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  • Writer's pictureAva Babington

Can Violent Protests in the United States Initiate Political Change?

Updated: Jan 15

Due to the violent protests that were sparked by the killing of George Floyd on May 25th, 2020, a debate across the globe was created on whether violent protests are the correct way to initiate political change. Professor Daniel Q. Gillion, an expert on civil rights protests who teaches at University of Pennsylvania stated, "Nonviolent protest brings awareness to an issue; violent protest brings urgency to an issue". Violent protests are seen by millions of Americans as an act of violence that will only achieve a lack of support by citizens and government, however violent protests show the country, including the world that there is a serious issue that needs to be resolved. The Stonewall Riots, the Rodney King Riots, and the 2020 Black Lives Matter Protests are just a few of the many examples of how violent protests can lead to policy change in the United States.

In the late 1960s, the Stonewall Inn located in New York City was known for allowing drag queens inside and housing homeless and runaway gay kids. Solicitation of gay relations was illegal in the 1960s, so the police would raid gay clubs and bars looking to arrest those engaging in homosexual behavior. On June 28th, 1969, the NYPD raided the Inn with great force which led to the crowd outside deciding to fight back. Within minutes, hundreds of people were protesting the police.

These riots sparked the path for LGBTQ+ political activism in the United States. Organizations such as the Gay Liberation Front, Human Rights Campaign, Gay and Lesbian Alliance Against Defamation, and PFLAG (an organization dedicated to providing support and educating of LGBTQ+ people and their families) were all created shortly after. The first Gay Pride March occurred one year after the riots, which started the revolution of gay rights in America. The federal exclusions on gay and lesbian people were lifted and the medical field got rid of the belief that homosexuals need psychiatric help. In the 1980s, homosexuality became legal in many states and several of the anti-sodomy laws were not in effect anymore. Decades passed and homosexuality became federally legal in the United States and widely accepted and valued, so all it took was a couple riots to change the course of how LGBTQ+ people are treated in this country today.

Another instance of riots sparking major political change was after a black man named Rodney King was severely beaten by white police officers in Los Angeles. On March 3rd, 1991, King resisted arrest and was beaten to the point of him fracturing his skull, breaking his teeth and bones, and then experiencing permanent brain damage. This incident was caught on camera, and it showed the officers still kicking and beating him long after he was done resisting. Of course, this video was released and the arrest of Rodney King received national attention.

The officers involved were charged with assault with a deadly weapon and excessive use of force, but the verdict read not guilty. This led to the citizens of Los Angeles setting hundreds of fires, throwing rocks at the city's police headquarters, and they looted grocery, retail stores, and fast-food restaurants for days. These riots showed the country the severity of the police brutality issue against black people, and politicians listened.

The LAPD was significantly reformed with the creation of a civilian oversight board, more officer training, and changes were made in recruitment requirements. Former President Bush ordered the Justice Department to investigate whether the police officers involved in the incident should be prosecuted in federal court for violating civil rights laws, which they were. The California Representative Don Edwards who is the chairman of the House Judiciary Committee's subcommittee on civil rights held hearings on police brutality. Senate Judiciary Committee member Arlen Spector spoke out about how the Civil Rights Act should be amended to include statues against policy brutality. Not much happened after the hearings and conversations but it bought more awareness to the police brutality issue within the walls of Congress.

Only a handful of change occurred after the Rodney King arrest, but the killing of George Floyd in 2020 sparked tremendous change in the United States regarding the treatment of black people. The video of Floyd being killed by the police officers was posted all over social media, and within one day half a million citizens across the nation and world fled to the streets to protest or riot against the racial violence in America. Not only did the 2020 BLM protests bring global awareness to the racism in America, but it created a movement of policy change in the country.

Derek Chauvin, the police officer who killed Floyd, was charged with second-degree murder, third-degree murder, and second-degree manslaughter only a couple days after the riots began. During the protests, citizens brought attention to the death of Breonna Taylor, which led to the suspension of the "no-knock" warrants that allowed officers to enter people's homes without notice. The Minneapolis City Council voted to require officers to intervene anytime they notice an extensive use of force by another officer and banned all chokeholds. In Vermont, they are working to reform their police by the creation of a law enforcement accreditation process and a new training system for new officers. Confederate statues and monuments all around the country were taken down despite the protests of angry white supremacists. The Philadelphia mayor Jim Kenney created a commission called Pathways to Reform, Transformation, and Reconciliation that has the goal of advancing public safety and racial equity. These are only a few of the many changes that were made in America, with more being changed or created today.

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I love your blog. Keep on keeping on! I would like to bring forward another perspective - hope it’s received by others with the good intent given. Civil Disobedience and Violence are two different approaches to change. Stonewall brought about a forceful shift in who we are as a country, and pieces of that ground shift have been made violent by others, but the intent was not violent, but a groundswelling of Civil Disobedience. The March across Selma by John Lewis, Martin Luther King and others was to bring forward attention in the form of Civil Disobedience. Not violence. In today’s lack of Social Discourse, we cannot agree to disagree, and until we can do that, temperaments will alway…

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