Clarifying what we mean by violence

The political context of violence should determine how we judge it, says Brian Bean.

IN THE wake of a successful protest at the University of California-Berkeley that ran right-wing troll Milo Yiannopoulis off campus, there has been much discussion and debate about the strategy and tactics of organizing against the right, particularly its more nefarious flavors.

As a part of that discussion, I have heard it said often, in defenses of the protesters against the right, that "property damage is not violence." The intention of this argument is largely correct, but I don't think it is a useful formulation for the left. Though this is minor quibble, I think it is worth looking at.

"Property damage is not violence" carries with it the assumption that violence is a category to be avoided in the discussion about this-or-that tactic. This assumption roots the phrase--even if not intended by the user--in a formulation that could be misunderstood as pacifist--the belief that violence in all cases is something to be avoided.

While most who say that property damage is not violence are not making this argument, we should be careful to not adopt formulations that I think make our political arguments--against the cult of property, pacifism and also tactics we disagree with--less clear.

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OBVIOUSLY, MOST often when this phrase is used, it is not done from a position of pacifism, but to push back against the rank hypocrisy of the mass media and polite society, which wring their hands about the occasional breaking of a window, but either hide or understate the perpetuation of violence at the hands of the state via bombs, war and cops, by corporations' pollution and devastation, and by capitalism's crushing poverty.

This hypocrisy is present in the often-used "protesters clash with police" phrase--when 9.5 times out of 10, the event was less a tete-a-tete clash than harsh repression by police against nonviolent demonstrators.

When people say that property damage is not violence, they usually mean to express opposition to private property occupying a hallowed place of honor and protection under capitalism, while human life is rendered expendable and worthless, with the exception of the labor force required to work the machines of the rulers and crank out their profits.

I think comrades are clear that the main point of saying this is to express the belief that broken lives are more important than broken windows.

I would say that it is possible--and more forceful--to make that political point without saying that property destruction is not violent.

One can purely point out the hypocrisy of the warped priorities of those who put profit above people. Saying that it's not violence is not needed to make the point that--to quote a comrade of mine--"there is a system that is revolted by windows being smashed, but not by the systematic murder and decimation of human life by the system that the window smashers are protesting." We can just say that.

I think we should not shy away from talking about violence. We should say, "Of course property destruction is violence," but then note that this neither automatically makes it something to be avoided nor necessarily desirable.

The question of violence shouldn't be approached morally, but fused with a revolutionary understanding of tactics and strategy. We should neither automatically disavow violence as impermissible in the revolutionary struggle, nor slide into the never-criticism morass of "diversity of tactics."

While nonviolent struggle is certainly desirable and the most effective way to build a truly mass resistance, it will at times be necessary to defend our movements, our meetings and our organizations from those who seek to do us harm. This is different than property damage carried out by cliques or individual acts of terror. Debating out, on a non-moral basis, the tactics to take us forward as a class are essential, and I don't need to add anything to the specific debate around the events at the University of California-Berkley, to which the recent SocialistWorker.org article by Mukund Rathi is a stellar contribution.

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SO IF this is a minor point, why make it? I think because we want to promote an analysis of violence that is contextualized in a class-based approach that is different than the transcendental morality promoted by bourgeois society.

If property destruction is "not violence," would we say that when an Israeli tank bulldozes a Palestinian home, it is not violence? Or that it is not violence when a racist sets fire to a Black church?

Certainly not. We would say that it is violence--and what distinguishes it from, say, a youth in Baltimore setting a cop car ablaze in a uprising against the police is not the category of "violence," but the fact that one is the violence of the oppressors and the other is the violence of the oppressed, which--to quote Ta-Nehisi Coates--is no more "correct" or "wise" than a forest fire can be "correct" or "wise."

It is not the action, but the political context of the action, that should determine our judgment of it. George Zimmerman pulled the trigger and murdered Trayvon Martin. Marissa Alexander pulled the trigger of a gun and fired a warning shot at her husband.

One is the violence of a racist vigilante murder. We called for the jailing of Zimmerman, though the state let him go. The other is the act of self-defense against an abusive, estranged husband. We called for Alexander to be freed, though the state attempted to lock her away for 20 years.

We train ourselves with a method for explaining the world this way, and we should do so with those around us--and the scores of people radicalizing around us for whom these are big questions.

We do ourselves no favor by mincing words about what is and what is not violence. We need not subtly and implicitly disavow some violence in order to simultaneously critique it as particular tactic. We can do this without insisting that "property destruction is not violence."