As protests against police brutality increase in frequency and intensity, cries of “No Justice, No Peace” can be heard everywhere and often. This is not the first time the popular protest chant has been heard in the United States. The exact meaning of the phrase, however, has often been debated and distorted. Conservative and moderate politicians accuse protesters of using it as a threat. Meanwhile, the protestors themselves consider it more of an observation of reality. To better understand the many layers of meaning of “No Justice, No Peace,” we need to understand the origins of the concept and breakdown the linguistic construction of the phrase:
The Origins of “No Justice, No Peace”
As with most popular sayings or words, the exact origin of “No Justice, No Peace” is unknown. Most historians and linguists date it back to the late 1980s, when the chant was heard in the protests that erupted after a black man died during an attack by a mob of armed, racist white men.
Al Sharpton claims to have popularized the phrase “No Justice, No peace” after hearing someone chant it in the protests. However, Barry Popik, a contributor to the Oxford English Dictionary, found earlier news stories about that same incident which attribute the slogan to Sonny Carson, another civil rights activist.
Whoever could be credited with popularizing the slogan during that protest, it was already being used in these protests before either activist spoke to the press about it—so the slogan already existed before this moment in history.
How long before is unclear, but it may have been an adaptation of a quote from Martin Luther King, Jr. In 1968, the famous civil rights leader spoke to a crowd of supporters outside a California prison where Bill Coffin and other anti-war protestors were jailed for resisting the draft and speaking out against the Vietnam War. In that speech, King said, “There can be no justice without peace. And there can be no peace without justice.”
This dependent relationship between peace and justice appeared again on World Peace Day in 1972, when Pope John Paul VI spoke out against the exploitation and impoverishment of colonized and formerly colonized countries by colonial powers. In his speech aimed squarely at the governments of Western nations, the Pope declared, “If you want peace, work for justice.”
Whichever moment in history we choose to date this slogan back to, one thing is clear: its use is meant to signify an unbreakable relationship between justice and peace.
The Multi-Layered Meaning of “No Justice, No Peace”
The relationship between justice and peace that this slogan suggests is nuanced. The inherent ambiguity of the linguistic construction allows the slogan to balance many different meanings at once and to adapt fluidly to different contexts.
The source of this ambiguity is the fact that the phrase can be either conjunctive or conditional, or both. In the conjunctive sense, it could be read either as a list of what’s lacking—this society suffers from an absence of justice and of peace—or as a dependent relationship, a parallel—that “no justice” is a synonym for “no peace” because injustice is inherently violent.
In the conditional sense, it can be interpreted either as an observation of the relationship between justice and peace—that justice is a prerequisite, that a society without justice cannot truly be peaceful—or as a moral imperative—that in the face of injustice, we are obligated to disturb the peace.
In 1968, King used it as both a conjunctive relationship and a moral imperative when he said, “There can be no justice without peace. And there can be no peace without justice.”
In the first sentence, peace is used in the sense of being a state of no war. In this sense, King is saying that the only just action the U.S. government could take would be to end the Vietnam War, to declare peace.
In the second sentence, we see a moral imperative in reference to the anti-war protestors. It suggests that those protestors are morally obligated to protest this war and to break this unjust law of the draft, so long as this unjust war continues.
In 1972, the Pope used the construction in a conjunctive sense when he told the “men in posts of responsibility” he was addressing that if they want peace, it is their duty to end the violence of colonization. He was arguing that peace and justice are one and the same, that any appearance of peace that is not rooted in justice is not actually peace at all, but another kind of violence. In the words of Pope Paul VI, “A peace that is not the result of true respect for man is not true peace. And what do we call this sincere feeling for man? We call it justice.”
In 1987, when Sharpton and Carson were speaking out against white supremacy, they used the slogan in a similar conjunctive sense. They were drawing attention to the inherent violence of injustice; arguing that an unjust system like white supremacy cannot be a peaceful one. “As racial slurs were hurled towards our nonviolent protest,” Sharpton wrote in a 2014 op-ed, “we proved our point to everyone.”
White Moderate Misinterpretations and Misuse of “No Justice, No Peace”
While the ambiguity of the phrase lends it its power to take on multiple meanings, it also leaves it open for misinterpretation and misuse. During moments of political unrest and protest, you’ll often find white moderates speaking out, not against the injustice that spurred the protests, but against the protestors themselves.
Some of these moderates argue that the slogan is a threat, that it is an incitement to violence. Others simply argue that protestors should calm down and be peaceful because maintaining order is more important than fighting for justice.
Former President George W. Bush, for example, flipped the slogan on its head in June 2020 when he responded to the protests following George Floyd’s murder with, “lasting justice will only come by peaceful means. Looting is not liberation, and destruction is not progress.” The statement reads almost like a threat: give us peace, or else we will not give you justice.
In an insightful analysis of the slogan and theories of anti-racist resistance in the United States, Asad Haider, editor of Viewpoint Magazine, challenged this kind of misuse when he argued that in an unjust society, “there must be a ‘disturbance of the peace’ in order to have the presence of justice.” Both Martin Luther King, Jr. and Pope Paul VI would likely have supported Haider’s interpretation.
In that same World Peace Day speech, the Pope argued that the revolutions and protests that erupted in response to the economic and political exploitation by colonizers represented “a violent outburst which, by devastation of every sort, shows how false was the peace imposed only by superiority of power and force.”
By this logic, protests, even when they are not peaceful, are legitimate responses to injustice because that very injustice has already destroyed peace long before the protest broke out.
Similarly, Martin Luther King, Jr.—who is famously misquoted and misused by these same white moderates in pleas for “peaceful” responses to brutality and oppression—was sympathetic toward rioters in the United States. In a 1967 speech, he argued:
“A riot is the language of the unheard. And what is it that America has failed to hear? […] it has failed to hear that large segments of white society are more concerned about tranquility and the status quo than about justice, equality, and humanity.”
To chant, “No Justice, No Peace” is not a threat of violence because the violence already exists in the form of injustice. Instead, it’s an acknowledgement of that injustice and a promise to stand in opposition to it.