Burning Cop Cars is Non-Violent


Image by Katlyn Beattie

It seems like right now would be a good time to return to some things I wrote a decade ago, about the idea of ‘violent’ and ‘non-violent’ protest, and why the predictable denunciations of ‘protests turning violent’ are laden with unexamined ideology.

Here’s the gist: burning a cop car while protesting police brutality is not ‘violent’, because we can define ‘violence’ either in a strict and narrow sense, or in a broad and inclusive sense, and in neither sense does burning cop cars, or precints, or government buildings, qualify as violent.

I’ll summarise the argument below, but the full discussion is in these posts: What Is Violence? Part 1, What Is Violence? Part 2, and What is Violence? Part 3. I basically stand by what I wrote there (though for full disclosure, I have just edited them a little because 10-years-ago Luke had some bad stylistic habits that now-Luke has tried to grow past).

Some relevant background facts not directly argued for here: most police systems are institutionally brutal and amplify the racism of their societies; the US police system is especially bad, and the fact that it consistently produces and protects murderers makes it accountable for their crimes. Black Americans are not beholden to the state that enslaved their ancestors and has oppressed them for centuries. Black Lives Matter, and the American police have demonstrated that their continued institutional existence is incompatible with respecting that.

So, here’s how I think about the category ‘violence’ (and related categories like ‘peaceful’, or ‘orderly’ and ‘disorderly’, which are often used in matching ways). I think that in the strict and narrow sense, on which an action is violent or not based on its intrinsic features, ‘violence against property’ is an oxymoron. Violence is only a useful category for describing acts themselves if it is restricted to various offences against the living body. Burning a car is not intrinsically different, in any morally important way, from sending it to the scrapyard, or failing to do maintenance until it becomes unusable, or even leaving it somewhere it can’t be refuelled. These are all ways of re-arranging inanimate matter to enable or prevent certain uses of it – something we all do all the time.

Of course the obvious difference between taking your car to the scrapyard and burning a cop car is that the cop car ‘belongs to’ the police department, who don’t see the burning as an optimal use of resources. But that’s obviously not intrinsic to the act itself: it’s a matter of its social context and effects.

If we’re defining ‘violence’ in a broad way that takes into account social context and effects, we might say that ‘violence’ is any action that disrupts and violates the preconditions for people being safe and secure. But then we have to factor in that police departments are institutionally racist and institutionally brutal, and that they’re likely to use cop cars in service of that. Which means that burning a cop car is a lot like decommissioning a device that’s been found to be dangerous, or demolishing a house that’s full of asbestos. By rendering unusable an object that would do more harm than good if used, it actually aims to improve communal safety. Even more so if it incentivises institutions to prevent or punish police brutality. It’s the opposite of violent.

Destroying or looting local small businesses, on the other hand, might well qualify as ‘violent’ in this second sense, but still isn’t ‘violent’ in the narrow sense. In preventing local people from patronising or running the business, it’s socially destructive, but only violent in the sense that gentrification, likewise socially destructive, is violent. In potentially destroying an individual’s accumulated wealth, it’s socially destructive but only violent in the sense that gutting a pension fund, likewise socially destructive, is violent.

It would be good if the destruction caused by unrest was as selective and discriminate as possible, though the uncoordinated nature of unrest tends to make that hard. But such a judgement may be hard to make: looting Target may in the end amount to a redistribution of wealth from insurance companies to individuals in impoverished areas (and to whoever is hired to do repairs), and might thereby help people to support themselves and benefit the economy.

I don’t want to get into micromanaging the tactics of these protests – especially because there’s so much dispute currently swirling about which particular acts were committed by protesters, by neonazi accelerationists, or by undercover cops.

The point I mean to press is that even insofar as this sort of destruction is violent, it’s violent in the same way that gentrification and financial speculation are violent, that the increase of inequality is violent. But nobody goes on the news to declare that, e.g., financial deregulation is so beyond the pale that it disqualifies anyone involved in it from even being accepted as a legitimate part of political dialogue, the way that endless talking heads declare that about ‘violent protests’.

