Actually, Violence Is the Answer
On January 20, 2017, Richard Spencer, a prominent member of the Alt-Right -- which Spencer describes as “identity politics for white Americans and for Europeans around the world” -- is punched in the face. The punching of Spencer, whom others have characterized as a Nazi, is quickly celebrated in the tradition dictated by the Internet age -- by becoming a meme. Although the American tradition of violence against white nationalists is a rich one, the punching of Spencer has many people asking “Is it O.K. to Punch a Nazi?”
On February 1, 2017, Milo Yiannopoulos is scheduled to speak at the University of California, Berkeley. Protests against Yiannopoulos turn violent as black bloc protesters break windows, launch fireworks, and topple a lamp. Many at the University disavow the violence and place blame on what they believe to be outside agitators. One intrepid, first-year student at Berkeley writes in the New York Times that “violence doesn’t encourage social progress.”
There is something to be said about the liberal concern that violence may not be the answer to problems. Despite a rich history of a white, capitalist heteropatriarchal supremacy inflicting violence upon historically marginalized communities (see: slavery, police brutality, economic violence against women, the Reagan administration response to the AIDS crisis, ICE raids) -- Americans seem to be caught in a trap deliberately created by the State: the demand of non-violence as a response to violence. Non-violence is institutionalized as a moral high ground response, that to react with violence to systemic oppression and State sponsored domination is to be on the wrong side of the project of peace. As if peace is the result of non-violence rather than the result of justice.
Further, this “peace” is always constructed as a project of the State. As concluded in Cox v. New Hampshire (1941), though the United States government cannot control what is said during peaceful assembly, the government can place time, place, and manner restrictions on it in an effort to maintain public safety. In order to protest, you must first ask permission. The decision reads:
The authority of a municipality to impose regulations in order to assure the safety and convenience of the people in the use of public highways has never been regarded as inconsistent with civil liberties, but, rather, as one of the means of safeguarding the good order upon which they ultimately depend.
The civil liberties which allow the possibility for protest against the state depend on the “good order” that is imposed by the state. Just as much as one is free to rebel, this rebellion is dictated by the rules of the State.
In contemporary legislation, Louisiana's so-called “Blue Lives Matter” Bill was signed into law by Democrat governor John Bel Edwards in May of 2016. The bill adds law enforcement officers (retired, perceived, actual, etc.) as a class of individuals protected under hate-crime legislation. If a person intentionally harms an officer, or someone they believe to be a law enforcement officer, then they can be charged with a hate crime. This bill comes during a period in which local law enforcement agencies have received over 34 billion dollars in grants from the Department of Homeland security in order to buy military grade equipment, in addition to the five billion dollars worth of military equipment donated by the Department of Defense. 39 billion dollars worth of spending towards local law enforcement, if you’re keeping track at home, is more than the military expenditures in countries such as Germany, Brazil, South Korea, Iraq, Iran, Colombia, and China. In fact, 39 billion would rank ninth in the world for overall military expenditures. The photos that came out of the Ferguson protests in 2014 seemed surreal to many -- but with any luck, you too can find a tank near you.
In addition, in 2016 the police killed 1,092 civilians; in 2015, of the 60 largest police departments in the United States only one did not kill a civilian in 2015. The message is clear -- State sponsored violence is justice, reaction to this violence is unjustified hate.
The rhetoric of the police drives this message home. The police are law-enforcement, they enforce and uphold the laws. The primary motivation of these agencies is to preserve State control -- any civilian (and property) protection is a secondary outcome.
The militarization of the police, the killings of civilians by police, the rapid rhetorical response to valorize law enforcement agencies as heroes -- this is all part of the grand scheme of justification that is codified into law with bills such as the Blue Lives Matter bill. If attacks on a police officers are hate crimes -- making them a protected class of citizens who are actively sought out to harm -- then this violent reaction makes sense. It is anticipatory and it is justified.
Non-violent protest is consistent with the interests of the dominating State actor. If violence is the means by which control is enforced, then it seems reasonable to suggest that violence has always been the means by which to react to this control.
Writes Frantz Fanon: “Decolonization is always a violent event.”
The initial reaction may be -- “Why must I decolonize if I have never been colonized?”
To which Frantz Fanon writes: “The colonist and the colonized are old acquaintances. And consequently, the colonist is right when he says he 'knows' them. It is the colonist who fabricated and continues to fabricate the colonized subject. The colonist derives his validity, i.e., his wealth, from the colonial system.”
In the United States, because of the legacy of white, capitalist heteropatriarchal supremacy, the citizen has been colonized and subdued as they are crafted as citizens of this supremacy. We are only citizens so much as the system tells us we are -- our existence as Americans is dependent on a government-created document and numbering system. The laws in place are what let this fabrication endure, so long as we follow the law -- so long as we will be fabricated.
