No justice, no peace

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J.P. Villanueva writes:

I've been seeing the old "No justice, no peace" chant lately after the Zimmerman trial. It seems like people are lamenting that "there is no justice and there is no peace."

When I first heard the chant (during the Rodney King riots), I had understood quite clearly that "No justice, no peace" was a conditional statement… as in, "if you can't guarantee us justice, we will not let you have peace" in other words, it was a call to riot.

I'm sure the chant has a longer history, right? Has it always meant both things? or did I misinterpret back in the 90s?

A few years ago, Mark Liberman considered the "No X, No Y" construction and its potential for ambiguity. At the time, hackers had rigged highway signs on the Palmetto Expressway in Florida to read "No Latinos, No Tacos." While many interpreted the sign with a conjunctive reading — "(There should be) no Latinos (and) no tacos" — others discerned a conditional reading — "(If there are) no Latinos (there will be) no tacos." This latter reading echoes the "No justice, no peace" slogan that has been a staple of the U.S. protest movement, especially in New York City, since the late '80s.

In the '80s and '90s, as J.P. suggests, "No justice, no peace" was unequivocally understood as conditional, not conjunctive. I've found examples of the slogan going back to the aftermath of the Howard Beach incident in December 1986, in which Trinidadian immigrant Michael Griffith was killed by a mob of white youths. On Feb. 28, 1987, the New York Amsterdam News reported that "'No justice, no peace' has become the battle cry of the student led movement against racially motivated attacks on African peoples." The newspaper quoted protest organizer Viola Plummer as saying, "from the death of Michael Griffith on, we declare that if there is no justice there cannot be peace."

The following year, on May 11, 1988, the activist lawyer Ron Kuby testified before a hearing on racially motivated violence before the House of Representatives Subcommittee on Criminal Justice. Kuby stated:

In response to the increase of hate crimes by both the police and private citizens, a new civil rights movement has started to emerge in New York. The movement is broad and diverse, but has marched under the slogan "No Justice, No Peace," a slogan which summarizes the frustration and anger of New York's Black and Latino communities. "No Justice, No Peace" remains the solemn promise of an increasing number of people in an increasingly polarized city.

Kuby framed the slogan as a "promise" rather than a threat, but the conditional reading was still clear. After the killing of Yusef Hawkins in the Bensonhurst neighborhood of Brooklyn in 1989, the slogan again came to the fore. A May 13, 1990 New York Times article described protests in Bensonhurst that occurred on the same day as protests in Flatbush over allegations that a black woman had been roughed up at a Korean-owned grocery store. At the Flatbush protest, "No justice, no peace" was paired with the similarly conditional "No respect, no business," i.e., "(If you give us) no respect, (we will give you) no business." And at Bensonhurst, the slogan was rephrased as "Justice, then peace."

So what about now, with the protests over the Zimmerman verdict? Has the old threatening conditional turned into a more benign conjunctive, "(There is) no justice (and there is) no peace"? No doubt the slogan means different things to different people. As evidence of the range of interpretations, see the Huffington Post column by University of Pennsylvania chaplain Charles Howard:

To me the phrase "No Justice, No Peace" is not so much a threat as much as it is a cry of the heart. It is not simply a call to protest, but also a naming of the powers and what those powers have done.

Howard goes on to provide four of his own glosses on the slogan:

  • A lack of justice has resulted in a lack of peace.
  • Heavy hearts now lack peace because of the lack of justice in our nation.
  • No peace because of no justice.
  • We must work for both: To fix a broken justice system and a to fix the broken peace within our hearts and within our communities.

None of these readings pack the conditional punch of the original formulation — even when a cause and effect is stated ("No peace because of no justice") it is not a call to arms to disrupt "the peace" but rather an introspective reflection on how "peace within our hearts and within our communities" has been disrupted. His conclusion is a conjunctive one: "Let us work for both justice and peace." Perhaps the reanalysis of the old slogan is indicative of how the culture of protest over racial injustice has changed since the days of Howard Beach and Bensonhurst.

