Posted on Monday, April 11th, 2011 at 11:06 pm
Author: Sarah Jaffe
I’m thinking about violence a lot lately.
It seems appropriate, now, to write about it, as we just saw actions around the U.S. to commemorate the anniversary of nonviolent activist Martin Luther King, Jr.’s death by a violent act.
As I arrived at work April 4, the anniversary of King’s murder, my boss read us the article in Haaretz about actor/director/activist Juliano Mer-Khamis‘s death in a refugee camp in Jenin. More violence taking the life of another nonviolent activist.
I’ve commented many times that I don’t consider breaking windows or property damage “violence.” I consider violence to be harm against a human, not a pane of glass. Yet when I retweeted that statement in reference to the March 26 protests in London, I was reminded by Jack Aponte, via Twitter, that smashing windows or walls can be used by domestic abusers to threaten their victims. And Molly Crabapple noted that it’s only a short step from smashing a shop’s windows in the name of “feminism” to smashing art. And we’ve seen more than enough art censorship lately.
Laurie Penny wrote movingly about the violence done to young protesters in London at the March 26th march. The justification for the use of violent tactics by the police is, as ever, “violence” from the protesters–but the “violence” from the protesters is mostly against inanimate objects. Spraypainting “revolution” on a wall or smashing a shop window may be illegal, but does it deserve a baton to the face?
Since I had to report on a cross-burning case, Virginia v. Black, as a free-speech case back in grad school, I’ve considered whether cross-burning was violence or protected speech. The court ruled in that case that burning a cross with intent to intimidate was not protected speech, but that just burning the cross itself was not proof of intent to intimidate–which made sense to me. Burning a cross in your own backyard is different from setting one up on your black neighbor’s lawn and throwing the match.
Similarly, smashing a window because you are stuck inside and need to get out is different from smashing a window with a political message is different from smashing a window behind your partner’s head.
My ex and I both used to punch walls. I remember during the discussion of the Rihanna/Eminem video, saying “This video makes me realize how violent that was”. How just because someone doesn’t hit you doesn’t mean there’s no violence going on.
But I would still draw a line between that threat and the act of hitting someone. I do think there is a huge difference between punching that wall and punching me (or me punching him).
I don’t advocate smashing windows in protest (though I do advocate nonviolent sit-ins and occupations). That admittedly is more of a strategy decision than a deep conviction that Bank of America or whatever shouldn’t have its windows smashed–breaking things is read as a threat of violence (often rightly) by most of the population, as this conversation shows.
The problem with reading property damage as violence to me is that it’s a symptom of a larger problem in late capitalist culture: that property rights are considered superior to human rights. That people who are having their rights taken away are allowed to protest in certain acceptable ways, but they lose the right to fight for their lives if they damage an inanimate object that belongs to someone else (usually a corporation)?
Here in the US we’re fighting a battle against the idea of corporate personhood, and I think the equation of broken windows with broken bodies is a part of that fight. The corporation has speech, manifested as money, and it has a body, manifested as buildings. But no matter how many windows you smash, the corporation does not die and it does not feel pain.
This morning, I read a piece in The Nation, pointing out that:
“Despite institutional attempts to portray street art as merely a culturally disenfranchised subgenre of contemporary artmaking, unauthorized graffiti art is, at its root, a direct challenge to the central tenet of capitalism (or any authoritarian government system, for that matter): private property.
Breaking a window is closer to spraypainting on a wall than it is a baton to the head.
To return to Dr. King and the Civil Rights movement, business owners often considered being forced to treat black people equally as an attack on their right to free enterprise. (Rand Paul, just recently, agreed, though he later backtracked.) They reacted to sit-ins as though they were violence. They reacted to sit-ins with violence.
Meanwhile, those sit-ins and marches were by people who were experiencing structural violence daily. Not just not being able to make a decent wage, attend the same schools, or function in public without surveillance, but the regular violence visited on them, not just by cross burnings, but physical violence against them with impunity.
The world today doesn’t actually look all that different from the world of Dr. King. He died standing in solidarity with public workers. He died protesting a war. He died by an assassin’s bullet, sure, but in a culture of surveillance and under constant threat of imprisonment. And violence still takes nonviolent resisters from us too young, or intimidates them into giving up. The state still imprisons 6,838 black men out of every 100,000 U.S. men, and executes a disproportionate number of black men as well.
The death penalty is supposed to be a response to the most violent crimes. But those of us who argue against it note the flaw in the moral argument that says we should kill people to demonstrate that killing is wrong. We note the situations created by the state that put people into the position to kill and then be killed by the state. So even if breaking a window can be considered a violent act, is the proper state response to it then a violent one as well, or do we want the state to model nonviolent responses rather than continuing a cycle (especially when the cycle was begun by the state’s actions in the first place)?
Recently, pundits who made their names opposing George W. Bush’s war along with the pseudo-humanitarian arguments for it have abdicated their own critical responsibilities in order to argue that military intervention in Libya is probably a good idea. Rather than arguing against war as a position worth taking, they prove that their resistance to violence is only as deep as their agreement with the person perpetrating it.
And that’s really the problem, isn’t it? Our societies don’t have a problem with violence. They use violence daily against people considered Other, or even their own citizens, whether they be protesting budget cuts, accused whistle-blowers, or violent criminals themselves. So they hypocritically demand all activists be not just nonviolent, but saintly (and of course, ineffective). Those activists only get credit when they’re dead–while they’re alive they are persecuted and treated to many forms of state violence.
No, I don’t advocate violence or property damage as a strategy for resistance. I don’t. But when it happens, I also have to wonder why our reaction to the actions of desperate protesters is so much greater than our reaction to the continuing violence perpetrated by societies that maintain prisons, executions, wars, condone homelessness, bankruptcy from health care costs, and allow companies that kill workers and pollute the world to continue giving bonuses and dodging taxes.
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