Ta-Nehisi Coates is Wrong, Wrong, Wrong About Nonviolence

Ta-Nehisi Coates, a Baltimore native and widely respected young writer, has written a powerful article about the shocking riots that are taking place in that city this week, following the inexplicable death of an innocent African-American named Freddie Gray in police custody. The article is titled “Nonviolence as Compliance”, and those three words say a lot.

You should read Ta-Nehisi Coates’s article … because he is expressing what every one of us feels as we begin to understand the depths of the problem of police abuse of African-American populations all over the USA. You should also read Coates’s article because he knows Baltimore, and is speaking from a position of knowledge. Except when he gets to his last paragraph:

When nonviolence is preached as an attempt to evade the repercussions of political brutality, it betrays itself. When nonviolence begins halfway through the war with the aggressor calling time out, it exposes itself as a ruse. When nonviolence is preached by the representatives of the state, while the state doles out heaps of violence to its citizens, it reveals itself to be a con. And none of this can mean that rioting or violence is “correct” or “wise,” any more than a forest fire can be “correct” or “wise.” Wisdom isn’t the point tonight. Disrespect is. In this case, disrespect for the hollow law and failed order that so regularly disrespects the rioters themselves.

“Nonviolence is a ruse”? The train just shot off the tracks here, and in a really bad way. The problem in Baltimore (and in the entire USA) is between police officers and innocent African-American citizens. I don’t know if there is a Gandhi or a Martin Luther King anywhere on the scene in Baltimore this week, so it’s weird that Coates chooses the (all too rare) political philosophy of nonviolent resistance as the target of his piece. And it’s sad that this Atlantic Monthly article is now being widely spread, as if there were actual wisdom to be found in these angry and misguided words.

Nonviolence is not a ruse because nonviolent protest has an incredibly successful track record. In fact, there is no other form of political activism that has been anywhere near as successful around the world in the past 100 years. Nothing else comes remotely close.

The term “Nonviolence” is associated with the anti-British anti-Imperialist protest movement led by Mohandas Gandhi for many decades in India. While there is nothing simple about either Gandhi or about India, it is a basic fact that Gandhi’s very courageous and excruciatingly tough campaign against the sometimes murderous oppression of the British Empire achieved its mission: India made Great Britain go away. It’s hard to imagine how this goal could have been met so well without the strenuous application of the principles of Satyagraha, or Truth-force, which were widely influential as the moral foundation of the anti-British nonviolent protest movement.

It’s because he was inspired by Gandhi’s success that Martin Luther King adopted the principles of Satyagraha as a practical playbook when he began a protest campaign against segregation and institutionalized racism in the American south. With the nonviolent Martin Luther King at the head of the public protest through the 1950s and 1960s, great progress was made against racism in the United States of America.

“Nonviolence is a ruse”. The guy can’t be serious. He’s certainly not thinking about the lessons of history. I wonder what path to justice Ta-Nehisi Coates considers more likely to help the African-Americans who fear the police forces that patrol them? I also wonder what effect Coates thinks his popular article will have on the sadly misguided racist police officials who already see African-Americans as potentially violent enemies? Coates is offering a path to greater alienation on both sides. And this is the article that’s breaking the Internet today.

In case this isn’t clear: I support the loudest possible public protest in Baltimore, and as far as I’m concerned it should go on forever and get louder and louder until change is accomplished. If I were able to be on the streets in Baltimore today, I would be there (just as I was there for the Occupy protests when I could be). Protests are great, and I don’t even mind when they get unruly.

Nonviolence is about protest. Nobody logged more time, and endured more agony, in illegal public protest than Martin Luther King or Mohandas Gandhi. They both went to jail constantly. They both gave their own lives for the cause. A serious dedication to nonviolence breathes life into a protest movement. It’s what allows a protest movement to stay alive as long as it needs to, and ensures the enemies of the protest movement that the protest movement has got what it takes to endure.

“Nonviolence is a ruse.” You lost the path here, Ta-Nehisi Coates. You just went over to the stupid side.

Nonviolence is not a ruse. Here are a few things that are a ruse: police violence, bad government, bad journalism. These are the frauds that must be continually exposed. More importantly, public apathy is a ruse, and hopelessness is a ruse.

Hopelessness is what Ta-Nehisi Coates is preaching today in the Atlantic Monthly. That’s not what the brave people on the streets in Baltimore need today as they continue to make their voices heard.