(Of course, any looting that does come from protesters, and not from agents provocateurs or NeoNazis, is also very different in its origins than, say, financial speculation: it’s a response to intolerable conditions, ‘the language of the unheard’ as King famously says, not a tactic freely selected to maximise personal profits.)

I should note that I don’t really like using ‘violent’ in this broadened sense, since it’s not very analytically useful: it tends in the direction of everyone calling whatever they think is bad ‘violent’, and then the word adds little onto just saying ‘bad’.  But I think often in practice the point of calling them that is to draw attention to the double standard in how the term is usually deployed.

The usual way the term ‘violence’ is employed is highly selective. When the police say ‘we will not tolerate violence’ or ‘we are here to prevent violence’, what they want is, on the one hand, for us to think of ‘violence’ in general as a specific class of acts, set apart by their intrinsic badness: then everyone can nod along with “we reject violence on both sides, dialogue is important but violence makes it impossible, I support protests but only if they’re non-violent, blah blah blah.” But then in practice the police rely on a broader, socially contextual, sense of the term to class burning cars as ‘violence’, and thereby to class shooting tear gas and firing rubber bullets as a necessary response to it. This is a double standard that rests on the unexamined and unearned prestige that the state and the police enjoy in our society.

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5 Responses to Burning Cop Cars is Non-Violent

  1. Allan Olley says:

    For whatever it is worth, my own sense for why I might see burning things (cop cars, buildings etc.) as violent goes like this. I don’t think violence admits of a great deal of moral luck, ie the same action with the same intentions etc. can’t be violent or not just because of some contingent circumstance (the case where it might is something like the person who burns an effigy believing in the sympathetic magic that will harm the person burned in effigy, since I don’t think it is reliably effective for a huge number of non-contingent circumstances, the entire scheme fails to be violent just on that deep impossibility despite malicious intent). To attempt violence is usually itself violence so if one throws a punch but is prevented from harming anyone else by a wall of invisible plexiglass not taken into account, the thrown punch was still a violent act though it harmed none (well the person who threw the punch probably now has an injured hand). Likewise if one burnt down a building thinking there were people inside that would be violent to my mind, even if by luck it were unoccupied, all the people thought to be inside were absent.

    Conversely if a carefully carried out legal just etc. demolition where every precaution has been taken to clear the area still somehow leads to an injury or death due to contrived circumstances involving extraordinary effort by people to sneak on sight against all those efforts, this is not violence but just a tragic (and improbable) accident. This leaves the middle case, what if someone set fire to a building having done relatively little to ascertain whether it is empty or occupied and without particular intention that anyone to be inside. At some point of such recklessness (the exact line being difficult to draw) one would be guilty of violence as far as I can see though the action would be one of negligence and not deliberate malice aforethought. A mixed intention and so less culpable and less violent, but still violent.

    So I tend to see burning stuff, setting off explosives and the like as tending to be violent because it is often done in a reckless manner, there is a mix of intents, a vague intent etc.. Whatever the explicit target it endangers people and so is violent whether that danger leads to an actual injury. In the case of burning cars perhaps the arsonist can be sufficiently sure no one will come to harm, in the case of burning a building I’m not sure they usually avoid being violently reckless as there is so much that can go wrong.

    As you point out there is a danger of a double standard here, this applies to the police they often throw flash bang grenades and smoke bonds with reckless abandon and even if this is not intended to cause injury (assuming we don’t count the temporary sensory impairment associated with these things as injury) recklessness alone would make it violence, which the police should (if the world were equitable) be held to account for, whether or not they actually happen to injure people.

    Also of course violence whether via willful intention or recklessness may be justified by the circumstances, but this is why I would be hesitant to call arsonists non-violent…

    • lukeroelofs says:

      That definitely seems a good addition: if I read you right, you’re taking the narrow definition, focused on harm to persons, and treating acts violently if a reasonable person would foresee a high enough risk of such harm coming from them. I can agree with that – though you are also including a role for intent, I think?

