30 May 2020   1 comment

The protests over the killing of George Floyd in Minneapolis are actually protests over the deaths of many African-American people at the hands of police in the US. We have seen these protests before, but these protests are also taking place against the backdrop of the COVID-19 pandemic which has differentially affected blacks in the US, exposing the failure of the US health establishment to protect the health of minorities. These protests have been accompanied by acts of violence which have elicited condemnations from government officials and private citizens who argue that violence is “not the answer”.

But what is the answer?

These condemnations are based on two concerns. The first is that violence is always undesirable and represents a failure of rational discourse to solve problems. The second objection is tactical: violence will alienate possible allies and inflame those who would use violence to suppress violence. I will discuss the first concern, and address the second concern in tomorrow’s post.

There is a great deal of power to the first objection, but it fails to address the central problem: the fact that violence against African-Americans seems to be solidly entrenched in US culture and that all efforts to prevent these acts of violence have failed. The position weakens even further if it is the case that agents of the state–the police–are the ones using violence against minorities. Why should the laws of a state that fails to control its own sources of physical power be obeyed?

Much depends on how one wishes to define violence. Certainly torching a police car is violent, as is smashing windows of commercial enterprises. But is starvation violent? Do we decide to not characterize it as violent because it is mediated by market capitalism which “impartially” decides who gets to eat and who doesn’t get to eat? What about evictions? Are the non-violent because they are carried out by representatives of financial institutions, who wear three-piece suits, and the police, who wear uniforms designed and paid for by the state?

Johan Galtung developed a theory of structural violence in 1969 which serves to break out of the narrow definition of violence as a discrete act committed by an individual in contravention of established legal and social norms. “James Gilligan defines structural violence as ‘the increased rates of death and disability suffered by those who occupy the bottom rungs of society, as contrasted with the relatively lower death rates experienced by those who are above them’. Gilligan largely describes these ‘excess deaths’ as ‘non-natural’ and attributes them to the stress, shame, discrimination, and denigration that results from lower status.” 

Once we think about violence in this more expansive manner, then the violence that follows from protests that are unheard in more explicable (although perhaps still not justified). In his introduction to Frantz Fanon’s Wretched of the Earth, John-Paul Sartre explains why we should not be surprised if people who are oppressed turn to violence. After all, they have experienced nothing but violence from those who seek to control them:

“After that, when it is their turn to be broken in, when they are taught
what shame and hunger and pain are, all that is stirred up in them is a volcanic fury whose force is equal to that of the pressure put upon them. You said they understand nothing but violence? Of course; first, the only violence is the settler’s; but soon they will make it their own; that is to say, the same violence is thrown back upon us as when our reflection comes forward to meet us when we go toward a mirror.

Make no mistake about it; by this mad fury, by this bitterness and spleen, by their everpresent desire to kill us, by the permanent tensing of powerful muscles which are afraid to relax, they have become men: men because of the settler, who wants to make beasts of burden of them -because of him, and against him.

Fyodor Dostoyevsky understood the rage that fuels violent protests. In his novel, The Possessed there is a passage describing the burning of the mansion of a provincial governor named Lembke . Rioters had set the mansion on fire, but they had also burned many houses of ordinary people who lived along the river. The inevitability of violence when protests for reform are ignored is well articulated:

Lembke stood facing the lodge, shouting and gesticulating. He was giving orders which no one attempted to carry out. It seemed to me that every one had given him up as hopeless and left him. Anyway, though every one in the vast crowd of all classes, among whom there were gentlemen, and even the cathedral priest, was listening to him with curiosity and wonder, no one spoke to him or tried to get him away. Lembke, with a pale face and glittering eyes, was uttering the most amazing things. To complete the picture, he had lost his hat and was bareheaded.

“‘It’s all incendiarism! It’s nihilism! If anything is burning, it’s nihilism!’ I heard almost with horror; and though there was nothing to be surprised at, yet actual madness, when one sees it, always gives one a shock.

“’Your Excellency,’ said a policeman, coming up to him, ‘what if you were to try the repose of home? . . . It’s dangerous for your Excellency even to stand here.’

“This policeman, as I heard afterwards, had been told off by the chief of police to watch over [Lembke], to do his utmost to get him home, and in case of danger even to use force – a task evidently beyond the man’s power.

“’They will wipe away the tears of the people whose houses have been burnt, but they will burn down the town. It’s all the work of four scoundrels, four and a half! Arrest the scoundrel! He worms himself into the honor of families. They made use of the governesses to burn down the houses. It’s vile, vile! Aie, what’s he about?’ he shouted, suddenly noticing a fireman at the top of the burning lodge, under whom the roof had almost burnt away and round whom the flames were beginning to flare up. ‘Pull him down! Pull him down! He will fall, he will catch fire, put him out! . . . What is he doing there?’

“’He is putting the fire out, your Excellency.’

“’Not likely. The fire is in the minds of men and not in the roofs of houses. Pull him down and give it up! Better give it up, much better! Let it put itself out.’”

The violence we are witnessing in many US cities is, and has been made, inevitable. The photograph below is from the protests in Ferguson, MO after the shooting of Michael Brown in 2014 by Ferguson police. It portrays violence and the possibility of violence. Does it portray the inevitability of violence?

Posted May 30, 2020 by vferraro1971 in World Politics

One response to “30 May 2020

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  1. Dostoyevsky got it right!

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