Update: On his website, Barry Popik has a page devoted to "no justice no peace" and provides a couple of examples from 1987 slightly earlier than the Amsterdam News quote given above:

22 January 1987. St. Petersburg (FL) Times, "4,500 march to protest racial attack in N.Y." by Dan Jacobsen, United Press International, pg. 11A:
NEW YORK – More than 4,500 black protesters chanting slogans to the beat of pounding drums marched in Manhattan Wednesday during a day-long demonstration of "outrage" against the Howard Beach racial attack.
With fists clenched in anger, they filled Broadway at 32nd Street, site of a city welfare hotel, then led a deafening demonstration down Fifth Avenue to Mayor Edward Koch's Greenwich Village home.
Chants of "No justice, no peace" and "Mayor Koch step aside, there ain't gonna be no genocide" echoed among the office buildings as police scrambled to line the route.

22 January 1987, Newsday (Long Island, NY), "4,000 March Against Racism But Impact Of Boycott Less Clear," pg. 3:
To the deafening beat of chants, a predominately black army of nearly 4,000 protesters marched down Fifth Avenue yesterday in a declared effort to defeat the notion that blacks will tolerate racial injustice.
The march highlighted "The Day of Mourning and Outrage" for Michael Griffith, who was killed by a car Dec. 20 while fleeing a gang of white teenagers in Howard Beach, Queens. (…)
Chanting "No justice, no peace," the five-block-long stream of marchers, some shaking clenched fists, set off from the Martinique Hotel, a welfare hotel on West 32nd Street. They marched to Mayor Edward I. Koch's Greenwich Village home, a 30-block walk that took an hour.


  1. J.W. Brewer said,

    July 15, 2013 @ 10:31 am

    Despite the high quality of the University's linguistics department, I very much doubt that UPenn is hiring chaplains based on their ability to do competent sociolinguistics fieldwork and publish the results thereof in the Huffington Post, and I do not take the Rev'd Mr. Howard's piece as being intended in that spirit. It rather seems more in the spirit of the modern pastor taking an old (and seemingly clear) Biblical text which makes the Nice Modern People in the pews uncomfortable and exegeting away the traditional intepretation in a fashion that makes it less uncomfortable for the intended audience to hear.

  2. Michael Briggs said,

    July 15, 2013 @ 10:39 am

    In 1977 Peter Tosh sang:

    I don't want no peace
    I need equal rights and justice
    I need equal rights and justice
    I need equal rights and justice
    Got to get it, equal rights and justice

    I wonder if this might not be the source of the phrase.

  3. Michael Briggs said,

    July 15, 2013 @ 10:43 am

    And (I think this was as recent as 1997, so it probably derives from the protest slogan) Jimmy Cliff sang:

    How is there going to be peace?
    When there is no justice, oh no, oh
    Someone is taking my share
    And they just don't give a damn, no they don't care

  4. Jon Aske said,

    July 15, 2013 @ 11:19 am

    I would have thought that the two different interpretations would have different written versions, just like they have different intonation patterns:
    No justice, no peace. (If then)
    No justice. No peace. (And)
    That is to say, they are not the same. There is more to language than syntactic structure.

  5. Michael Newman said,

    July 15, 2013 @ 11:20 am

    see this variant: "no gardens, no peas!"

  6. Bloix said,

    July 15, 2013 @ 11:21 am

    The linkage between peace and justice goes back at least to the prophet Isaiah. For a more recent example, see Pope John Paul II's Message for the Celebration of the World Day of Peace, 1 January 2002, which was titled:

    No Peace without Justice
    No Justice without Forgiveness

    Somehow I don't think he was threatening to riot in the streets.

  7. J.W. Brewer said,

    July 15, 2013 @ 11:53 am

    Here's an earlyish example (1979, if google books metadata is accurate) of (a rather strong version of) the conditional threat, but not yet reduced into the four-word slogan: "If there was no justice for Palestine, there would be no peace in the world. It was a simple message dispatched by the brutal means of leaving the sprawled and bloody bodies of innocent tourists scattered on airport floors." Google books suggests the four-word slogan was used in Time magazine in 1980 (as a magazine-supplied headline to a letter to the editor) in a U.S-racial-tension context, but snippet view makes it hard to be certain. Other usages with even earlier dates seem like they may be artifacts of bad metadata, but I can't be certain.