      So one thing of course is that, as you say, there’s a spectrum of risks, with bright lines being hard to draw. I think there is a tension here with the way the category ‘violence’ is often used as a binary (e.g. Obama has released a statement saying “let’s not excuse violence, or rationalize it, or participate in it”), which requires drawing a bright line. But that’s not an issue unique to your way of spelling it out: any definition is liable to face similar trouble.

      I don’t think that this conflicts with my thesis here though. I don’t think burning an empty car poses a significant risk to people around it, and I don’t think those who decry it as ‘violence’ are doing so because of such a risk, but because it’s a destruction of police property. To put it another way: you’re not vindicating the concept of ‘violence against property’, you’re pointing out that setting light to buildings is dangerous to persons. That doesn’t extend to most forms of property destruction – which isn’t to say that I think it’s not an important point to bear in mind!

      • Allan Olley says:

        Well I think your right. You are arguing “this specific instance of burning cop cars (and ones sufficiently like it) is non-violen and basically justifiablet” and I think you make a good case.

        The thing to me is claims of “X is non-violent” tend to sound to me (connote) “X is never violent”m “X exemplifies non-violence” and the like. When X is something like “burning stuff” I am not sure for the sorts of reasons given that would be non-violent. However that does not matter as long as we are talking about the specific case and consequences and not a fully generic case or what is generally implied by something and so on.

        This is really a tangent but it occurs to me that your case of burning cop cars as strategically and tactically well motivated is a little weak. Even if I say burning an empty cop car that has been left by police after harassing protesters is a legitimate target of non-violent destruction, it seems like it makes little difference and its rhetorical value is limited. A strong case would be say destroying a military APC that the police force uses into a flower planter. In this case military equipment in the hands of police force seems pretty clearly to escalate violence and so has clear tactical relevance to carrying out protest and strategic relevance to the goals. Likewise it is unlikely to be replaced (or replaced quickly at least) unlike a generic cop car (which might be replaced in hours without much fuss) and so is a much better target. The action of turning it into a flower planter communicates peaceful pastoral scenes and so exemplifies non-violence and so on.

        I think your case for burning cop cars is enough to say “burning cop cars in this sort of specific instance is understandable and justifiable” but not enough to say “burning cop cars is an exceptional tactic in this sort of situation.” However if I understand your point your weak claim is sufficient as a rebuke of criticisms of the protests.

      • lukeroelofs says:

        That’s a fair point that “X is non-violent” sounds like a broader claim about a whole category of action – perhaps more so than “X is not violent”? I did dither a little about which phrasing to put in the title, and I confess I went with ‘non-violent’ because it seemed like a bolder and perhaps more provocative claim. Maybe for the reasons you’ve now pointed out.

        On the strategic case: I think it’s really hard to gauge a lot of the relevant effects. There’s the symbolism of communicating specific demands (‘we demand fewer cop cars!’), but also the symbolism of conveying power (‘they couldn’t stop us doing this’) and of the threat of further disruption (‘unless we get what we want, more of everyday life will be disrupted’). The concrete effects of destroying one car may be small, but they may importantly add to morale effects, both positive for the protesters and negative for the police. And lots of these effects have the potential to be counter-productive through provoking a backlash, or to provoke/constitute escalation which also has mixed effects, and their net effect is likely to be a product of their interaction with lots of other things. As you say, there are some much nicer symbolic cases, like turning an APC into a flower planter – I think pulling down or defacing confederate monuments, or tipping Colston into the sea, are great instances of that.

        But, just to emphasise, I’m not really trying to say this is definitely a good tactic (though so far it looks like the movement has been having some notable successes, which tells us something), so much as to say that it’s appropriate to evaluate it tactically, or in the sort of costs-and-benefits, long-term-effects way that we might evaluate a new economic regulation. The language of ‘I support protests but never violence’ denies that – it says ‘the things I count as violence should be off the table, not even up for tactical evaluation.’

  2. Pingback: Not Disorder, But Alternative Order | Majestic Equality

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