decoding non-violent rhetoric

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by dean spade

My friend A.D. told me this story: She was in Philli during the RNC. She was doing an action that involved blocking a street. Her and some others were picking up cars and moving them to block the intersection. (I was terribly impressed that their combined effort could lift cars.) At various moments, other protestors passing by yelled out, “Stop doing that, we’re non-violent.” One group even approached police to report what A.D.’s group was doing, putting the car-lifters at greater risk of arrest and all of its concomitant dangers.

I was shocked by A.D.’s story. I knew that a lot of mass protest discourse this year (particularly after the news coverage of the Seattle events) had focused on disavowing the actions of window-breakers and other property destroyers among the protesters. However, I had figured that this disavowal was mostly for the benefit of the media, and that people didn’t really take it to heart. However, A.D.’s story suggests that many of her fellow convergers at the RNC demos felt strongly enough about protecting private property and avoiding what they interpreted as violence both to scold their comrades and invite police intervention.

A.D.’s story and some recent disturbing conversations I’ve had with self-proclaimed pacifist white, upper-class direct action activists made me want to do some exploring about the racial politics of the pacifist ethic in current US contexts and to suggest some of the limits of a simplistic analysis of the question of violence and property destruction in our activism. What follows are some of the bones I want to pick with these folks.

What gets called violence?

The pacifist-identified activists I’ve argued with have all had a serious problem with failing to take a critical perspective to what gets called violence and what doesn’t. They often make the argument that we must resist any opportunity to start violence, because once we “bring it to that level” there is no turning back and we justify violent response from the state. These arguments rely on an assumption that violence isn’t already present and integral the global situation, that it isn’t already at “that level.” They are forgetting or missing the fact that people are already dying in this struggle: starving, being made homeless, having their lands and cultures stolen and stripped, being raped, killed, enslaved, tortured and imprisoned, being denied healthcare, etc. When people who do not directly experience, and may in fact benefit from, the US government’s war on the poor and people of color domestically and worldwide suggest that activists taking up arms initiates violence, they rely on an unacceptable denial of how violence permeates life in this country. This is particularly troubling when it comes from activists who are familiar with current life-threatening and life-taking actions of the government and private sector, but selectively forget when they admonish their fellow activists not to respond with violence or property destruction.

When activists with access to privilege/comfort in the current system advocate absolute non-violence and dismiss or scorn those who consider armed resistence or property destruction, they fail to take into account how such tactics can operate as self-defense. The decisions of AIM members or Black Panthers to arm themselves in the face of overt and covert attacks by police, FBI, and military machines intent upon killing/imprisoning them and destroying their organizations is hardly unreasonable. Failing to consider the contexts in which activists take up arms, and relying instead upon some uncritical mantra of non-violence, participates in the production of images of armed activists as “dangerous extremists” already being promoted by government and media machines that we should be opposing. There is a long tradition in the US of only considering a situation “violent” when a white person is hurt or killed, and ignoring the injuries and deaths of people of color that usually outnumber and often precipitate the incident in which a white person’s life is taken. (Eg., incidents at the Pine Ridge Reservation in the mid-seventies, where dozens and dozens of murders of Indians went uninvestigated while the self-defensive murders of two white FBI agents resulted in the largest manhunt in US history, the trials of numerous AIM members, and the wrongful imprisonment of Leonard Peltier.)

Finally, the suggestion of pacifist-identified activists that violent resistence would “raise it to that level,” and concomitantly that it isn’t already at “that level” denies the complicity of those activists in a system that perpetuates violence. A fundamental step to changing systems of dominations is recognizing your own investment and complicity in them. The belief that if you don’t take up arms against the government you are avoiding violence ignores that everytime you buy something, own something, live somewhere, you are participating in and often benefitting from economies of violence, particularly if you are white, a US citizen, or an upper-class person. The ability of pacifist-identified people to draw a clean line in their minds about where violence starts, and to believe that they can live lives free of violent acts, and that it is violent resistance to the government that incites violence, represents an erasure of the lived experiences of people currently subjected to violence at the hands of the government and private interests.

Is property destruction violence?

Perhaps most surprising in A.D.’s story is hearing that so many people believe that moving cars is violent. I had already been troubled by the feverish disavowal of window-breakers in Seattle, and rock-throwers in LA at the DNC protests, but I had understood it as a strategic response to the media’s portrayal of the protestors as unruly hoodlums deserving the onslaught of police violence they met. However, hearing stories like A.D.’s has led me to understand that many attendees of these mass actions actually believe that vandalism or property destruction (or relocation) amounts to violence and should be avoided on principle. Some seem to believe that it is just wrong, others that it invites bad press. For the first group, I am disturbed to think that they believe that private property should be protected, rather than redistributed as quickly as possible. Such a belief legitimizes the current distribution of property, and supports capitalism. Using the word “violence” to describe an activity like breaking a corporate window, moving a car, or throwing a rock at the Staples Center demeans the experience of violence against humans.

For the latter group, who are concerned with press response to property destruction, I would suggest that the corporate-dominated press is not about to engage in fair reporting, and curtailing our tactics in pursuit of a good report will only whittle our effectiveness down progressively. Whether we break windows or not, whether we disavow those who do or not, we will be portrayed as extremists. I say we pursue change, we don’t thwart the efforts of our comrades who choose different methods of seeking change than us, and we watch carefully for the dangers involved in tailoring ourselves toward a conservative mainstream press. If the fear is that the media will portray us as a threat to capitalism and private property, I say, yes, I hope we do threaten those things. I don’t see justice without redistribution, and I don’t want to be a part of activism that seeks change without threatening the current distribution of wealth.

US activists who uncritically adopt a rhetorical committment to nonviolence, and participate in shunning radical movements which use or consider tactics of armed self defense, violent resistance, property destruction, or illegal wealth redistribution implicitly (sometimes explicitly) support the following myths:

1. that the people currently under the forced influence of US policy have access to political influence sufficient that non-violent actions on their part will ensure their survival and the delivery of just resolution to their conflicts

2. that the situations to which activists are responding are not already violent. In particular, they support the covering up of realities about how economic, educational, penal, housing, health, policing, and military policy already involve direct violence against individuals and groups with varied horrific results including death.

3. that we, as activists and US residents and citizens, are not participants in the violent systems of our government and private interests, and therefore are already engaged in violence. The violence does not start when we engage armed resistance or illegal wealth redistribution---and in fact these tactics may be effective tools for curtailing some widespread state-sponsored violence.

4. that groups who respond to racism/poverty/imperialism with violence or property destruction, including armed self-defense organizations and so-called “rioters,” are indeed “extremists,” “self-destructive,” and “inviting police backlash” or other negative results.

I think it is our responsibility as radical opponents to racism, imperialism, and economic domination to not shut out any tactic that may be instrumental in restructuring power relations. It is time to let go of knee-jerk responses about violence and non-violence and critically engage conversations about what tactics may be effective.

Recommended Readings

Pacifism as Pathology, by Ward Churchill.
The COINTELPRO Papers: Documents from the FBI’s Secret Wars Against Dssent in the United States, eds. Ward Churchill and Jim Vander Wall.
Prison Writings: My Life Is My Sundance, Leonard Peltier
Soledad Brother: The Prison Letters of George Jackson
The Autobiography of Angela Davis
Franz Fanon, The Wretched of the Earth, “Concerning Violence”
Globalization and Postmodern Politics, Roger Burbach
Whose Trade Organization?, Wallach and Sforza

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