When Violence is the Answer
Power, Protest, and Political Uprising
There is never a point in time when protest is unimportant, or when various methods of resistance can afford to go unexplored and unevaluated. Social movements are always crucial in improving quality of life. This current political and cultural climate in particular is spurring much discussion about the necessity and nature of social movements and resistance, and about how they should and should not be done. But much of this discussion is incomplete. We fail to recognize the ever-present hegemony within the discourse of resistance, deployed to limit the options and efficacy of those fighting for better lives. It is necessary to speak plainly about this hegemony, about the nature of power and the state, and how they impact resistance methods and undermine social movements.
As a starting point, we must recognize the state and those hoarding power and resources will always attempt to dictate the terms of acceptable resistance to those opposing them. These terms will always be those that pose little threat of redistributing their power and resources equitably to people in need. And tellingly, the method of resistance those in power must suppress and eliminate before all others is violence.
Violence, as well as property destruction, poses a significant threat to those in power, so it is quashed at all costs, often preemptively, with the state’s own direct violence in the form of security, police, military, and incarceration. But more insidiously, cultural norms perpetuated through media and policy discredit and suppress violence and property destruction as viable resistance tactics. Often violent protests are obscured even as legible political statements. If violence occurs, media and government refuse to accurately identify and contextualize the movement, its motivation, and its goals. We ourselves succumb to this hegemony and default to viewing such methods as illegitimate, as disqualifying the validity of liberation that’s being fought for. This is exactly the attitude the state wants us to have about violence and property destruction. It is this lesson the state explicitly teaches and conditions into us so it can minimize the threat and protect its power. And whether confronting the state, forces of fascism, neo-liberalism, or the barbaric wealth consolidation of late capitalism, methods of popular resistance cannot be left to erode, be it from direct physical threat or this placating cultural indoctrination.
Always Already Violent
For all its emphasis on nonviolence as a means of seeking justice, we must recognize that our culture already accepts and embraces direct physical violence and property theft/destruction as a response to conflict. Always has. It just only does so when it is wielded by the state itself. In the U.S., from Native genocide, land theft, to slavery, to the current day when society shrugs off violence enacted by police on children and peaceful unarmed civilians as necessary. When it shrugs off the violence of the U.S. military on foreign people thousands of miles away as necessary to our safety at home. When it shrugs off the mass incarceration of our own people as deserved punishment. When it shrugs off the continued violation of Native bodies and homes. And so many more examples of direct bodily harm. It is not only taken for granted that actions of state institutions such as police and military must include violence and property destruction/seizure, it is actively promoted, encouraged, and glorified, even made out to be heroic.
It is only when violence and property destruction/seizure are located as a tool of resisting already widespread institutionalized state violence that we are intensely socialized and pressured to denounce them as immoral and invalidating. This specious, hypocritical, and hollow morality criminalizes and automatically characterizes any violent or destructive acts of protest as invalid, as undermining the political positions of those who are fighting.
The state does this for good reason. It does this precisely because these tactics are effective.
The state’s position on violent and/or destructive protest is not one of morality. Just the opposite. It is a calculated method of consolidating and retaining power over disadvantaged people. It is monopolizing violence as a means of power and control valid only for use by the state, where it is classified euphemistically as protection, security, and for our own good. Never as the violence it actually is.
The power dynamics of capitalism, fascism, neoliberalism, colonialism and other forms of oppression do not restrict themselves. How can those resisting these powers restrict themselves and expect any gains? Especially when disenfranchised people already start at an enormous disadvantage against a powerful and institutionalized state? To put it plainly, if the economies and government of a society repeatedly prove unwilling or incapable of granting marginalized people more power and access to better living conditions, violence and property destruction are not only justifiable methods of achieving more humane living conditions for the masses, but fundamentally necessary ones. And make no mistake about the nature of the state—it is always unwilling to give up power.
Furthermore, this is not the radical, extreme, irresponsible, harmful, self-defeating position the state would have it appear to be. In such intolerable social contexts, violence and property destruction/seizure are rational, common-sense solutions to improving life conditions. When labor rights to unionize, strike, and divest are taken away or aren’t feasible for hand-to-mouth working people; when protests are dispersed and make little impact on the lives of those in power; when monopolies and life circumstances render boycotts feckless; when voting, marching, making phone calls, and writing letters does little to combat poverty and skyrocketing income inequality, little access to life opportunities, shredded basic survival safety nets, rampant covert and overt discrimination … what other recourse do people have?
