The Legitimacy Of Violence
While in the abstract, Arendt concedes that the use of force by state actors against its own citizens, such as in Ferguson, MO, demonstrates the collapse of legitimacy, she never addresses the interlocking systems of violence, coercion, and dehumanization that produce a constant state of fear and anger among target populations. If, for example, the actions of the Ferguson, MO police force in the wake of organized, peaceful protests are illegitimate, what about a police force that is nearly all white in a minority-majority community? What kind of legitimacy does any police force have among minority communities in the United States, who have a long history of official repression and continue to experience daily humiliations and harassment by the most visible representatives of state power? In such a situation, is not the question not the wisdom or rationality of a violent response by persons in communities who are exhausted by police harassment, but rather the on-going low-level violence these communities face? – Me, “Hannah Arendt’s ‘On Violence'”, No One Special, August 19, 2014
A torch-wielding mob chanting racist slogans descended on a Charlottesville, Virginia, park Saturday evening, to protest the removal of a Robert E. Lee statue.
Chanting “All White Lives Matter,” and “No More Brother Wars,” the crowd, which said they were protecting their “white heritage” from the Charlottesville City Council’s decision to remove a statue in the Virginia town’s park.
They also chanted “You will not replace us” and “Russia is our friend.” Dozens of protesters also brought bamboo tiki torches to a second rally once it became dark out. . . .
No arrests were made and there were no reports of injuries. – Phil McCausland, “White Nationalist Leads Torch-Bearing Protesters Against Removal of Confederate Statue,” nbcnews.com, May 15, 2017
I was surprised the other day to see someone recently read and liked my nearly three-year-old post on Hannah Arendt’s essay “On Violence”. Since my usual habit is not to go back and read old posts, and since I’d completely forgotten writing such a thing in the first place, I decided to give it a read. My general opinion is that it was a pretty average contemporary critique of Arendt’s essay. What surprised me, however, was a quite remarkable, not-fleshed-out set of ideas regarding the legitimacy of the state’s monopoly on violence, particularly in regards to the racist structures of violence and repression that are the American norm. In light of the rise of Trumpism and the emboldened racist fringe, it seems more than ever we need to ask questions regarding the legitimacy of violence as a political tactic, whether on the part of the state or of groups protesting violence against them by the state and those supported by the state.
First, I neither know nor care whether Donald Trump is a bigot. While he talks like a pretty typical clueless, privileged white guy; while he took out a full page ad in The New York Times demanding the death penalty for the young men originally arrested in the Central Park jogger assault, a sentence to be carried out absent any trial; while he pretended not to know or care about the support he received – and continues to enjoy – among members of vocally racist groups; none of this interests me in the least.
What is far more fascinating is that, while such groups certainly became far more visible during the years Barack Obama was President, with Trump they obviously feel free to make their presence far more visible. Trump emboldened racists groups from the Klan to the Nazi’s and so-called “alt-Right” (nothing more than Nazi’s who hide their swastikas), for whom they worked during the Presidential campaign. While certainly never hugely numerous and obviously outside the “mainstream” of our public discourse, the rise in the visibility of these groups has posed problems for those who have tried to think clearly regarding protest and resistance to the Trump Administration.
Nothing exemplifies these troubles more than the reaction to the Inauguration Day assault on neo-Nazi Richard Spence while he gave a television interview on the streets of Washington, DC. Many, including me, saw this act of violence as a fitting response to the very presence of Richard Spencer. Indeed, the phrase “Nazi-punching” has entered our current lexicon thanks to this single act of violent defiance. Many liberals, influenced by the constant talk of “non-violent resistance” and the appeal of moral superiority in the face of intransigent resistance, continue to insist that any violence by those opposed to Trump, his supporters, or his policies is illegitimate. I have read more than one commentator insist that violence in the face of “differing political opinions” in unAmerican.
That last is so grotesque it almost defies comprehension. To make the claim that Nazism, gussied up with some other name but the same filth nevertheless, is a political ideology worthy of respect by anyone is both ignorant and disgusting. People like Richard Spencer embrace the idea of the mass murder of minorties – Jews, African-Americans, sexual minorities, Latinos – and they deserve neither our time nor effort at understanding. While verbal rebuke and rejection are always called-for, physical attacks should be considered a rational response, particularly when such attacks come from members of the very minority communities these racists would prefer disappeared. When white liberals insist that such acts of preemptive violence are inherently illegitimate, they are speaking from a place of privilege, removing a rational and viable response from affected groups to very real threats of violence and death.
There are other matters regarding the matter of violence, particularly the question of the state’s monopoly on violence, raised by last night’s protests in Charlottesville. While the linked article does call the group a “mob”, and note that later in the evening as counter-protests arose there were “scuffles” and the police arrived, that not a single person involved was arrested demonstrates the unequal treatment of racial groups by authorities. In my original essay on Arendt, linked above, I noted that the police response in Ferguson, MO to what were largely peaceful protests against a police department with a history of racism; a police department in a predominantly African-American city made up of white people; and a police department that was defending the shooting of a community member in a questionable act of self-defense; was beyond any rationally considered response. The famous image of a man facing police in military camouflage armed with automatic weapons exemplifies the police overreaction to peaceful, non-violence protests.
Both the shooting that prompted the protests and the reaction to the protests themselves, not to mention a long history of police harassment of the African-American population of Ferguson, exemplify “systemic racism” in America. It is the archetype of what people mean when discussing the matter of systemic racism in America. While the police in Ferguson outfitted themselves for urban combat, the police in Charlottesville did not. Numerous people were arrested in Ferguson. None were arrested in Charlottesville, despite the protests in Charlottesville being violent and those in Ferguson remaining peaceful.
For people, particularly those not living, say, in Ferguson, MO to speak about the illegitimacy of violence without qualifying that to be the illegitimacy of state violence is to ignore the very real situation our minority communities face on a daily basis. To insist on greater police presence in the face of racist protests and violence in Charlottesville is to demand the state stop deploying its police power only against groups from minority communities while leaving racist whites unbothered by the presence of armored vehicles, camouflage uniforms, and automatic weapons pointed in their faces. The systemic racism endemic to America, part and parcel of who we are as a country, is riven with violence, both state imposed and state sanctioned. When private groups whose very ideology is violence are not met with the same kind of armed response as peaceful groups of ordinary citizens demanding real justice for their communities, we are confronted with the reality both of systemic racism as well as the reality of state-perpetrated violence to enforce the racist status quo.
While non-violent confrontation with state actors certainly remains a live option for any group, to artificially limit such confrontation in such a way without taking into consideration the uses to which the state puts its monopoly on violence is to ignore the realities many communities face each and every day. As with everything, a consideration of the whole context is necessary, including the already-existing place of violence as a method of social control, before making any judgments regarding the legitimacy or otherwise of violence as a tactic in social protet.