Minneapolis is burning. Violent clashes between protestors and police have punctuated protests in New York City, Louisville, Omaha, and notably, Washington DC, the nation’s capital.
There are those who have responded to this by lamenting the breakdown of law and order, insisting that the protestors’ actions are violent and therefore, illegitimate. Others adopt a morally apologetic stance, trying to refocus our attention on the institutional violence protesters are responding to. Some even attempt to contextualize the rioters’ destruction of property as something other than violence.
These disagreements about how to describe the protests reflect the way we have long attempted to reconcile the history of racial domination with broader American exceptionalist narratives portraying the United States as the world’s moral center rather than merely its military and economic hegemon.
Power structures — even in “peaceful” times — emerge out of the interplay of both the violence that aims to preserve the social order and the violence that aims to alter it. Only when we look squarely at both can we see either for what they are: attempts to alter or preserve the distribution of power that defines our political reality, in times of both peace and conflict.
“When an oppressed people show a willingness to defend themselves, the enemy, who is a moral weakling and coward, is more willing to grant concessions and work for a respectable compromise. Psychologically, moreover, racists consider themselves superior beings and are not willing to exchange their superior lives for our inferior ones. They are most vicious and violent when they can practice violence with impunity.”
Robert F. Williams wrote these words in 1962, while in exile in Cuba, in the provocatively titled work Negroes With Guns. Public comments betraying his stance on self-defense got him expelled from the NAACP. His actual actions of self-defense, and the state’s response to them, got him expelled from the country. The ideas he expressed are said to have been a major intellectual influence on Huey P. Newton and the Black Panthers, whose famous armed protest on the grounds of the California statehouse was so incendiary it made the NRA believe in gun control.
A reticence to deal honestly with violence affects how we view individual prominent figures. Black journalist and activist Ida B. Wells-Barnett is well known for her courageous reporting and advocacy against anti-Black racial terrorism through and beyond the 1890s, for which she just this year received a posthumous Pulitzer Prize. But while she is rightly lionized for her investigations and use of statistics, it’s worth noting that her considerable courage came equipped with a Winchester rifle.
Power structures — even in “peaceful” times — emerge out of the interplay of both the violence that aims to preserve the social order and the violence that aims to alter it.
The common understanding of the Black freedom struggle — particularly of the 1950s and 60s — often centers the tactics of organized non-violence: the marches, the sit-ins. This reflects our appropriate lionization of the courage of those who faced down dogs and hoses, but also reflects a perspective on the times as elites prefer to remember them: the triumph of docile moral suasion over reactionary brutes. But, just like with Wells-Barnett, the heavily armed and historically pivotal underside of the long Black struggle for freedom in the United States tells the other half of the story. If Williams is right, the presence of those who prepared for and engaged in violence explains the success, even the possibility, of peaceful negotiation and concessions.
The primary institution for peaceful popular influence on political institutions, we are told, is the ballot rather than the bullet. People vote for representatives, whose political power is organized and constrained by party self-organization. Popular control of party organization is indirect, flowing through their ability to elect individual legislators and other elected officials.
As of the current political moment, there is no reason to believe that meaningful changes to the institutions of policing and incarceration are achievable by these means.
The basic reason is that representation — whether viewed in terms of “Black faces in high places” or by party affiliation — is a solution vastly outsized to the scale of the problem. Historian Elizabeth Hinton traces the origin of the basic political conditions that created militarized policing and mass incarceration to Democratic President Lyndon Johnson’s administration, that is, before Republican Richard Nixon’s “War on Drugs.” In 2015, Freddie Gray was tortured to death by several members of the Baltimore Police Department. As scholar Keeanga-Yamahtta Taylor points out, the Baltimore uprising that occurred in response was brutally repressed in a Black city with a Black Democratic mayor (Stephanie Rawlins-Blake) and a Black police commissioner (Anthony Batts). The murder was investigated locally by Black state’s attorney (Marilyn Mosby) and federally, by a Department of Justice run by a Black Attorney General (Eric Holder), who reported to a Black president (Barack Obama). Three of the officers were acquitted and the other three had their charges dropped.
Little has changed, because little can in the system as currently constructed. A system that militarizes the police and keeps incarceration running at world-historically unprecedented scale is maintained by a system of wildly perverse political and financial incentives. The US Census Bureau counts incarcerated people as residents of the district in which they are incarcerated — providing extra political representation and thus, a political incentive for party elites (and even some voters) to build and maintain prisons. What’s worse is that the prison-industrial complex is a $182 billion industry. The vast majority of funding goes to public employees and corrections agencies and is supervised by public elected officials. Hefty profits go to shareholders of the companies that provide materials and services to the captive population — shareholders whom no one elects.
Stewardship of police militarization and mass incarceration policies are managed across red, blue, and purple states, by actors from both parties at all levels of government. State violence has no opposition party.
Little has changed, because little can in the system as currently constructed. A system that militarizes the police and keeps incarceration running at world-historically unprecedented scale is maintained by a system of wildly perverse political and financial incentives.
There is, of course, a theoretical way to avoid the worst violence: a formal political process that is both in word and in fact able to respond to legitimate claims made upon it. All people of conscience and principle should want and demand this opportunity. What’s required for that are institutional and incentive structures that make effective formal protest possible. But for decades, US political structures have developed in ways that render this immeasurably difficult, if not impossible.
Unless and until this changes, the struggle for Black liberation will be no exception to the general rule: our politics inevitably involve violence. That rule is not created by marchers in the streets — whether they are marching “peacefully” or whether they are breaking windows. That rule is created and maintained by the reactionary solidarity of the federal government, mayors, state legislatures, and the corporations who spend billions of dollars a year lobbying them to push legislation, regulation, and enforcement patterns that align their interests. Under such conditions, violence is built-in to our political order.
What’s left to us to decide is simply which side we are on.