Mask Off: The Monopoly on Violence and Re-Invigorating an Anti-Imperialist Vision for Black Liberation

By Devyn Springer and Joel Northam

“I think anybody who is honestly struggling against racism must struggle against imperialism and vice versa.” — Assata Shakur

It is detrimental to Black liberation that we understand violence, as well as terrorism, as concepts entirely fed to us through an epistemic monopoly. There is a double standard and white supremacist monopoly on the concept of “violence” and while it is not surprising, it is deeply troubling. Who gets to define which forms of “violence” are acceptable, and who can perpetuate them, and who is responsible for unapproved violence? As Black people in the west, a stolen people on colonized land, that we get our very definition, normalization, and understanding of violence from our oppressors, masking themselves as civilizers and humanitarians, should be a troubling reminder of the reality of this monopoly on violence. Inside of this examination of violence, we are reminded of the importance of having a clear anti-imperialist stance within our visions of Black liberation because, as Malcolm X famously said, “the police do locally what the military does internationally.”

To further understand this monopoly on violence, especially in the context of Black liberation, one must have a functioning definition of hegemonic power. In short, the United States can be defined as the world’s hegemonic power; that means the US is dominant in virtually all political, economic, social, and cultural contexts, everywhere. This all-consuming, often unwavering domination is perpetuated through violence, but is rarely labeled as such. Through various coercive mechanisms of direct and indirect state violence the US maintains hierarchical power over other countries, and is responsible for the continually deepening disparities among the Three Worlds.

As we unmask the US’s hegemonic power, we find that it is maintained not only through sheer violent exploitation, but through perpetuating powerfully constructed western-centric epistemology as well. Within this epistemology, or societal perception of truth, validity, and opinion, the concept of “violence” is constructed at a young age to be something always done unto the US and never perpetuated by the US. The US would not paint itself as an aggressor in any instance, presenting subjects like slavery, colonialism, and foreign regime changes through a lens of benevolence rather than the actual violence they represent. The ways the US crafts the narratives surrounding its history of enslaving Africans, for example, shows terms like “worker” and “laborer” often put in place of “slave” or even “enslaved African” in state-funded textbooks. Another example of this crafting of narratives is the legacy of the Black Panther Party, which has been popularly referred to as an “anti-white terrorist group” (shout out to Tomi Lahren) and compared to the KKK, even though all facts show this is far from where their actual legacy should be. This is an act of crafting a specific epistemology, one that projects a sense of benevolence and lack of responsibility onto the US legacy.

Emory Douglas

All events both domestic and international which involve a perceived aggression against the United States must be vetted and understood within the context of this monopoly on violence, because it allows us to better examine our own positionality in foreign affairs. That images and videos of Syrians being attacked with chemical weapons, allegedly by the Syrian government, a claim which has been denied and lacks evidence, reportedly “moved” president Trump to take action against the Syrian state is a laughable example of using this monopoly on violence to generate propaganda. If supposed imagery of innocent people being abused by state actors has the power to move a US president to take action, why has the unlimited footage of Black and Indigenous protesters in the US being pepper-sprayed, hit with tear gas, kidnapped by police, beaten by cops and private militias, attacked by dogs, hit with intense water pressure in below-freezing temperatures, rubber bullets, and being exposed to sound canons not caused extensive action on part of the US government? Because, simply put, that violence is labeled as “acceptable” violence.

Socially and politically dominating powers divide violence into acceptable violence and unacceptable violence. This dichotomy is somewhat straightforward; acceptable violence can be categorized as any violence which furthers the white supremacist empire. Acceptable violence, which can also be called ‘justifiable violence,’ is those mechanisms of violence which are rarely labeled as such, rather are perceived as necessary and/or unavoidable violences. The notion of ‘protecting an empire’ is inherent to the Amerikan existence, and therefore is not seen as real violence and is rarely questioned. This is why President Obama’s legacy of using drone warfare in predominantly Black and brown countries, drones which he used at record numbers and are responsible for the death of thousands, was hardly questioned, as they were prescribed as a “necessary evil” for the advancement of our empire.