Combine this lack of any other means of effecting change, with the inevitable realization that all these harmful living conditions themselves are unprovoked and inherently violent actions purposefully engineered by the state. Actions that result in people suffering and dying from lack of resources. At this point, it’d be misguided or downright self-destructive not to recognize “radicalization” and violent protest as what it truly is in this scenario: logical and justified retaliation, finally fighting back. One cannot respect the state’s demand for nonviolent protest once we recognize the covert violence it wages indirectly through its institutions, and the overt, direct physical violence it enacts through police, prisons, and the military upon marginalized populations domestically and across borders. From war and incarceration, to its hoarding and denial of wealth and resources from the populace, inaccessible health care built on profiteering, its open neglect and contempt for the well-being of workers, the poor, racial, religious, and sexual minorities, the state is always already violent.
Violence and Power
We cannot have a discussion about the ethics of violence without explicitly examining these social contexts and power dynamics. Who has power and resources and who doesn’t? Is overt or covert violence already present? Who is using violence against whom? How are they doing so? In response to what conditions? To what ends? It is not hard for us to see the justifiable difference between the heads of a powerful state guarding its excesses by using violence and incarceration against resource-deprived people seeking equity vs. persecuted resource-deprived people retaliating against a violent state to end harmful living conditions. The violence in these situations is not the same because the power dynamics are not the same. One cannot “sink to the level” of a violent oppressor when the violence waged against them seeks to end a years-long oppression that hoards resources and harms the disadvantaged, as opposed to upholding it.
These things are often difficult to realize because the narrative, meanings, and connotations of violence are controlled by the state (state power, particularly in the U.S., increasingly existing merely as a front for multinational corporate capitalism). So one must continually ask: How does this society define and categorize violence? As stated previously, state-enacted violence is rarely characterized as such. It is instead propagated as bringing order, protection, or a tough-love incentive for people to pull themselves out of harmful conditions, regardless of whether they are actually able to do so. Police attacking and incarcerating “suspicious people” or protesters instead becomes restoring order and protecting peaceful citizens. Military attacking people across borders is pre-emptive security or aiding foreign residents at risk. Prohibitive access and astronomical costs for health care is a lack of personal responsibility and incentive to do better, as is inability to afford adequate food or housing due to lack of a livable income.
Violence instead is located—purposefully placed via dominant discourse—within resistance to the state. Often regardless of whether resistance is actually violent or not. Lawful peaceful protest is regularly characterized as disrespectful disruption, and a justifiable reason for the state to respond with actual physical violence. The dominant discourse of our culture then reliably frames such a dynamic as “a protest turning violent,” or “inciting violence,” rather than as the state wielding violence and attacking protesters whose actions did not harm other human beings.
Property destruction is of particular interest within these manipulated meanings and shifted definitions. Property itself as a concept and institution constitutes a grisly history of violence, particularly in colonized lands. The U.S. has seen ongoing land theft, genocide, and disenfranchisement of Natives, and the enslavement of African and Black people to work the land for the profit of white settlers, discriminatory real estate practices, the attribution of legal rights and protections to property that supersede the freedom and body autonomy of a trespasser or vandal, the sanctioned destruction of environmental conditions that affect all people, and more. Property is and always has been justification for violence. But while the state seizing, holding, and exploiting natural land at the expense of human beings’ lives is never characterized as violence at the time it occurs, destroying inanimate objects while acting in resistance to state power always is. To be clear—this is not destruction or exploitation of the land or environment itself, as the state condones, but rather the broken windows of a bank, the damage of a police car, or the possessions of the wealthy.
Yet because state power in the U.S. is so extensively capitalist and privatized, the domain of what qualifies as violence shifts from harm done to people, to harm done to property, to productivity, to profit, to business.
In the capitalist state, smashing the empty storefront of an exploitative multinational bank or business is violence. Releasing tear gas, physically attacking, Tasering, shooting, beating with a club, and incarcerating people who break inanimate objects is establishing order.
This phenomenon uniquely reveals itself in the shifting discourse of history. Many rebellious events and actions are perceived and categorized as violent, disruptive, or out-of-line at the time they occur, but in achieving socially beneficial goals become appropriated by the state itself. Often violence becomes muted or the actions are represented as ethically righteous once the state exploits successful rebellions as justly integrated into its own power structure, as part of what makes its authority ethical and of value to the people. The American Revolution was violent protest, but we see it today as justified, honorable, righteous, and fundamental to the nature of the state. The Civil War is also characterized as the righteous state of the North fighting for a humanitarian ethic and national unification. The strikes, demonstrations, and other actions in Labor Movement were violent and won better working and living conditions for everyone—achievements now appropriated as the nature of a reformable state and its society. Suffragettes incited and endured violence, which we hear little about. The Civil Rights Movement is painted as nonviolent and righteous today, but was not perceived that way at the time, and many of its leaders refused to espouse nonviolence. The Stonewall Rebellion is increasingly appropriated as a sanitized and civil protest, celebrated and condoned by the state today as evidence of its tolerance, instead of honoring it as what it was—a violent riot led by trans women of color sex workers seeking to harm police officers.
