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America is at war with itself

Violence only begets more violence

On Thursday, America reeled from the tragic news of a second senseless killing of a black man at the hands of police in one week. As the news permeated the nation, many struggled to make sense of the violence. In offices, homes, supermarkets, places of worship and other familiar places, people huddled to process what happened and what should be done.

As these conversations were taking place, social justice advocates and faith-based leaders across the country worked tirelessly to organize peaceful protests and nonviolent forms of organized resistance. This was the one silver lining in the dark cloud of misery that surrounded us. This was the one thing that seemed to mitigate the tragedies that the week brought, these protests and community outpourings that memorialized the tragedies and allowed Americans to vent their feelings as they advocated for change. Peaceful protests in New York City and Washington, D.C., were just two examples where thousands of people from all walks of life took part.

That sense of optimism was short-lived as the tragic news began to trickle in late Thursday night of the ambush killings of five Dallas police officers and the wounding of seven others when they were targeted by a sniper at the end of a peaceful protest. Police said the suspect, who was killed by police in a standoff, told negotiators he was upset about the recent police shootings and he wanted to kill white people, and white police officers in particular.

America, it seems, is at war with itself. The battlelines are being drawn on this issue as more Americans are taking sides in the increasingly heated debate over race, accountability and policing.

Already we are starting to see examples of where this division is heading. Former Republican Rep. Joe Walsh of Illinois was one of the first to incite more violence by declaring war on President Barack Obama and supporters of the Black Lives Matter movement in a tweet that has since been deleted. “Real America,” he warned them, “is coming after you.”

We sit now on a tinderbox as violence begets more violence. We have been here before.

Shortly after the assassination of civil rights leader Martin Luther King Jr. in 1968, black America rioted. One of those who stepped up to call for an end to the violence was Robert F. Kennedy, who delivered a powerful speech questioning the usefulness of violence:

“Whenever any American’s life is taken by another American unnecessarily — whether it is done in the name of the law or in the defiance of the law, by one man or a gang, in cold blood or in passion, in an attack of violence or in response to violence — whenever we tear at the fabric of life which another man has painfully and clumsily woven for himself and his children, the whole nation is degraded.”

Enough. Whatever anger and rage we hold within us, we must channel in peaceful and productive ways. Thursday night’s shooting and killing of five police officers is not the answer. Just as shooting and killing Alton Sterling and Philando Castile, the latest two black men fatally shot by police, is not the answer. We can be against the police killing of innocent black men for little to no reasons and also be against the killing of police officers who are doing their jobs. These are not mutually exclusive.

If history has taught us anything, it is that we cannot stand by idly and watch these embers burn. We’ve seen this type of turmoil roil our country in the past. But we have also seen how nonviolent advocacy during these moments of unrest have helped pave the way for social change.

The civil rights movement was built on the foundation of nonviolence. While civil rights leaders demanded radical change in a deeply racist and divided America, they insisted that this happen in a nonviolent way. It was this framework – of a peaceful, nonviolent and inclusive movement – that rippled through the nation, starting in small Southern black churches and spreading to the nation’s biggest campuses and cities, where it was embraced by Americans of all colors.

All social movements garner their fair share of critics, who say that calling attention to the problem only makes it worse or deny that these social ills even exist. Just as the civil rights movement generated deep-seated resentment, backlash and racial violence, so have the Black Lives Matter, racial justice and police accountability movements.

What these critics fail to see is that these nonviolent social movements have brought about deep and enduring progress in America. Without them, slavery would never have ended. Without them, women and African-Americans would not have the right to vote. Without them, gays and lesbians would not have the right to marry.

For those who fret that nonviolent movements take years and decades to win real change, I say the struggle is worth it. History has taught us that these movements make what we believe to be impossible possible. Social movements empower people to get involved. They give them hope for a better future and they propel whole communities to act, turning ordinary citizens into extraordinary leaders.

King devoted his acceptance speech for the Nobel Prize in 1964 to the idea of nonviolence, saying, “Nonviolence is a powerful and just weapon. Indeed, it is a weapon unique in history, which cuts without wounding and ennobles the man who wields it.

“I am only too well aware of the human weaknesses and failures which exist, the doubts about the efficacy of nonviolence, and the open advocacy of violence by some. But I am still convinced that nonviolence is both the most practically sound and morally excellent way to grapple with the age-old problem of racial injustice.”

To people such as Walsh, who thinks he knows what the “real America” is, I say to him real America is full of people who want peaceful change. And they want it now.

Kica Matos is the Director of Immigrant Rights and Racial Justice at the Center for Community Change. She has spent her career working as an advocate, community organizer and lawyer.