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Ta-Nehisi Coates Criticizes Calls For Nonviolence In Baltimore


Ta-Nehisi Coates, national correspondent for The Atlantic, grew up in the Baltimore neighborhood where this week's riots broke out. In response to all the public calls for nonviolence, Coates wrote this, When nonviolence begins halfway through the war with the aggressor calling timeout, 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. Ta-Nehisi Coates joins us now.

Welcome to the program once again.

TA-NEHISI COATES: Thanks so much for having me, Robert.

SIEGEL: Nonviolence a ruse, a con - you sound like you're going beyond understanding violence to advocating it. Are you?

COATES: No. No, most certainly not. I just think that if one is going to preach nonviolence and one is going to advocate for nonviolence, one's standard should be consistent. My guideline really for this, believe it or not, is actually Dr. Martin Luther King who in, you know, the latter years of his life came out against the Vietnam War. When he came out against the Vietnam War what he said was that he had been going through, you know, the riot-torn cities of America, into Chicago.

And at every stop he was confronted by young African-American men. And what they said to him was like, you're coming to us, you know, preaching nonviolence, but at the same time the United States of America is drafting us and sending us off to war. How do you reconcile that? And you know, a big part of him coming out against the war was to reconcile those two things, to say nonviolence is correct and it's not just correct for people who lack power. It's correct overall. If one, you know, wants to preach nonviolence and one wants to advocate nonviolence, one can't begin at a convenient position.

SIEGEL: But you cite Martin Luther King - the later Martin Luther King - as your inspiration. Others read this and saw the inspiration as being Frantz Fanon, who wrote "The Wretched Of The Earth" and actually urged a revolution by colonized peoples against the colonizers. That's what it sounded like.

COATES: Yeah, I don't think that'll get us very far (laughter).

SIEGEL: You don't think that would get you very far.

COATES: No. No, no, no, no - probably not. The relationship between violence and nonviolence in this country is interesting. The fact of the matter is, you know, people do respond to riots. The 1968 Housing Act was in large response to riots that broke out after Dr. Martin Luther King was killed. They cited these as an actual inspiration. So while riots do bring attention to things, I can't advocate for rioting. It'd be like advocating for global warming. I think riots happen when communities are under pressure for long periods of time. That's not a mistake.

SIEGEL: You cite one positive consequence of the riots after the assassination of Martin Luther King, the Housing Act. At the same time, you know, there was a stretch of Washington, D.C. that didn't recover economically until a couple of years ago. People in Baltimore say that your old neighborhood didn't recover from those riots. The cycle seems to be you loot in anger and no other stores come to the neighborhood.

COATES: That time space begins the violence with the riots. But the question is what was Baltimore like before those riots? The lives of African-Americans in this country are characterized by violence for most of our history. Much of that violence, at least to some extent, you know, done by the very state that's supposed to protect them.

SIEGEL: But, when you speak of the state, meaning the government generally...


SIEGEL: ...The state nowadays in Baltimore includes a city with a black mayor, a black police chief, a black city council president and a black state attorney who announced criminal charges against six police officers today. Is your old neighborhood really at war with that government?

COATES: Well, yeah, I mean because I think like, when I talk about these issues, I talk about systems. This is not a problem of bad intentions. This is not a problem of just bad people and if we get the bad people out of the way, good results will necessarily follow. We have a very, very long history in this country of looking at African-Americans through the lens of criminal justice and solving problems with African-Americans through violence, in fact. I mean, we're in an era of mass incarceration. That's a systemic thing.

SIEGEL: But when you wrote this week about the con of the call to nonviolence, it seemed to me - and I want you to answer this - it seemed to me you run the risk of writing very passionately to fit the anger that people feel but not necessarily to point a way out of things, not necessarily to offer a constructive path out, if there is one. Do you see one?

COATES: No, no, no. I certainly see it, I certainly see it. Freddie Gray - what the police officers were trying to do apparently was enforce the mandates of drug policy. We passed certain laws in this country over the past 20 or 30 years that flooded certain neighborhoods in our community in pursuit of drugs. At that point in time, there could've been some consideration of nonviolent solutions. Any time you offer a criminal justice solution, you aren't necessarily offering a violent solution to a problem. That's what it is.

When you say we're going to put more cops on the street and we're going to build more prisons - as the '94 crime bill did, for instance - that's a violent solution. But what should be on the table at the very, very same time is a nonviolent solution. If we really, really do believe in nonviolence, it's not just for people out in the street hurling rocks. It's also for legislators, it's also for senators and it's also for presidents.

SIEGEL: Ta-Nehisi Coates, national correspondent for The Atlantic, thanks for talking with us.

COATES: Robert, thank you so much. This was great. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.