Is it justified to demand human rights violently?
When you were a teenager, your parents probably gave you a curfew. Say it was 10 o’clock. We all knew that 10 o’clock was a bullshit curfew and that nothing good happened before 10, and that nothing bad happened after 10. Post 10 was when the fun was had.
Your response to this curfew could go one of two ways: you could abide by it, or you could rebel. Accepting the curfew took only a single form — you’d just be home at or before 10 every night. But rebellion could go a number of ways. You could, as I did, “accidentally” show up 5 minutes later each night until your parents noticed. You could go another route and try and reason with your parents (“If I get this grade point average, can my curfew be extended to 12?”). Or you could start a violent revolution and just leave the house whenever you damn well felt like it and tell your parents to go fuck themselves when they tried to stop you.
One way or another, rebellion meant that you were going to get to stay out a little bit later, as long as you were persistent in the struggle and stuck to your guns.
This is the violent truth of all rights: the only ones that are given are the ones that are demanded.
Gay rights wasn’t a thing until recently
If you, like me, are a mere 28 years old, then you remember when gay rights were not discussed in the mainstream. You remember, all of the sudden, that a lot more people were coming out of the closet, and that a lot more people were insisting on gay marriage. Suddenly, homosexuality was openly discussed in movies rather than simply being implied at best, or a target of mockery at worst.
This was a result of gay people finally saying, “fuck this, we’re going to demand that people stop being assholes to us.” If the LGBT community had not made these demands, we would not now be living in a country where gay marriage is legal for a majority of our citizens. Even if you could have rhetorically argued before the Gay Rights movement that LGBT people had the theoretical human right to get married regardless of the gender of their choice of spouse, it would not have been an actual reality. Just like you could have argued that you had a right to a midnight curfew as a teenager, but did not technically have access to that right.
Another great example: the Civil Rights movement. Technically, African Americans in the South had the right to vote in 1870, following the passage of the Fifteenth Amendment. But (aside from a brief period right after the war and right before the rise of Jim Crow) the right did not materialize as a reality until the Civil Rights movement, when African Americans demanded those rights and refused to take no for an answer.
Rights are taken, not given.
If something is a right, how far are we allowed to go to demand it?
Obviously, the Civil Rights movement and the LGBT movement share a common characteristic: they have been mostly nonviolent. But it’s not the case that rights haven’t been obtained through violence in the past. Violence is messy and is usually counterproductive, but it can work. Look at the Fourteenth Amendment. Or the liberation of Europe in the 1940’s. Or the many, many colonial wars for independence.
So while going the peaceful route may be vastly preferable, it’s not always possible (most people would say that a quick, peaceful resolution to Fascism was just not in the cards). Which brings us to an uncomfortable point: if we’re willing to admit that people have certain rights, that those rights are fundamental to their dignity, and that they should be allowed to take those rights, how far are we willing to admit that they are allowed to go to demand that right?
If, say, reasoning and peaceful protest and negotiation don’t work, are they allowed to get violent? Because if they aren’t allowed to violently seize that right, then we’re basically saying that they don’t have that right in the first place.
None of this is to say that violence should be advocated — if anything, I’m saying that we should construct a society where people never have to resort to violence to access their agreed upon rights (and there's an argument to be made that nonviolence could work in all cases). But if people demand the rights that we all agree they should have — say, the right to live in a society where you have a fighting chance at dragging yourself out of poverty, or the right to be interact with the police without being killed accidentally or otherwise — and our society doesn’t acquiesce to that demand, how are we doing anything but goading them into violence?
And if that violence is committed in the pursuit of justice, is it just?
Featured Photo by Thomas Hawk.