Once violent protest achieves its goals and forces the state to concede some amount of its power to benefit the people, the state appropriates the movement and its achievements. And as discussed previously, at that point, its actions become just, righteous, and no longer classifiable as merely violence, because it now belongs to the state.
Violent riots instead become the birth or redemption of the state, a justification for the state itself.
Their sanitized image becomes evidence that state power and capitalism allow for reform, and have people’s well-being at heart. But this is never the case. It is always instead the violent rebellion that pushes for more humane treatment from the state and establishment power when other options prove toothless. It is the violence itself that prioritizes people’s well-being.
Violence and Nonviolence
One may make the case that violent protest or property destruction are unethical because nonviolent protest methods are just as effective. This is certainly the position the state endlessly trumpets through media and popular uncritical pedagogy. (This alone should make one dubious of the claim.) But if one investigates further, it is clear that humanitarian social movements never achieve enduring change without violent demand, or the threat of violent demand. Even those state-sanitized movements that propaganda holds up as examples of the power and efficacy of nonviolent appeal, such as Indian independence from Britain, ending apartheid in South Africa, or the U.S. Civil Rights Movement all relied on violence and the threat of violence to make their gains. And these were not just separate factions and lesser known leaders of these struggles and movements. Even Martin Luther King, Jr., Nelson Mandela, and Gandhi, specifically, whose legacies have been appropriated as the paragons of nonviolent resistance, all courted and incited state violence themselves, refused to condemn it outright as a tool of resistance, and even endorsed or practiced it at times, as the sources above (and so so many more ) detail. Despite their well-known advocacy of nonviolence, they all recognized violence had its time and place. These facts about these leaders’ lives are not included in the discourse perpetuated by the state, so as to paint, appropriate, and use their legends for its own preferred goals. These facts are omitted because doing so is elemental in limiting contemporary resistance merely to nonviolence, thus posing little threat to state power.
As has been restated and expounded upon many times before and since Frederick Douglass perhaps most concisely put it: “Power concedes nothing without a demand—it never did and it never will.” Nonviolence alone does not constitute a demand to the state. Demand must have power behind it. The state is more than capable at manipulating “democracy” and its institutions to insulate itself from demand, confrontation, and accountability. Nonviolent protest alone can simply be ignored and brushed away. Violent protest and property destruction cannot, because they can begin to affect the lives of those commanding the state’s power structures. Because they can pose a threat. They can create fear.
Violent protest and property destruction can effect change without nonviolent protest, but nonviolent protest will never effect change without others who are violent or who threaten violence.
It is specifically because of others’ violence and threats that the state can be pressured to deal with a nonviolent movement and acquiesce to some of their demands. Nonviolent movements’ sole bargaining chip with the state is to say, “You can deal with them in the streets and risk property destruction, the disruption of businesses, casualties among your officials and enforcement, and risk further radicalizing an already violent uprising if you attempt to suppress it with your own disproportionate violence. Or you can negotiate with us peacefully here at this table. Maybe they will cease if you grant our demands. But each passing day you fail to negotiate peacefully with us, more and more people join them, concluding that only violence will achieve results.”
It is no coincidence that in the years since the propaganda of nonviolence as the proper way to protest permeated media culture since the Civil Rights Movement that social movements have done little to combat the erosion of previous gains on various issues, as well as continued injustice on others. Radically growing wealth inequality and unrepentant capitalism, continued racial discrimination, an expanding prison industrial complex, a violent and militarized police system with little accountability, rampant transphobia, loss of labor and union power, unaffordable for-profit health care, gutted social services, unaffordable housing markets, military waging perpetual war, restricted abortion and women’s rights, environmental rollbacks, fascists and white supremacists entrenched in government, etc. These are problems nonviolent resistance alone did not, does not, and will not solve.
Rhetorically, it is easy to say and recognize that violent resistance is necessary to improve living conditions. It is, however, not so simple to personally or collectively choose to employ targeted violence and property destruction against the state or capitalist powers. Contemporary society’s police are now militarized, camera and data surveillance is omnipresent, the propaganda of nonviolence is so pervasive that even those within movements turn on those who necessarily employ it. This may make it seem to many that it is riskier than ever. And while today’s technology certainly distinguishes different challenges for this time period, this feeling of helplessness and hesitancy at the circumstances, or just wanting the right moment with lower risk to engage in violent resistance is the same as it has ever been. The surveillance and militarized police of present day are not more threatening, violent, or seemingly inescapable than the forces of oppression fought by the enslaved or disenfranchised of the past.