If acceptable violence is any violence that furthers the empire, unacceptable violence is anything that endangers or dismantles it. What falls into the category of unacceptable violence is often labeled as violence, and is demonized for the sake of furthering the epistemological dichotomy between different violences. An example of this can be found within the words of late Pan-Africanist scholar activist Walter Rodney, who discusses in his classic book “Groundings With My Brothers” the indignation of ‘violence’ aimed at the restoration of humanity and the double standards in societal perceptions of violence. Rodney states:

“We were told that violence in itself is evil, and that, whatever the cause, it is unjustified morally. By what standard of morality can the violence used by a slave to break his chains be considered the same as the violence of a slave master?”

In this statement is an important logic that can be applied to multiple situations and conflicts in the discourse of history. Why is the retaliatory violence of marginalized groups demonized and labeled as “violence,” while the reason for the initial outlash of defensive violence on their part is not labeled or described as such? Why are indigenous Palestinians routinely labeled as “violent” individuals when their violence exists, more times than not, as self-defense against the settler colony which perpetrates daily structural violence rising to the Geneva definition of genocide against them? Why are Black Americans called “violent” for protests, riots, and uprisings which destroy property, but the system which dehumanizes us and positions private property as more protected than us isn’t?

In 2012 Emory Douglas, former Minister of Culture for the Black Panther Party, went to Chiapas to work with Zapatista artists, synthesizing the revolutionary artistic traditions of two communities in solidarity.

This monopoly on violence not only affects how and to whom violence occurs, but it affects the ways in which images surrounding violence, like the images coming from Syria for example, are distributed. These images are mostly of victims from government bombs and shelling — a government which the US has been trying to overthrow. However, what isn’t shown are the atrocities that are being committed from the side which has had the support of the United States and its allies. During the media coverage of Syria last December, when members of Syrian al-Qaeda were on the verge of defeat in Eastern Aleppo, we heard ad nauseum reports about the “Siege of Aleppo,” and that people in the eastern pocket were on the verge of being rounded up and slaughtered en masse by the government. Despite this fear being ingested by a number of people, there is no evidence that such an event occurred. Yet there hasn’t been even an uttering in the mainstream media about two Shia villages in the Idlib province which have been besieged by Al-Qaeda aligned rebels for years, where the people inside have suffered tremendously from devastating attacks all under the nose of the US and its allies.

This monopoly on the images we are given and the ways in which we’re demanded to consume them is common to many places and instances across the world. Why are we not being flooded with images from the US/Saudi backed blockade and bombardment of Yemen, which in addition to killing tens of thousands of people, has brought Yemen to the brink of famine? Where are the horrific images of post-Gaddafi Libya, where Black Africans are being summarily executed in the streets and sold on slave markets? These images aren’t circulated because anything suggesting that the US contributes to human suffering on an unimaginable scale has the potential of interfering with their perceived standing as the world’s protector and civilizing authority, and would disrupt their monopoly on violence.

In Dr. Eqbal Ahmad’s short book “Terrorism: Theirs and Ours,” he compares the concepts of “terrorist” and “freedom fighter” to the actions of US foreign policy, and examines the roots of political violence as well as the surrounding discourse/propaganda. In his analysis he states, “the terrorist of yesterday is the hero of today, and the hero of yesterday becomes the terrorist of today.” But what does it take to create a mass movement of folks dedicated to understand the hero of today as the villain of yesterday as well as the villain of today? In other words, at what point will we see the United states as the villain behind the mask of a hero, the villain it always has been?

