Reactions mixed after Rep. John Lewis rebukes protest violence

When U.S. Rep. John Lewis weighed in on the looting and violence that followed peaceful gatherings in Atlanta and other cities Saturday night, his words drew a mix of praise and accusations that the Civil Rights-era activist is out of touch.

"We must continue to teach the way of peace, the way of love, the philosophy and the discipline of non-violence," he said on MSNBC Saturday evening. "And never, ever give up on any of our brothers and sisters. We're one people; we're one family. "

Lewis, 80, posted a longer statement on his U.S. House website directly addressing protesters.

“To the rioters here in Atlanta and across the country: I see you, and I hear you,” he wrote. “I know your pain, your rage, your sense of despair and hopelessness. Justice has, indeed, been denied for far too long. Rioting, looting, and burning is not the way. Organize. Demonstrate. Sit-in. Stand-up. Vote. Be constructive, not destructive. History has proven time and again that non-violent, peaceful protest is the way to achieve the justice and equality that we all deserve.”

Read more: 'Atlanta Way' challenged after violent night of protests

A post on Twitter excerpting his statement was shared by Republican U.S. Sen. Ted Cruz, celebrity chef Padma Lakshmi and former Maryland Gov. Martin O’Malley among others thanking Lewis for speaking out.

Lewis was badly beaten during a march across Selma’s Edmund Pettus Bridge in 1965 and is one of the last living Civil Rights leaders. While many praised him, others said he wasn’t fully acknowledging that the protests of the past often turned violent because of police brutality and that it, along with racism and economic inequality, continues to persist.

"Look how well that approach turned out for Martin Luther King Jr. & you," Twittter user @SmizeEyes, wrote. "I'm sure you still feel the mental & physical scars from that."

Lewis and others who marched with King did not fight back even when provoked by white onlookers or law enforcement. Their successes, including the passing of the Voting Rights Act of 1965, often came after Americans confronted by shocking images of black Americans being beaten or attacked without provocation.

Still, this approach had its detractors even back then. Malcolm X and the Black Panthers advocated for armed self-defense.

Some who responded to his statement Saturday acknowledged Lewis’ contributions, but said the approach no longer works.

"I love you, you are a hero in my family but we have organized, sat in, stood up, voted," Twitter user @RykerStevenson wrote to Lewis. "We've been doing that for decades. Maybe what the country needs is to know that if you murder a black man in the street then every street in major cities across the country will burn."

The protests, which swept across Atlanta for the past two nights, are sparked by outrage over the police killing of George Floyd in Minneapolis. Marchers have also voiced concerns about the death of Breonna Taylor, who was killed when police in Louisville, Ky., erroneously executed a search on her home. The shooting death of Ahmaud Arbery in Brunswick, especially prosecutors' conduct in that case, has also been criticized.

All of this is happening while many feel the effects of the COVID-19 pandemic, which has led to job losses and limitations on daily life that affected African-Americans and other people of color more deeply.

"But what do you do when you've tried all those things and nothing has changed?" Christina M. Brooks wrote. "Trump and the Republicans sit on legislation or ignore it. Booth for gun control and civil rights. They revoke laws that even in a remedial way try to level the playing field. What more can people do?"

Several said non-violent protests have proven ineffective.

Despite disagreement with Lewis’s statements, people who appeared to be condescending or disrespectful toward the congressman were generally rebuked.

Complete coverage: Atlanta protests

Lewis’s MSNBC interview: