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Black Lives Matter and the politics of violence

Is violence only physical, or is it part of the structures of our societies? 

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Over the past few weeks the world has been rocked by protests over the death of George Floyd, a 46 year-old unarmed black man who was killed by a white police officer in Minneapolis, Minnesota. From Washington to Pretoria, under the banner of ‘Black Lives Matter’, with chants of ‘No Justice No Peace’ and ‘I Can’t Breathe’, the demand for racial justice has reached a pitch not seen since the riots which followed the assassination of Martin Luther King, Jr. in 1968.

The scale and energy of the current protests combined with the open brutality of the police, conjure up images of the civil rights movement and the ensuing black power movement between the late 1960s and early 1970s. Like those campaigns, Black Lives Matter reminds us to put politics back into our thinking about violence. By connecting overt acts of police violence – the knee to George Floyd’s neck – to the organisation of our social and political life, the critique of racism asks us to take a wider view of the functioning of violence in society.

To suggest that we need to think politically about violence may sound counter-intuitive. After all, the insatiable 24-hour news cycle has no qualms against replaying footage of George Floyd’s death. Yet, we have a surprising number of techniques that enable us to avoid confronting the broader politics of violence.

We often pathologise violence, explaining it away as the product of a behavioural disease or a maladjusted personality rather than the near-inevitable response of police oppression or the last protest of the voiceless. Euphemistic talk of ‘mindless violence’ is used to overlook the political message of the protest and serves as license for reactionary state violence.

Our language also removes the political dimension of violence. The use of ‘chaos’ to describe demonstrations – how they ‘sank’ into chaos – suggests a spontaneous combustion, essentially inscrutable and incomprehensible. Likewise, the passive voice can be a linguistic sleight of hand for obscuring police culpability. Nick Martin, for The New Republic, noted how The New York Times reported the killing of George Floyd: “A man who died after being handcuffed and pinned to the ground by an officer’s knee.” In response, Martin asks rhetorically: “Will the officer’s knee be brought to justice?”

Lastly, we overlook political forms of violence by reducing violence to biological impulses. This reduction claims that there is something innate that drives us to do violence. Typically, it uses the latest scientific insights to contend that violence is a tool bequeathed to us by evolution to aid and promote survival. It’s a sort of ‘survival of the fittest’ theory, where the fittest are those that have developed a capacity to do violence.

Each way of erasing the political aspects of violence indicate a broader assumption we have about it: that the world is essentially peaceful and that an act of violence is an interruption of that peace. 

The political theorist Sheldon S. Wolin claims this common sense understanding of violence has two basic characteristics. The first is that violence is an “intensification of what we ‘normally’ expect,” it is something which exceeds a ‘normal’ level of controversy. It is the benign teacher lashing out at a student. The second is that violence has an “eruptive or unpredictable” quality. We feel that violence is something we are unprepared for, something that feels incommensurate with the situation. We expect the police to use coercive force during an arrest, but we do not expect them to use their trucks to run protestors down.

Throughout the 1960s and 70s, the black liberation movement challenged the notion that violence erupts out of nowhere and represents a break from a peaceful world by showing that violence is the norm rather than the exception. 

Martin Luther King Jr.’s non-violent resistance had the avowed desire to force a racist society to “commit [its] brutality openly in the light of day.” He wished to draw out the violence he knew to be everywhere just below the surface and, with the help of the newly invented television, have it committed with “the rest of the world looking on.”

Similarly, the activist and philosopher Angela Davis, one time member of the black panther party, spoke of the “violence that exists on the surface everywhere,” and more recently of the “quotidian nature of state violence” – racial profiling, racist language, juvenile incarceration – which speaks to a lived experience for black people suffused with violence due to the way society is organized.

Stokely Carmichael, the prominent civil rights organiser, took this notion even further by arguing that violence must be understood as a permanent feature of society. At a conference in London in 1967 he described the idea of the ‘slow death’. “Violence takes many forms,” he said, “it can take the form of physical warfare, or it can take the form of a slow death.” ‘Physical warfare’ was the mainstay of media reportage, but this was part and parcel of the ‘slow death’ brought about by structural racism, poverty, and unemployment.

Many have criticised the notion of ‘structural violence’. They argue that extending the concept of ‘violence’ in this way makes it meaningless, or at least it fails to capture something significant about the kind of violence we typically associate with ‘physical warfare’. Many also worry that the idea of ‘structural violence’ gives us a more permissive attitude towards violence, whereby those using violence for political ends can simply say that they were meeting the systemic violence of society with the direct violence of the gun.

Yet these concerns about structural violence miss the point that people like King, Davis, and Carmichael are trying to make: that is, to truly understand physical warfare, to understand where it comes from, it has to been seen as continuous with, not separate from, structural violence.

As the Black Lives Matter movement gains momentum, acknowledging the social and structural aspects of violence helps us see the use of violence differently. First, separating direct violence from structural violence leads to technical questions about violence that overlook systemic issues – such as endemic racism – and thus treat the eradication of violence as a matter of police training.

‘De-escalation tactics’ and ‘bias training’, for instance, turn the issue of police violence into an individual act by one or two ‘bad apples’. This ignores the way the police have been militarised in the US whilst simultaneously being required to deal with social problems in underprivileged black communities. It also overlooks the way police entry into non-white neighbourhoods is justified by certain assumptions and prejudices about these communities. 

Second, identifying the social and political features of violence leads us to stop, reflect, and understand before we condemn or condone its use. Seeking justification for violence is an important task, and for those who commit violence the onus is on them to demonstrate why their use of violence is exempt from something that is generally prohibited.

Unfortunately, the rush by pundits to condemn or justify allegedly inscrutable and chaotic violence serves as a diversion, drawing our attention away from the structural violence that gives rise to the spectacle of physical warfare in the first place. As the journalist Julia Craven writes: “When tear gas fogs up news cameras, rubber bullets bounce off skulls, buildings burn and glass shatters, the mainstream press sees a sudden dystopia. But Black folks see what we’ve been living with all along.”

In the end, acknowledging the existence of structural violence and refusing to treat violence as unpredictable or eruptive will leave us better prepared to understand the lived experience of others. And more importantly, seeing ‘physical warfare’ as continuous with ‘slow death’ will put us in a better position to eradicate violence from our social life than when we fixate of the spectacle of riots in the street.

Alexander Blanchard is a researcher in the history of political violence at Queen Mary University of London. This article is part of the Agora series, a collaboration between the New Statesman and Aaron James Wendland, Professor of Philosophy at the Higher School of Economics. He tweets @ajwendland