Contemporary protests renew debates about whether or not violence is justified, raising questions about what even counts as violence. The demonstrations planned by right-wing groups for late August in Berkeley, to target the teaching of Marxism in universities, were cancelled by their organizers and then briefly revived by a small group of people who sought to hold their ground on the lawns adjacent to the city’s mayoral offices. A handful arrived with posters praising Trump and objecting to the ostensibly left leanings of the university. They were surrounded by thousands of counterdemonstrators, outnumbered and overwhelmed.
That would have been enough to “demonstrate” that the consensus was clearly against them. But some protestors on the left decided to harass, chase, and even physically assault their opposition. Their actions attracted media attention, even though they were but a small part of a larger protest that was a deliberately nonviolent assembly.
Some claimed that the violence was done by “Antifa,” others named “the Black Bloc,” without asking whether these two groups were the same. A calm walk through the crowd fairly quickly made clear that there were those opposed to fascism who were not part of Antifa; Antifa who were against violent tactics, actively practicing nonviolent resistance; and members of the Black Bloc who were not Antifa, but working in tentative alliance with them, who in the past have generally targeted property and not persons. There were others who were simply looking for a fight.
Still others were carrying on the love tradition well known in places like Berkeley. Still others thought that more important than opposition to fascism was opposition to racism. Many invoked peace and justice, defining themselves against hate and violence. Most of the love people had already scattered before a few of the counterprotestors decided to beat up on someone apparently distinguished only by the Trump sign he carried. Was their violence planned? If so, how did they justify such an action?
The debate between those who affirm and those who oppose violent tactics has taken on a new form. For some of those who claim that the electoral system brought a fascist to power, it is no longer possible to work within the law. Their reasons are various: the legal electoral process brought fascism to the government, and is therefore unjust; the law itself encodes and reproduces the economic violence of capitalism; the law is a tool of the state, and so an instrument of state violence that can only be undone through counterviolence.
Under conditions in which the law serves unjust state power, or serves an economic system that exercises its own violence, then independent, extralegal judgment and actions are required to oppose state violence. Resistance movements make use of tactics of disobedience, and so invariably debate the role of violence. Yet one reason those debates run into difficulty is that it seems as if violence and nonviolence are terms that are already twisted by the frameworks in which they appear: the state can decide to call certain actions “violent” because they are perceived as a threat to its monopoly on violence, even when those actions are nonviolent forms of expression, such as assembly, dissent, boycott, and strike. On the left, social structures and systems are regularly called violent even when the structure itself does not physically act, but gives rise to forms of subjugation and disenfranchisement that undermine the lives they affect.
In both cases, “violence” is no longer restricted to a physical set of acts. A demonstration can all too easily be called a “riot” when a university administration, a corporation, or a government seeks to justify the use of the army or police or security forces to quell dissent. A “boycott” can be labeled violent even when it is a deliberately nonviolent means of expressing a political objection. Such instances produce confusion about what we are arguing about when we are debating violence.
It seems as if violence and nonviolence are terms that are already twisted by the frameworks in which they appear.
At one end of the left spectrum are those who rally behind “by any means necessary” (BAMN), by which they mean that all tactics and strategies are justified if they oppose a racist or a fascist regime. And yet, would these same people agree to torture, to indefinite detention of their adversary, to political assassination? Elsewhere on that spectrum, however, are many who continue to reference the living tradition of Martin Luther King Jr., who called for and practiced nonviolent protest, and distributed leaflets on Gandhi’s philosophy at town meetings throughout the South.
These debates refer as well to the oppositional writing of Malcolm X and to Frantz Fanon’s “Concerning Violence,” although a close consideration of Fanon brings forward arguments both for and against violence at different points in his short career. Even revolutionary and anarchist tracts question whether violence has the power to bring about radical change. Sometimes the arguments against violence are tactical, other times they rest on principle.
For those of us who have taught the debate between violent and nonviolent tactics, a few key examples repeatedly surface. If you defend nonviolence as an unequivocal good, then what would you do if someone attacked a family member—would you not defend that member of your family, even if it meant doing violence to another person? Then there is the question that was posed in my Saturday morning synagogue classes: if the Nazis were on the rise or in power, would you, or would you not, become part of a resistance movement that included tactics of violence against their institutions, infrastructures, and representatives?
In the synagogue, we all agreed to let our otherwise principled views against nonviolence cede to the exception: we would fight. Fascism seemed, and still seems, to be the justifiable limit to nonviolence.1 And yet, the fascism we have in mind is Hitler’s or Mussolini’s. Those historical forms are not exactly the same as the present regime. Even if we can identify fascist strains in this government, does it count as fascism?
Indeed, as that argument enters the contemporary scene, it encounters some difficulties. Contemporary anti-fascists sometimes argue that there is a continuity between fascism then and now, and that we ought not to make the same mistake as people in the 1930s did by failing to recognize its emergence. As a result, they argue, a resistance movement must now include violent tactics, as it did in the righteous struggle against fascists in World War II. Justifying violence on these grounds presumes the continuity or analogy between the two historical instances. But has that been clearly established?
