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Making a Point

This week’s question from my mail is a bit embarrassing:

“You said that violence is sometimes necessary to make a point. What does that mean?”

Ug. I regret saying that as a throw-away line, because it needs more explanation. First of all, the full quote comes from an interview I did to promote “Downriver” on Reader Views Kids:


The full quote is: “Violence doesn’t solve anything, even if it is sometimes necessary to make a point.” The first part I think stands well by itself – violence doesn’t solve anything. Many people are fond of saying that World War II (a fashionable war again, thanks to Ken Burns) proves that violence does solve things. I think that’s a very narrow view of history.

The Marshall Plan solved a lot of things once and for all by making it clear how closely inter-dependent everyone was. The violence that preceded it was a bit more extreme than that of the previous War With a Roman Numeral, but the spectacular inability to satiate blood lust with blood was a primary cause of more Roman Numerals.

I’ll leave the discussion of these numerical wars for later. I have another point to make.

I grew up in Miami, a city where racial tension hung in the air like the tropical steam. Race based violence seemed to be as predictable as the afternoon thunderstorms, those moments when the air seemed to fall around you. The hot sun of what should have been paradise drove it all as much as the hot resentment of people who lived a bit too close to other people they somehow could not respect in the slightest.

On my 14th birthday, a man named Arthur McDuffie ran a stop sign on his moped. The cops pulled him over for it, and a small argument broke out. Arthur McDuffie happened to be Black, and the cops happened to be Hispanic. Everyone who knew the way the weather worked in Miami could tell you something bad was about to happen. What few of us could have foreseen is that the cops wound up beating Arthur McDuffie to death with their flashlights.

The trial glued everyone to their teevee sets for a few months. This was bad. Black leaders demanded justice, and Dade County Attorney Janet Reno personally took charge of the prosecution of the cops. But then, in May, it happened.

The cops got off. The city erupted in flames. Police had to pull back, as did fireman. They had to let it burn. There was nothing to do but watch the flames.

We kids got off from school for three days.

When it was all over, a few officials in government realized something. The Black community was so completely disenfranchised that they had nothing to lose. The possibility of another riot thickened the air a little bit more. And then, something gave way. Blacks were finally invited to the table.

Would some kind of racial justice have been achievable without the riot? I don’t think so, not for a minute. The McDuffie Riot was inevitable. It had to happen someday. A small measure of justice was not going to be possible until this terrible violence was unleashed, and the fury of a marginalized community was realized by those in power.

What does this have to do with my statement? I learned that violence is sometimes needed to make a point. Power has to be demonstrated before it is acknowledged.

Back to the War With More Roman Numerals for a moment. Yes, Hitler had to be removed to make a point. But that act didn’t actually solve anything. Humans are stubborn and vain creatures, and at times it takes quite a lot of blood to get anything through to them. The people of Germany know this, as do the powers in Miami. But violence alone does not give us anything but more violence. When the fires die down, a measure of grace and justice, along with the recognition that we all have both power and frailty, is what finally allows us to put it behind us and live in peace.

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