  8. Aleks said,

    July 15, 2013 @ 1:26 pm

    There's a third kind of no X no Y construction, that is often misunderstood, but it's not exactly standard English, as it stems from Jamaican creole/vernacular used by Bob Marley. "No Woman, No Cry" is possibly his most famous song. Many people seem to interpret it as a conditional again, rendering a rather misogynistic interpretation of "without women, (there'd be) no wailing," or somesuch.

    It is pretty clear (also from the rest of the song's lyrics) that its intended meaning is: "No, woman, don't cry," an attempt to console a woman. (It may, in fact, try to console an entire nation, with its mention of "government yard in Trenchtown," since in the 1970s, the Trenchtown district in Kingston experienced heavy violence due to political strife, and had been a ghetto in earlier times.)

    I'm wondering if this particular construction has caught on in English, but I don't think it has.

  9. CuConnacht said,

    July 15, 2013 @ 2:20 pm

    In his message for 1 January 1972, Pope Paul VI quotes Isaiah 32:17 ("Justice will bring about peace") and adds: "We repeat this today in a more incisive and dynamic formula: 'If you want peace, work for justice.'" In that form it has made it onto bumper stickers.

  10. Morten Jonsson said,

    July 15, 2013 @ 2:22 pm

    The mention of Peter Tosh and Jimmy Cliff reminds me that it's hard for me not to hear Bob Marley's "No Woman No Cry" as a conditional: if there were no woman, there would be nothing to cry about, or no woman crying.

    I hear "No justice, no peace" as a conditional, but not necessarily as a threat: not "If you can't guarantee us justice, we will not let you have peace," but "If there is no justice, there will be no peace," leaving it open whether the speaker is personally promising to start a riot or simply warning that one will occur. If someone tells me that if I don't hold onto the handrail I might have a nasty fall, does that mean he's planning to push me down the stairs? Maybe, if he's one of the kids I remember from high school. But maybe not.

  11. J.W. Brewer said,

    July 15, 2013 @ 3:22 pm

    The "no peace" conditional prediction obviously can cover a wide range of future lack-of-peace-and-quiet situations, from a full-blown riot all the way down to the mere continuation of noisy (but non-violent) public demonstrations and protests, but in the classic mid/late '80's NYC formulation (often involving the young Al Sharpton when he was not yet quite a national figure), I think it would generally have been disingenuous to interpret it as a Cassandra-like prediction, delivered more in sorrow than in anger, of future lack of peace caused by hypothetical third parties having no connection whatsoever to the slogan-chanters. But of course the context of usage may have shifted since then. Presumably many national anthems, for example, contain fairly blood-thirsty and militaristic sentiments preserved in amber but are still ritually sung on patriotic occasions by comparatively pacifistic citizens who are not necessarily personally committing to help instantiate that reading of the text.

    And of course part of the backdrop also is a perfectly legitimate philosophical question: why should we (the protesters) feel morally obligated to stay within the bounds of the law when the legal system in practice fails (in our possibly mistaken opinion) to provide a just outcome when someone from our segment of the community is (in our possibly mistaken opinion) unjustly victimized? Don't lecture us about the importance of respecting the norms of a system that doesn't (in our perception) work in our favor when push comes to shove. Fix your system first. (There are of course many plausible responses to this perspective, but it's not an incoherent perspective.)

  12. Rebecca said,

    July 15, 2013 @ 4:19 pm

    As an activist myself, I've used this chant many times, including last night at the Justice for Trayvon march in NYC. I definitely identify more with the conditional reading, and I think most other activists I know would also. It's almost like we're justifying disturbing your routine with our march: "Hey police officers, hey commuters and cab drivers, hey people on the sidewalks, in restaurants, and in your homes! Until there is justice in the system, we will not allow peace on the streets!"

    I've also heard a variation of the chant that seems to demonstrate this conditional reading: "If we don't get no justice, you won't get no peace!"