In the white supremacist capitalist system, which is currently thriving by using the “Muslim terrorist” trope to justify violent exploitation, Dr. Ahmad’s analysis of concepts of “terrorism” becomes extremely important and useful in acknowledging how trivial the problem actually is. He identifies five types of terrorism: state terrorism, religious terrorism, Mafia/crime, pathological terrorism, and political/oppositional terror. Of these five types of terrorism, Dr. Ahmad states, “the focus is on only one, the least important in terms of cost to human lives and human property: the Political Terror of those who want to be heard.” If the only terrorism focused on in dominant media and discussion is retaliatory political terror, or oppositional terror in response to oppression, then the hegemon is positioned to be absolved of responsibility for terrorism. By tightening the epistemological stronghold on concepts of violence and terrorism as much as possible, the United States is seen to be incapable of committing acts of terrorism. But when nearly 90% of drone strikes in places like Somalia and Yemen don’t hit their target, injuring and civilians, at what point do we understand it as a terrorist act?

The monopoly on violence also plays a central role in the construction of US historical narratives. We’ve see this in the way the US shapes the discourse around the nation’s founding, particularly in relation to the history of degradation of Black and Indigenous bodies. The discourse is one of discovery, and if Indigenous people are mentioned at all, the relationship between them and settlers is one of mutual cooperation rather than the actual genocide which took place. To this day, children in schools are taught to laud such figures as Andrew Jackson and Ulysses S. Grant for being cornerstones in the continuity of “this great nation,” though historical accounts link both of these men to careers of committing mass murders of Indigenous people.

Looking at the American civil war in retrospect, we hardly look at an individual actor such as Abraham Lincoln and think of him as a war criminal for sending General Sherman on the march to the sea. We hardly hear people decry Lincoln for human rights abuses when the military division under Sherman was burning crops with the intention of starving people, and placing entire towns under siege. We hardly think of the destruction Lincoln caused in relation to the enslaved Africans affected by his actions, those he is often credited as “freeing,” while in reality his military decisions had devastating effects on them. The destruction brought about to suppress the reactionary confederate rebellion was seen as a necessary evil to preserve the economic interests of the northern industrial capitalists. To this day, no human rights NGO has sought to attempt to tear down the Lincoln memorial in Washington, D.C., nor has one taken on the task of deconstructing the glorified colonial violence surrounding his legacy. Context matters, and as it does matter there is always a strenuous effort on the part of the victors, who are in our case the purveyors of empire, to control the narrative and thus the context.

Art by Emory Douglas, the Black Panther newspaper

The pathology of a violent imperialism is, at its core, sociopathy. Being the oppressor doesn’t require you to think about the human cost of your adventures — it doesn’t require that one think about the consequences — and why would it when you can simply repackage those consequences into another potentially lucrative opportunity. The spread of ISIS across Syria, Iraq, the Sinai peninsula, and most recently Afghanistan has been a gift to the American weapons industry, the same way the institutionalized criminalization of Black people has been a gift to the prison-industrial complex. Weapons manufacturers such as Boeing and Lockheed Martin cashed in during Barack Obama’s escalation of drone warfare, and Afghanistan has become a testing ground for new weapons, most notably the MOAB bomb, developed by Alabama-based company Dynetics, that was used on April 13th. When the news broke, most of the media seemed to already know that only ISIS was affected by the use of this weapon without any sort of acknowledgment that approximately 95,000 people live in the vicinity of the blast. Imperialism and foreign aggression, like most domestic state violence against marginalized people, is motivated by profit incentives.

Angela Davis with Fidel Castro

One can suggest the United States approaches violence through the concept of private property. That is that violence itself is handled as a form of property. Under hegemonic domination, violence belongs to the US, and all who decide to use it must borrow and receive a stamp of approval from the US. So long as the borrowed (or purchased) violence is complementary to the objective of expanding empire, it is acceptable. In 2017 alone, we’ve seen murders of almost a dozen trans women of color, alarmingly rising hate crimes against members of demographics who’ve been deemed “otherized” by the constituency of the president, and over 290 people killed so far in 2017 by US police officers at the time of writing this article. This violence is allowed, but any violence in response is not.

