not always need to result in policy change to be valid, especially in a country that is notoriously slow to dole out justice. Violence is an effective way to draw attention to an issue and convey a demand for change. Violence disrupts white supremacy and calls for a new normal. In response to Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.’s assassination in 1968, riots broke out in cities across the country, a revolt we remember more than half a century later. This uprising represented the breaking point of a people who had tried everything to secure their liberty — peaceful sit-ins, financial independence, unionizing, and more — only to be met with strict racist policies if not death. Self-defense is often cast as violence, as Zoé Samudzi and William C. Anderson write in As Black as Resistance.

Before his death, King himself decried this weaponizing of peace and love in his famous “Letter from Birmingham Jail,” writing that the white moderate “prefers a negative peace which is the absence of tension to a positive peace which is the presence of justice.”

“This rhetoric is a bait and switch. It says, ‘You’re supposed to accept this and wait and things will fix themselves.’”

Today, a primary component of peace and love rhetoric is historical revisionism. Many will call attention to the civil rights era as the pinnacle of peaceful protest, while ignoring the violence that led to the movement. King’s name and platform are used to disparage oppressed groups perhaps more than any other public figure. Critics of the recent uprisings have used photos and out-of-context quotes from King and the civil rights movement as a sharp rebuke of the protests — even using them against King’s own children. They have relied on King’s more saccharine language and failed to mention that he fiercely supported, encouraged, organized, and took part in protests.

It’s a tactic that relies on the falsity that being nice and compliant will change Black people’s circumstances. People deliberately weaponize King and his words and his actions. They use history as a way to tell current protesters how they should act. People have the right to decide how they want to respond to violence and anti-Blackness,” Marya McQuirter, historian and curator of the “dc1968” digital storytelling project, tells Mic.

“Calling people ‘peaceful protesters’ is problematic. [Leaders] use this rhetoric of calm to separate people. These are the good protesters, this is the appropriate way to protest, and this is the inappropriate way to do it. This rhetoric is a bait and switch. It says, ‘You’re supposed to accept this and wait and things will fix themselves,” McQuirter continues.

The violence of rebellion is good — it can even be healing. Although images of damaged statues, broken store windows, and painted streets may initially be jarring to some, they are a sharp reminder that complicity erroneously called “peace” and apathy described as “love” do not result in justice.

History has shown that disruption creates lasting change. But these advancements are hindered when “peace and love” become roadblocks to addressing structural racism, poverty, patriarchy, imperialism, and white supremacy. To create peace, we must commit to creating a better future — the one so many revolutionaries fought for in the past. Love is not empty streets or the absence of tension, but a pledge to dismantle systems of oppression.