  13. Craig Burley said,

    July 15, 2013 @ 4:50 pm

    My own favorite version of the "No X/No Y" was definitely conditional. In 1992 the West Indies cricket team (a federation of most of the individual English-speaking islands) played a test match in Barbados for which the local favorite Anderson Cummins was not selected to play. Protesting the decision, noisily as sports fans often do, one banner in particular was quite enjoyable especially when you hear it in the lovely Bajan lilt:


  14. KevinM said,

    July 15, 2013 @ 5:09 pm

    @Morten Jonsson. Patois and schwa (patschwa?).
    I always thought the same thing about No Woman, No Cry — i.e., that it was vaguely misogynist — but it isn't. The sense is not conditional, but comforting.
    Wiki usefully summarizes:
    The title and main refrain, "No Woman, No Cry" is rendered "No, woman, nuh cry" in Jamaican Patois. The "nuh" is pronounced with a short schwa vowel (a "mumbled" vowel, often represented as "uh" in spelling) and represents a clitic ("weakened") form of "no". It is the equivalent to the contraction "don't". The song is about growing up in the ghetto and persuading a woman that things will get better, entreating her not to cry.

  15. Milan said,

    July 15, 2013 @ 5:45 pm

    The conditional interpretation of the song title could completely be avoided with a change in punctuation: "No, Woman, No cry". This would also represent better what is sung in the song, for there is a short pause after the first "no", and would be in concord with the rule that such an address is separated with commas. I really wonder for what reason the actual punctuation was chosen.

  16. DaveK said,

    July 15, 2013 @ 8:39 pm

    I could never figure out whether "no woman no cry" was a sexist exhortation: "quit crying, you're not a woman" or the somewhat less sexist look at the heartbreak inherent in love: "if you don't have a woman, you won't be crying".
    The comma makes it all clear.

  17. Daniel Tse said,

    July 16, 2013 @ 1:02 am

    Reminds me of the false translation of 沒有毛澤東,沒有新中國 "Without Mao Zedong, there would be no New China" as "There is no Mao Zedong; there is no New China".

  18. John Swindle said,

    July 16, 2013 @ 1:47 am

    I used to see a militant Christian version on bumper stickers: "No Jesus, no peace. Know Jesus, know peace." Here either proposition by itself could be taken as conditional, but only together they are unambiguously conditional. If perhaps irritating.

    And I remember somewhere seeing a sign saying "NO DRINKING NO DOGS." But I wasn't drinking no dogs.

  19. D.O. said,

    July 16, 2013 @ 1:54 am

    Interestingly "no peace, no justice" does not seem to be a popular stand alone expression. In case of pure conjunction, it does not matter which comes first and though tradition can maintain a particular form, "no justice, no peace" does not seem euphonic enough not to succumb to the forces of imperfect hearing, memory, and recall. BTW, the inverted form "no peace, no justice" can also be considered as a conditional either in a threatening manner (in a spirit of "beatings will continue until morale improves") or in a more self-help style "you have to reach peace within yourself first, than judge".

  20. Ralph Hickok said,

    July 16, 2013 @ 7:01 am

    A neighbor of mine has a bumper sticker that says "No Farmers, No Food."

  21. spherical said,

    July 16, 2013 @ 7:45 am

    J.W.Brewer said:
    'It rather seems more in the spirit of the modern pastor taking an old (and seemingly clear) Biblical text which makes the Nice Modern People in the pews uncomfortable and exegeting away the traditional intepretation in a fashion that makes it less uncomfortable for the intended audience to hear.'

    This. I really like the analogy.

  22. Alex Bollinger said,

    July 16, 2013 @ 8:38 am

    I used to get confused by "No shirt, no shoes, no service." When I was little, it sounded like shirts, shoes, and services were all banned in these restaurants.

    There's lots of room for ambiguity even if it's assumed conditional: does the "then" go before shoes or service? Does an "and" or an "or" go between the two that are on the same end of the conditional statement? etc.

    @KevinM: that's pretty much what I thought the song was about. The title can be read by Americans as sexist, but listening to the verses doesn't support the "if you don't know a woman, then you won't cry" reading.