On a macro level, we see this type of relationship played out in the realm of foreign policy. The US, and it’s dependent Middle Eastern governments, most notably Israel and Saudi Arabia, can do everything from conducting missile barrages and air raids, to funding, training, and arming terrorist groups in Syria, all of which kill with impunity and yet this is overlooked by the international community. But the violence used to counter these external threats is heavily scrutinized. If another country saw the horrendous acts of violence done against Black, Indigenous, trans, queer, and Muslim people (among others) domestically by the US and decided to establish a droning program targeting a military base in California using the language of “establishing democracy” for marginalized individuals in the US, would they not be labeled as a terrorist? So then why, one must ask, isn’t the US labeled and persecuted in the same manner when they do the same?

In Walter Rodney’s masterpiece How Europe Underdeveloped Africa, a book dedicated to researching tireless details of the various ways in which western countries thrive from the economic, cultural, and interpersonal exploitation of African nations, he states: “The simple fact is that no people can enslave another for centuries without coming out with a notion of superiority…” Truly the US, with its violent legacy of slavery, colonialism, and exploitation both domestically and globally, has exists within this essence of superiority, resting on control and domination of others, of which Rodney speaks. Walter Rodney was able to make the dangerous connection of struggles between the working class of Guyana, with the Rastas of Jamaica, those in Dar es Salaam, in Atlanta at the Institute of the Black World, and the entire Black diaspora at large. He made these connections through a shared anti-imperialism, decolonial struggle which brought down geographical and cultural barriers and allowed for Black people in the First World to better understand their own positonality and responsibilities.

Walter Rodney is just one of the many activists throughout history dedicated to exposing the white supremacist monopoly on violence, and in researching and uplifting his legacy we see the same theory he spoke of applies perfectly to our contemporary conditions. Others include Angela Davis, particularly in her chilling 1971 interview where she discusses violence and revolution, Malcolm X, Assata Shakur, and Thomas Sankara. Also important to note is Native American activist and scholar Winona LaDuke, who often discusses the double standards in the US’s treatment of Indigenous people on reservations, and how the denial of resources like clean drinking water and electricity to those individuals is an overlooked act of violence in itself.

Martin Luther King Jr. with Kwame Nkrumh, Ghana, 1957.

In a recent interview with Black Agenda Report, former Democratic Congresswoman Cynthia McKinney blasted the Democratic Party for their pro-war stances, saying that she is “ashamed” and “embarrassed” at the amount of progressives that failed to speak out on Barack Obama’s militarist actions. She discusses the dangers that Barack Obama created for any Black leftist anti-war movement, describing him as one of the most “effective evils” in the process of disrupting a Peace movement built upon Black anti-imperialist stances. Truly, McKinney is able to put the sentiments of several Black leftists into beautiful eloquence, and presents to us an outwardly expressed frustration at the state of the anti-war movement that Black people, and Black leaders like MLK Jr. himself, at one time were at forefront of. Now it seems anti-imperialism, or anti-war, principles have been outright abandoned. The Democratic Party is more interested in propping up leaders that offer shallow calls for horizontal representation and diversity, and its constituency seems to be more interested in the idea of intersectional imperialism more than rejecting it.

Even more insidious is the complete erasure of the Black left, which is intentional and impactful to whatever roots of an anti-war, anti-imperialist principle that Black leftists are still holding onto. That Democratic commentator and proud Black liberal Marcus H. Johnson was able to publish an entire article with such logical fallacies as conflating Bernie Sanders with the “far left,” erasing Black leftist voices in the process, and decidedly appointing Democratic Clinton fans as the “true left” shows the backwards nature of pacification, or ignorance, which is present in the post-Obama effective evil which McKinney speaks of. The fallacies in Johnson’s analysis are many, but the most egregiously unavoidable one is the erasure of the Black left. Those of us who, in the nature of an anti-imperialist, anti-capitalist politic which rests on the shoulders of the Black radical tradition and the principles it encompasses have opposed the entire Democratic Party, including Boogieman Sanders, have to be erased in order for his argument to exist. Moreover, the need to re-invigorate an anti-imperialist politic within our vision of Black Liberation is only more enforced by the sheer disregard for Black and brown lives internationally by the Democratic Party that Johnson so aptly support. Not long ago Malcolm X said we are “political chumps,” and if we continue to abandon principles to support political parties and positions which collectively lead us nowhere, he was correct.