A brief interlude to illustrate:
In the prologue to Ralph Ellison’s Invisible Man, the Narrator describes an incident in which he bumps into a “tall blonde man” -- who curses to the Narrator. The Narrator reacts with violence -- kicking him, feeling the blonde man’s “flesh tear and the blood gush out,” continuing to kick him and preparing to slit the blonde man’s throat. Before he slits the man’s throat, the Narrator pauses to realize that the man had not seen him because of the Narrator’s nature of invisibility and absolves the man of his guilt. Later, the Narrator asks -- “Who was responsible for that near murder -- I?” He continues,
I don’t think so, and I refuse it. I won’t buy it. You can’t give it to me. He bumped me, he insulted me. Shouldn’t he, for his own personal safety, have recognized my hysteria, my “danger potential”? He, let us say, was lost in a dream world. But didn’t he control that dream world?
The Narrator is, of course, invisible by virtue of his black skin, so then the confrontation with the tall blonde man is a not just an incident of interpersonal violence but rather an incident of violence that upholds the world in which he lives -- this “dream world” that the tall blonde man has always been in control of. The Narrator is the victim here -- because he is the one who was bumped into, the one who was cursed -- the Narrator has never been in control.
The violent reaction of the Narrator is not a disruption of the order of the dream world, but instead the anticipated outcome in a world where the laws -- legislative and social -- not only anticipate violence but depend on them for justification. The white world has made the Narrator invisible, this invisibility is why the tall blonde man has bumped into the Narrator. The Narrator’s violent reaction, for the white world, justifies the erasure of the black from from the white world -- it must be the natural inclinations of the non-white towards violence and therefore they are less and subordinate, the erasure is justified.
When I say that violence has always been the answer, I am, for the most part, not speaking hyperbolically. Instead, I am speaking to the hundreds of years (in the case of the United States) where violence (psychological, emotional, economic) has been inflicted upon the citizenship by the State in an effort to suppress opposition and disrupt the laws and traditions that have dictated a way of life. Further, this way of life depends on the anticipation of oppositional violence in order to justify itself. In understanding this, we can see that violence -- in the tradition of Frantz Fanon -- is instrumental to the act of decolonization. In this way, violence is the problem. Violence is the justification. And violence is the answer.
To many, this will still seem radical -- despite historical evidence, it might seem that violence by the State may seem a temporally bound condition. If we have optimism, if we have outrage, then eventually we will reach liberation. To think teleologically is to think there is an understood order to decolonization -- to which Fanon responds: “decolonization, which sets out to change the order of the world, is clearly an agenda for total disorder.” Unwillingness to seek out disorder and disrupt and decolonize is not a moral high ground but continued subordination. Of pacifists, Jean-Paul Sartre writes:
The pacifists are a fine sight: neither victims nor torturers! Come now! If you are not a victim when the government you voted for and the army your young brothers served in, commits “genocide,” without hesitation or remorse, then you are undoubtedly a torturer….Get this into your head: if violence were only a thing of the future, if exploitation and oppression never existed on earth, perhaps displays of nonviolence might relieve conflict. But if the entire regime, even your nonviolent thoughts is governed by a thousand-year-old oppression, your passiveness serves no other purpose but to put you on the side of the oppressors.
Further, I am not appealing to desires for interpersonal violence -- no violent rape or domestic assault or hate crimes. Nor am I agreeing with the morally bankrupt rhetoric of the NRA -- that a "good" guy with a gun can stop a "bad" guy with a gun. Instead, this is a call to recognize State-inflicted violence as violence instead of justice delivered through the law and militarized police agencies. In recognizing this violence as violence we can begin to respond to this violence with the revolutionary violence that is necessary.
A concluding note: while the violence I have spoken of seems to be mostly of the “Give me liberty or give me death genre,” in this physical violence that ends in bloodshed -- or even worse, a broken lamp -- there is an imperative to conceive of violence beyond the physical. Revolutionary violence is the means by which the colonized can self-actualize, to regain their autonomy, to participate in the collective catharsis. Revolutionary violence goes beyond the physical, just as much as violence enacted by the state is non-physical, so can be revolutionary violence. Education, dissemination of information, solidarity and the building of coalitions which the law continuously tries to break -- perhaps this is where we can see revolutionary violence beyond the physical.
Cox vs. New Hampshire. 312 U.S. 569. United States Supreme Court. 1941
Ellison, Ralph. The Invisible Man. Random House, 1952.
Fanon, Frantz. Black Skin, White Masks. Grove Press, 1967
---. The Wretched of the Earth. Grove Press, 1963
Ramaiyer, Malini. "How Violence Undermined the Berkeley Protest." The New York Times. The New York Times Company , 02 Feb. 2017. Web. 27 Feb. 2017.
Stack, Liam. "Attack on Alt-Right Leader Has Internet Asking: Is It O.K. to Punch a Nazi?" The New York Times. The New York Times Company , 21 Jan. 2017. Web. 27 Feb. 2017.
Stare, Jean-Paul. Preface. The Wretched of the Earth by Frantz Fanon, Grove Press, 1963, pp: 7-35