In the last few years, the student movement in South Africa has debated the use of tactics of violence and nonviolence against buildings and infrastructures at the university. Those who affirmed violent tactics made the historical argument that if violence was justified in the overthrow of the legal apartheid, and apartheid now continues to persist in contemporary economic and social forms, especially in the structure of the university, then violence is as justified in dismantling the persistent institutional afterlife of apartheid as it was in taking down the apartheid regime. Once again, is there a strict continuity? Are there, for instance, some black educational institutions that have been built post-Apartheid that ought not to be dismantled on such grounds?
Within the contemporary protest movements variously targeting the Trump regime, emergent fascism, state racism, or structural economic inequality, what form do these arguments take? Some would say that Trump is a fascist and has taken steps to produce a fascist regime; others would say that under deregulated and unrestrained forms of capitalism, political resistance must oppose the economic system in its totality: violence is necessary for radical transformation or, indeed, a revolution. Neither the Antifa nor the Black Bloc embrace every form of violence (and some of the former remain nonviolent), although presumably those who affiliate with BAMN do not set a limit on justifiable forms of violence as long as they are determined to help realize their goals.
For those who claim that violence is only a provisional tactic or tool, one challenge from a principled position is this: do we not already know that tools can use their users? The tool of violence is already operating in the world before anyone takes it up; the tool presupposes a world, and builds (and unbuilds) a specific kind of world. When we commit acts of violence, we are, in and through the act, building a more violent world.
What might at first seem to be a mere instrument to be discarded when its goal is accomplished turns out to be a praxis, a means that posits an end at the moment it is actualized; the means of violence posits violence as its end. In other words, through making use of violence as a means, one makes the world into a more violent place, one brings more violence into the world. One violence would have to be radically distinguished from another if the violence the left protestors use were to be distinguished from the violence they condemn. But violence, sadly, knows no such distinction.
When we commit acts of violence, we are, in and through the act, building a more violent world.
Violence becomes licensed by both the left and the right—and creates for many an even greater estrangement from the political sphere. More than half of eligible voters did not vote in the last election either because of voter suppression, the continuation of Jim Crow that disproportionately disenfranchises black and brown communities, or as a result of pervasive alienation and cynicism about the efficacy of the vote or the representative character of elections. Add to this the nefarious effect of Citizens United, which grants wealthy corporations the right to pour limitless amounts of money into campaigns in the name of a distorted version of “free speech.”
A minority elected this government, which means that the electoral result signifies a crisis in democratic politics. Violence only compounds the sense of hopelessness and skepticism about the possibility of practicing democracy, when that is precisely what we need most: the exercise of judgment, freedom, and power within the sphere of politics that can activate the true majority to drive Trump and his crew out of office.
Again, one can argue against violence both on principle and on practical grounds. It is of course ironic, if not appalling, that the members of the Black Bloc, a group of mainly white men emphatically able-bodied, decided to turn the police barricades into instruments of violence and destroyed part of the Martin Luther King Jr. Student Union on the UC Berkeley campus last spring. Did they think in advance about how painful it would be for many people to witness an attack on the building on campus that symbolizes and honors the struggle for civil rights?
Even if one shares the Bloc’s passionate opposition to racist and fascist politics, one can question whether they were right to force the cancellation of Breitbart editor Milo Yiannopoulos’s campus speaking event by producing this scene of violence. And what about their internal gender politics: what form of masculinity is being promoted here? Why are women seen trailing behind their able-bodied men? Is this a new form of anti-feminism on the left?
Nonviolence can be bold and aggressive, even manifest a kind of force. To mobilize now to expand democratic politics, to fight against segregation and white supremacy, we have to think carefully about how best to rally for that purpose. Protest is a way of voting on and with the streets, asserting a sense of the people that remains radically unrepresented by the “representative” government that exists. An assembly outside of the established assemblies, protest establishes the space and time for those disenfranchised to show up and be counted even when, or precisely when, the electoral count has failed them.
Perhaps it is the still vital tradition of Martin Luther King Jr. to whom we should return. King speaks about both radical democracy and nonviolence in his 1967 work, Where Do We Go from Here?, which sought to answer the question, what now? King understood that violence emerges from a lack of hope, and that as it emerges, it further destroys the last remnants of hope: “We maintained the hope while transforming the hate of traditional revolutions into positive nonviolent power. As long as the hope was fulﬁlled there was little questioning of nonviolence. But when the hopes were blasted, when people came to see that in spite of progress their conditions were still insufferable … despair began to set in.”
Appalled by an electoral outcome such as this one, we ought to address the radical exclusions that continue to afflict the system that produced this monstrous result. For those who no longer feel represented by politics, or never did, and especially for those forcibly barred from participation, there is profound hopelessness and outrage, and understandably so. The turn to violence, however, further destroys hope and augments the violence of the world, undoing the livable world. The task remains to rally the “we” with the power and desire to build the just and livable world.
- I remember years ago meeting an Auschwitz survivor who had married a man who was a conscientious objector during the Second World War, precisely someone who would not enter the war to save her. I did not at first understand how she could have married him, then I realized that she wanted to marry someone who would never have anything to do with war. That he himself died in an explosion in Lebanon showed that neither of them could fully control that fate. ↩