Violent protest and property destruction are never safe to engage in. There is more risk. Nonviolent protest often isn’t safe either, particularly for targeted minorities. And while strength in numbers mitigates the risk of both, engaging in violence always presents the danger of getting caught up in it. It would be nice to be able to outline a methodology of violent protest that minimized risk and harm to those fighting for humane treatment, but that is the realm of practical tactics and legal maneuvering, not political theory. The fact remains, violent protest and property destruction is a risky, dangerous strategy. But for many who feel compelled or have little choice but to employ it, daily life under the boot of the capitalist state, under white supremacy, under colonialism, under transphobia, under misogyny—that is risky and dangerous as well.
One might be inclined to incur the risk of fighting back to end the risk of rampant victimization.
This is not a position one reaches casually—it is no small decision. The acceptance and practice of political violence is not to be taken lightly. What is needed, at the very least, is the willingness to recognize that violence and property destruction are indeed effective. That violence and property destruction are valid and important political statements and actions, and that they can be justified strategies for liberation. The willingness to recognize that, yes, there is a time and a place for violence. The willingness to recognize that social change for the better always involves violence.
Then we can begin to ask ourselves the tougher questions. Are we willing to be violent when the time and place arrive? And is that time and place, here and now? If not, when? How strong a grip does persecution, inequality, poverty, and corruption have to have before one finally gets off the ropes to throw a punch? How explicit does fascism and class warfare have to get before one realizes violence is all the state ever answers to? How long can one wait before it is too late? And for how many people is it already too late?
“Those who make peaceful revolution impossible will make violent revolution inevitable.”
— John F. Kennedy
“We are nonviolent with people who are nonviolent with us.”
— Malcolm X
“In order for nonviolence to work, your opponent must have a conscience.”
— Stokely Carmichael
“Generally speaking, violence always arises out of impotence. It is the hope of those who have no power.”
— Hannah Arendt
“But it is not enough for me to stand before you tonight and condemn riots. It would be morally irresponsible for me to do that without, at the same time, condemning the contingent, intolerable conditions that exist in our society. These conditions are the things that cause individuals to feel that they have no other alternative than to engage in violent rebellions to get attention. And I must say tonight that a riot is the language of the unheard.”
— Martin Luther King Jr.
“As I have walked among the desperate, rejected and angry young men I have told them that Molotov cocktails and rifles would not solve their problems. … But they asked — and rightly so — what about Vietnam? They asked if our own nation wasn’t using massive doses of violence to solve its problems, to bring about the changes it wanted. Their questions hit home, and I knew that I could never again raise my voice against the violence of the oppressed in the ghettos without having first spoken clearly to the greatest purveyor of violence in the world today — my own government.”
— Martin Luther King, Jr.
“Concerning nonviolence, it is criminal to teach a man not to defend himself when he is the constant victim of brutal attacks.”
— Malcolm X
“If violence is wrong in America, violence is wrong abroad. If it is wrong to be violent defending black women and black children and black babies and black men, then it is wrong for America to draft us, and make us violent abroad in defense of her. And if it is right for America to draft us, and teach us how to be violent in defense of her, then it is right for you and me to do whatever is necessary to defend our own people right here in this country.”
— Malcolm X
“Has not some American ancestor said, many years ago, that resistance to tyranny is obedience to God? And he was not an Anarchist even. It would say that resistance to tyranny is man’s highest ideal. So long as tyranny exists, in whatever form, man’s deepest aspiration must resist it as inevitably as man must breathe. Compared with the wholesale violence of capital and government, political acts of violence are but a drop in the ocean. That so few resist is the strongest proof how terrible must be the conflict between their souls and unbearable social iniquities. High strung, like a violin string, they weep and moan for life, so relentless, so cruel, so terribly inhuman. In a desperate moment the string breaks. Untuned ears hear nothing but discord. But those who feel the agonized cry understand its harmony; they hear in it the fulfillment of the most compelling moment of human nature. Such is the psychology of political violence.”
— Emma Goldman
“To resort to violence in view of outrageous events or conditions is enormously tempting because of the immediacy and swiftness inherent in it. It goes against the grain of rage and violence to act with deliberate speed; but this does not make it irrational. On the contrary, in private as well as public life there are situations in which the very swiftness of a violent act may be the only appropriate remedy. The point is not that this will permit us to let off steam—which indeed can be equally well done by pounding the table or by finding another substitute. The point is that under certain circumstances violence, which is to act without argument or speech and without reckoning with consequences, is the only possibility of setting the scales of justice right again. … In this sense, rage and the violence that sometimes, not always, goes with it belong among the “natural” human emotions, and to cure man of them would mean nothing less than to dehumanize or emasculate him.”
— Hannah Arendt
“People with power understand exactly one thing: violence.”
― Noam Chomsky
“Political power grows out of the barrel of the gun.”
― Mao Zedong
“A revolution is not a dinner party, or writing an essay, or painting a picture, or doing embroidery; it cannot be so refined, so leisurely and gentle, so temperate, kind, courteous, restrained and magnanimous. A revolution is an insurrection, an act of violence by which one class overthrows another.”
― Mao Zedong