  23. Gene Callahan said,

    July 16, 2013 @ 8:59 am

    @Milan: "This would also represent better what is sung in the song, for there is a short pause after the first "no","

    Your interpretation of the meaning of the lyrics is correct, but your description of the music is only half right: the first time the line is sung in each chorus, the first "no" glides straight into "woman"; the second time there is a pause.

  24. Jym Dyer said,

    July 16, 2013 @ 10:19 am

    ≈ As mentioned above, "If you want peace, work for justice" was in currency. In the early 1980s the Reagan Administration ended the human rights principle that the Carter Administration had established (however imperfectly) for foreign policy, so the peace movement in the U.S. found itself focusing on a number of issues in Latin America. This slogan was used a lot at rallies, and shortened to "No justice, no peace" to indicate a path to peace. It was not used ironically, though many did resort to irony as a defense mechanism after Reagan's reelection.

    Nowadays, "No justice, no peace" is used angrily, sometimes rhymed with "F___ the police."

  25. Matt McIrvin said,

    July 16, 2013 @ 12:51 pm

    An outspoken radical of my acquaintance posted it on his nascent blog after the September 11th attacks. He was definitely using it conditionally, to imply that the attacks were punishment for injustice committed by the US.

  26. Mar Rojo said,

    July 16, 2013 @ 5:10 pm

    No money, no honey.

  27. Mr Punch said,

    July 17, 2013 @ 10:03 am

    Conditional. Charles Howard's reading is reminiscent of Christine Lagarde's "do your own thing" mis-punctuation of Bob Dylan: "Don't think twice! It's all right!"

  28. Alex Temple said,

    July 18, 2013 @ 3:46 pm

    The first time I heard Crowded House's "Don't Dream It's Over," I interpreted the title as "Don't Dream; It's Over" (i.e. "Get your head out of the clouds; this relationship is finished!"), rather than "Don't Dream [That] It's Over."

  29. Thomas said,

    July 19, 2013 @ 7:14 am

    In my experience there is a third line to this chant–

    No justice
    No peace
    No racist police

  30. Ben said,

    July 19, 2013 @ 6:13 pm

    I think the statement clearly means "without justice, there can be no peace."

    But I've heard this completely garbled in the chant "No justice, no peace, no racist police!" That one never made any sense to me. (You don't want any of those things? Or without justice you can't have peace or racist police?)

  31. Ben said,

    July 19, 2013 @ 6:14 pm

    Sorry‚ I didn't scroll down to read Thomas's post.

  32. Allen Hazen said,

    July 20, 2013 @ 12:20 am

    Before the Atlanta olympics, there was a bid to have the games in Melbourne (Oz). There were protests from people who thought public money could be better used for something other than subsidizing the International Olympic Committee, with the slogan "No Justice, No games" painted on assorted walls. I remember, after Atlanta had gotten the games and Melbourne's social ills had ot been visibly addressed, seeing a graffito from the protest and thinking "Right on both counts."

  33. Ray Dillinger said,

    July 20, 2013 @ 2:24 pm

    Odd. The only version of this I've ever known was very deliberately a doubled-meaning wordplay, and predates the 70's.

    From my earliest memories, my grandparents had in their home a small sign, apparently made by pressing red-hot iron type or something like it on a wooden board, then covering the whole in shellac or varnish to preserve it.

    The sign (from at least the early 60's) said,

    "No Justice, No Peace. Know Justice, Know Peace."

    IMO, it was all about *both* meanings being correct, though indistinguishable when spoken.

    My grandparents were devout Christians. If they'd seen or heard a version that substituted
    "Jesus" for "Justice", I am certain that they'd have preferred it. They were also devoted pacifists, and would not have tolerated anything like a threat of rioting in their home. Given that context, I always read it as,

    No(without) Justice, (there can be) No Peace. (But if we) Know Justice, (then we shall) Know Peace.

    The sentiment was very much like Ghandi's observation that it is not possible to achieve peace by force. Similarly, one cannot achieve peace by injustice.

