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.