Removing the mask from the white hegemony’s double standards on violence also means removing the mask from those institutions and individuals who hinder collective liberation. Simply put, anti-imperialism has to become a nonnegotiable principle once again in popular Black radicalism. Member of the Black Panther party, former political prisoner, and activist Assata Shakur states “Any community seriously concerned with its own freedom has to be concerned about other people’s freedom as well. The victory of oppressed people anywhere in the world is a victory for Black people. Each time one of imperialism’s tentacles is cut off we are closer to liberation.” As Black people, our liberation is definitively linked to those of the Global south, and an anti-imperialist politic is not simply an abstract “theory” but a politic grounded in exploiting and strengthening that struggle between us and the global south. Anti-imperialism is not aloof theory, but the lifeblood of people’s realities internationally, and we have to begin to see it as such to form a continuum of an effective Black radical tradition.

Examining the monopoly on violence through an international anti-imperialist lens is Pan-Africanist in nature, and reminds us: what the oppressors or capable of doing to our brothers and sisters in the global south, they can easily do in the imperial core, if not already occurring. Not only do the police and military share similar tactics when controlling a “native” population, but the police receive surplus military hardware for the job, and this should be an indicator that oppression transcends national boundaries in service to the maintenance of a global hierarchy. In a society dominated by privileges afforded to individuals backed by varying systemic and institutional representations, the western Black person must have a functioning anti-imperialist politic to actively disrupt the US’s monopoly on violence. Walter Rodney told us that every African has a responsibility, or a duty, to work to understand the system and work towards its overthrow, not integrate into it.

How can one view the violence of oppressed peoples in a vacuum when Black churches, synagogues, and mosques are being vandalized and hit in arson attacks in the post-Trump era, when immigrant families are being ripped apart and detained in poorly conditioned private prisons for months on end? When Black people are being shot down in the street like game animals by those designated to “protect and serve?” If the US maintains that it uses violence — justifiable, acceptable violence — domestically, in front of our own eyes, and it is hardly challenged, then what must we assume about the violence used internationally to “establish democracy” and “fight terrorism?” And within this monopoly of violence, who is allowed to use it as a means to help the conditions of the marginalized within Amerika? This is why in order to conceptualize a functioning vision for Black liberation, one must include an anti-imperialist stance that understands the violence done to us as cyclical and in tandem with the violence done elsewhere. The rhetoric surrounding violence must necessarily lead us to under-discussed questions of our existence under capitalist domination. The first way to deconstruct and decolonize the violence of white supremacy is to concisely identify, unmask, and make well-known the epistemological mechanisms it uses to justify its actions and establish its legitimacy. And if videos and images were enough to convince large amounts of liberals to suddenly collude with Trump’s interests in Syria, we have to ask ourselves, without an anti-imperialist politic, what fully separates us from our oppressors?

“As a black woman, my politics and political affiliation are bound up with and flow from participation in my people’s struggle for liberation, and with the fight of oppressed people all over the world against American imperialism.”
— Angela Davis
“Conceive this nation, of all human peoples, engaged in a crusade to make the ‘World Safe for Democracy!’ Can you imagine the United States protesting against Turkish atrocities in Armenia, while the Turks are silent about mobs in Chicago and St. Louis; what is Louvain compared with Memphis, Waco, Washington, Dyersburg, and Estill Springs? In short, what is the black man but America’s Belgium, and how could America condemn in Germany that which she commits, just as brutally, within her own borders?
— W.E.B Du Bois
“Unite” by Barbara Jones-Hogu.