  34. Bloix said,

    July 20, 2013 @ 3:04 pm

    I striking worker at a Dunkin Donuts whose air conditioning has brokern down carries a sign:
    No AC, No Peace

  35. Jonathan Mayhew said,

    July 21, 2013 @ 1:29 am

    This has always seemed deeply wrong to me. It is saying, the origin of war is the absence of justice. Wars are fought to overcome injustice. If you want to avoid war, then, work for justice.

    But wars themselves, more often than not, are unjust, or bring about additional injustices. If you want peace, then, work for peace itself.

    Sorry, not a linguistic point. The conditional meaning of the slogan has always been clear to me.

  36. Jeg said,

    July 21, 2013 @ 11:51 am

    A similar ambiguous phrase that I've seen in graffiti lately: "No Border No Nation"

  37. Jonathan Gress-Wright said,

    July 22, 2013 @ 4:16 am

    The conditional reading is obvious, and I don't understand how anyone gets a conjunctive reading out of it. What's not obvious is the illocutionary force of the statement. Is it a threat or an assertion? Does it mean "If we don't have justice, we will not give you peace" or does it mean "If there is no justice, there will be no peace"? According to our activist Rebecca, it seems we are meant to interpret the statement as a threat. So much for the rule of law.

  38. Ray Dillinger said,

    July 27, 2013 @ 7:44 pm

    Fighting for justice is always problematic.

    One has to remember a hard-won lesson; Fighting is usually a horrible mistake, but sometimes the only correct action. However, if it becomes so, it means people have already made horrible mistakes.

    This is tangential at best to the linguistic issue; I'll shut up now.

  39. AG said,

    August 12, 2013 @ 9:07 am

    Sorry if this has been said before (but I don't see it above after a quick scan) – what if it's just a really simple pun on the office of "Justice of the Peace"?

  40. Rebecca Miller said,

    August 25, 2014 @ 2:16 pm

    The Jamaican activist/Rasta/reggae star wrote the title song "Equal Rights" for his second solo LP, released internationally in 1977. The song begins:

    "Everyone is crying out for peace
    None is crying out for justice
    Everyone is crying out for peace
    None is crying out for justice
    I don't want no peace
    I man want equal rights and justice . . ."

    The first time I played the LP, the words hit me like a slap in the face. Tosh was well known at the time, and he was beginning to meet with American activists like Angela Davis and Stokely Carmichael. The song was almost always included in his stage performances, although he frequently changed the lines to

    "But there will be no peace
    Until man has equal rights and justice."

    Peter Tosh is not well known these days, which is deplorable. He is one of the few performers of his era who was truly an activist: he was arrested in civil right demonstrations against racism and endured at least two savage police beatings (fractured skull, broken hand, shattered ribs) for his stance on legalizing marijuana. He wrote songs in support of Pan-Africanism ("African" and "Mama Africa") and legalizing marijuana ("Legalize It," "Bush Doctor," and "Buk-n-ham Palace") and described in detail the plight and frustrations of people of African descent through dozens of songs, including "Apartheid," "Babylon Queendom," "400 Years," "You Can't Blame the Youth," and "Not Goa Give It Up." With Bob Marley, Tosh composed the anthemic demand for civil rights, "Get Up, Stand Up."

    Tosh was brilliant, and he was an excellent musician also. I suspect scholars might well find that his work included some of the earliest articulations of several of the major story lines of 1970s and 1980s protests.

  41. Rebecca Miller said,

    August 25, 2014 @ 2:30 pm

    My apologies: I somehow missed the earlier comment from Mr. Briggs, who also believes Peter Tosh is the source of the phrase.

  42. Leif said,

    September 30, 2014 @ 1:55 am

    This is from over a year ago, but I came upon this article when trying to check on a potential earlier origin. Specifically, there is a quote widely attributed to Emiliano Zapata, "Si no hay justicia para el pueblo, que no haya paz para el gobierno". I haven't found a definitive source for the quote, but it's widely attributed on the internet, and would definitely predate any of the 60s or even 50s uses that have been commented on above. It's worth mentioning that it's also a lot more explicit about its conditionality, and that (as far as I know) there is no equivalent short and sweet spanish slogan.

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