#FeesMustFall: On violence and keeping quiet

#1. Protesting students throw rocks at private security at Wits University. #2. Police fire rubber bullets at protesting students at Wits University.

This is a photo of a student during the #FeesMustFall protests at Wits University, throwing a rock at private security guards on the steps of the Great hall. The second is of a police officer firing rubber bullets at students on the same steps a few moments later.

What do we think about when we think about violence? What do we think violence is for? These questions have been on my mind as I read the discussions around #FeesMustFall protests on social media and in the papers.

The first photo is seemingly a clear-cut demonstration of violence — a person is throwing an object that can do harm at another person, with violent intent. In our discussions as citizens and in the media, we often cite images and examples of this as a way to delegitimize the motivations of the rock-thrower or the movement they are a part of; “I understand or even agree with the idea of free education, but I can’t support any movement that burns their own university property or is so violent.”

The second image is more complex to unpack. We have someone firing a non-lethal weapon in an unorthodox manner — directly at people instead of into the ground. However, this person is an authority figure acting with the endorsement of the state, and is acting against people who are behaving violently. We tend to be more tolerant of this sort of use of force. Why?

When we unpack the context behind the images, we see a few things. Firstly, the rock thrower is aiming poorly (it’s hard to throw a rock that big with accuracy), indeed, hitting the building is as strong a political act as hitting one of the bodies in front of it — though it may not be as satisfying. Moreover, the people he’s aiming the rock at are in body armor, with headgear, face-guards and riot shields. The actual likelihood of serious physical injury to these people exists, but it’s unlikely.

In the second image, we have the firing of rubber bullets directly into a crowd of people who are physically unprotected. Those in the line of fire are likely to sustain injury, and the person firing is unlikely to miss.

When we decide to undermine any political movement because of their violence, we should remember a few things. Firstly, that the use of violence for political ends is something that almost every movement in the history of the world has done, and often successfully. Is the moral legitimacy of the anti-apartheid movement undermined by the planting of explosives? Are the wars for independence that many nations have fought less valid for their need to be fought? I think not. This is not to condone violence, but to say that an entire cause is undermined because property is damaged or because violence is applied is irrational — it is an opinion with an eye blind to history.

Secondly, we should remember that there is a marked difference between violence applied by a movement and violence applied by a state — in it’s simplest terms, when someone is swearing at you, threatening you and then applying violence, you have recourse. There is reassurance, and often safety in legitimacy; you can count on others to come to your aid, if you are in serious danger you can apply violence to defend yourself, and you can count on the state to come to your aid. When it is the state or authority applying the violence, you are pretty much fucked — there is less recourse, and there is zero feeling of legitimacy. You are alone when it’s the good guys kicking you down.

When we speak of the rocks being thrown, or the bus burning, or indeed the rubber bullets being fired, we often stray towards the sensationalist interpretations. This is due to many factors; stuff like this makes for good photos, good news, it sells etc. But we also stray towards them because so many of us have no idea what degrees of violence feel like — and I hate to use this damn word — but it’s part of our privilege. If you think that being on the receiving end of a thrown rock is incredibly violent, try a loaded gun. Try living in a high crime area, always being the person searched and intimidated by police because your demographic is profiled, being denied access to your rights in custody because you obviously don’t have the resources to combat such a denial. The list goes on. We should remember this before we decide to dismiss the voices of thousands because they have enacted some form of violence.

This brings me to what has prompted me to write this, and that is the vitriol surrounding the discussion of the #FeesMustFall protests. Rocks are thrown and people are calling for the police to use live ammunition. A car is stoned and people say that the only motivation driving the movement is a sense of entitlement. A shop is looted after a full day of sheer anarchy and people say that they had to work for everything in their lives, how dare students think they can have everything for free.

When you are calling for people to be killed, it’s easy to do behind a keyboard — if you know what the fear of someone ending your life is, it’s not so simple. When you think that someone is being entitled, it’s easy to say without understanding another individual’s journey, and the obstacles they must overcome, how those obstacles may be different, more challenging than yours. When you say that you’ve worked for everything you have, it’s rare that we think of the different starting points we all begin to work from.

So many of the comments we make on social media add no value to to our discussion as a society — they just anger opposing parties, and add to the righteousness of those who agree with our own stance — making those comments more extreme. Immediacy doesn’t beget thoughtlessness, but it does enable it. When we see a single image on Twitter with the caption “Students burn bus in Braamfontein”, or a photo with a paragraph describing a single event in a single day in a movement that spans a year on Facebook, it’s easy to respond with our emotion, without or own context being challenged — and to what end? Do we understand the context that those images, that the people within them are coming from? Probably not — that is the role of good journalism, of the editorial piece.

The value of silence here is critical, I think. This is not to deny any party their opinion, their voice or vote — we have equal rights to these as citizens, but we are not all equal stakeholders. The things we put at risk for change of any sort is often very little when making a digital comment versus putting your body on the line, whether you are part of a police line or those it targets. We may all have the right to an opinion, but I wish we thought more about whether our opinions are useful before we say anything at all.

There’s nothing wrong with not saying anything at all.

This post isn’t an endorsement of #FeesMustFall. Not to add to my own righteousness, but right now all I have to offer is my photos. I don’t think my opinion has much value to add right now. If that changes, maybe I’ll write a blog post about it.

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