8 Responses

  1. He’s not saying that the
    He’s not saying that the political philosophy of nonviolent resistance is a ruse. He’s saying that when politicians call for nonviolence at this moment, they’re doing so from a position of obscuring and protecting state violence is actually totally unrelated to what MLK or Gandhi did. It’s an appropriation of the language of nonviolent resistance, by people in power who *actually* want compliance.

  2. I agree with you, Levi. We
    I agree with you, Levi. We will be accused by some as simply not understanding the experience and anger of minorities, but the fact is, this riot is hurting people who were not responsible for the police shooting.

  3. I’m almost positive you have
    I’m almost positive you have misunderstood Coates. He wasn’t criticizing nonviolence. He was criticizing the people calling for nonviolence who are part of the problem, who themselves support violence against others. In other words, the very argument for nonviolence has been turned into yet another tool to deflect from the primary problem of police brutality. If those calling for nonviolence were actually practitioners of it Coates wouldn’t have wrote what he did. Nonviolence is being used as a ruse by those who are refusing culpability.

  4. ” Ta-Nehisi Coates. You just
    ” Ta-Nehisi Coates. You just went over to the stupid side.”

    I’ve seen and read his stuff a long time (from when I thought he was a woman actually because I did not know Ta-Nehisi was a man’s name) and I can assure you he was there a long time ago.

    Or, really, more simply on a dull pedestrian mediocre side.

    I must admit, in my 20’s I was as dumb in many ways.

    When he says these things I think he is a state of unreality, as if it is a TV show — and it is in many respects. Or it’s a ruse he is using.

    I can respect any opinion or argument from any one, any side on anything, as long as there is good will.

    I haven’t seen good will from his writings.

    I think in his articles there have been components of wisdom or insight (can’t remember any off the top of my head) but ultimately it goes to the gimmick, the pose, as does this piece you are reacting to.

    With age (not sure how old he is) he may become a voice of interest.

    Edgar Allen Poe lays drunk in the gutter. (Or does he).

    Never more.

  5. Thanks for the comments.
    Thanks for the comments. Aaron and Patrick, I do understand your interpretation of Ta-Nehisi Coates’s point, but I don’t think the ambiguity in his words is accidental. Here are the two reasons why:

    1) He’s a very skillful writer with a finely tuned sense of what he’s communicating. When he says nonviolence “exposes itself as a ruse”, he is making a stronger statement than either of you (Aaron and Patrick) are making. If something can “expose itself as a ruse”, that thing is itself a fraud. I believe he is intentionally making that statement, and this goes beyond saying that the philosophy of nonviolence is being misrepresented. The article is also titled “Nonviolence as compliance”. I think Coates chooses his words carefully and knows exactly what these three words are saying.

    2) This isn’t my first run-in with Ta-Nehisi Coates’s writings about the importance of violence in attaining justice for African-Americans. The first was last December, after he wrote a similar article claiming that the US Civil War was “a good war” and that he was tired of hearing it called a tragedy. I thought this showed a lack of understanding, particularly since there is a lot of evidence that the violence of the Civil War (and the bitterness of military defeat and occupation after four years of incredibly hard fighting) made the problem of Southern hatred towards African-Americans much worse than it would have been if freedom for slaves had not come at the cost of military humiliation for the South. I wrote a Litkicks post about it then, which is here:


    So, I’ve been following Coates pretty closely for a while, and I do think I am understanding his article correctly.

  6. Coates is indeed a “skillful
    Coates is indeed a “skillful writer with a finely tuned sense of what he’s communicating.” Aaron and Patrick are right. That opening clause provides the condition: “WHEN nonviolence is preached as an attempt to evade the repercussions of political brutality, it betrays itself.” He does not state that the general practice or philosophy of nonviolence is “itself a fraud.”

  7. Well, thanks for the feedback
    Well, thanks for the feedback, Elena (and others). At least we all seem to agree that this is an important topic and worth discussing.

  8. I think the key point Coates
    I think the key point Coates is making is how selectively and conveniently nonviolence is preached by our politicians and applied by Baltimore Police Officers. The reason we use nonviolent means of protest exclusively is because we trust our state with a monopoly on force. This is not to say we should rise up and riot every time the state misapplies force. I think the point being made is how hypocritical, silly, and self serving it is for politicians to demand nonviolence from citizens and trust the Baltimore PD with a monopoly of force at this time. Indeed it is a powerful tool when MLK calls for nonviolence. Honestly though, I think the hypocrisy and ridiculous lack of self awareness of this type of a statement will, if anything, stir up further rioting.

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