Why recent events have confirmed my views on the importance of violence in social and political change.
Kapaernick takes the Knee
I have always agreed that the only way that political change would take place was through a slow evolutionary process. As Marx argued, where the inherent injustices in the system would eventually be eroded through a continuation of enlightened socialistic thought. This argument was always based upon our species evolution which has seen a gradual humanisation of our condition. In the space of a few hundred years, we have progressed from a society that used torture such as crucifixion or mutilation as a matter of course on its subjects as part of the system of justice to one where the death penalty, in any form, is widely regarded as immoral. A few years ago, a friend came out with a statement which made me stop and reconsider my views. We were talking politics and about injustice in the world when he said, this is’nt a direct quote, “I’m a Maoist, and I believe that the only way that you can achieve real political change is through violence”. I have often played the apologist for violence and sought to play devil’s advocate when it came to terrorism and when it was ever permissible, coming mainly from an ethical point of view. However, the idea stayed with me, bubbling in my subconscious, waiting for a realisation and affirmation. The recent Black Lives Matter (BLM) protests in the United States, and reactions around the world,has given me cause to re-evaluate my attitude towards Marx and Mao’s ideas on political change.
Let’s just clear up what I mean by a Maoist point of view. Mao Tse Tung, the father of Modern China, led a small band of supporters against both the Japanese and the Kuomintang, Chinese nationalists, through the 1920’s and 40’s. Mao decided that he would use the latent strength and potential violence of the uneducated peasantry as the instrument of political change. He believed that ‘political power came from the barrel of a gun’ meaning that the only way we can truly take power from the incumbent power brokers is through violence. Now this sounds quite Trumpian, using the uneducated as your base of power, but one of the issues that we see in political discourse is confusion between ideology and strategy. For example, terrorism is a strategy that can be used by any ideology just as populism can be used by both the left and right. But before we get into my change of heart or disappear down a rabbit hole I’ll begin with a story, one of injustice, police death squads, terrorism and hope.
The South Africa Link
On the 27th April 1989 four young black men stood before Judge Marius De Klerk, accused of a string of assassinations and bombings, resulting in the deaths of collaborators of the regime, and innocent bystanders. The four accused, dressed in combat uniforms and refusing to recognise the legitimacy of the court, were part of an African National Congress (ANC) assassination squad, intent on undermining the brutal white minority system of government in South Africa known as Apartheid. The system, at the time, was based on the power of the minority white population, who held all the political power and voting rights. Government operated hit squads regularly executed opposition activists at will; its police force staffed with predominantly white officers supported by black collaborators, routinely used torture on detainees. If you watch old news reel of riots in black townships you would often see police officers attacking the crowd with a mixture of firearms, log whips and German Shepard dogs.
Faced with such a system of government the four men refused to put forward a defence, their argument, that they were not criminals but political fighters against an unjust regime. Their only defender, a young inexperienced white lawyer, was faced with defending these men against the only conclusion that South African law would allow, a death sentence.
South African Police tactics during Apartheid
With the weight of evidence against the men overwhelming, the ultimate sentence of death was duly delivered; however, it was the words of Judge De Klerk which made this particular sentence different and starts to help us in our understanding of the question, when is violence justifiable? De Klerk, in summing up stated, “I am therefore of the opinion that these extenuating circumstances are significant enough to render the peremptory imposition of the death sentence improper and that a sentence within the discretion of the court be requested.” What De Klerk meant was that the circumstances in South Africa was so extraordinary that these men could be excused for their attacks on the system. When you are faced with such an extreme set of circumstances, in which your society or your culture, or even your way of life, is under threat. When you have no recourse to justice in your own lands and are subject to a cruel and vicious oppressor then violence is justifiable in order to overturn these injustices. De Klerk did not get his wish, South African Courts had two overseers alongside the judge, and it was these two men that out voted Judge De Klerk forcing him to deliver the death penalty.
This trial was a key component in the creation of the peace and reconciliation commission in 1993, formed after the end of Apartheid in South Africa. The commission took the view that the use of violence on both sides should be judged by the nature of the circumstances that the violence was born. This was an incredibly magnanimous position for black South African leaders to take after the years of brutality at the hands of the white minority. This utilitarian approach to violence prevented a potential orgy of violent retribution upon the white South African community. Paradoxically the peace and reconciliation commission prevented this wider violence by accepting that violence was an acceptable part of certain, extreme, situations, be that the black majority’s right to fight oppression or white minority’s right to defend their position of power.
The four accused eventually survived jail and met Judge De Klerk many years later. Where the men in the right? Judge De Klerk seems to support the notion that there is a line of oppression over which violence, as an instrument of change, could possibly be justified.
O say does that star-spangled banner yet wave
O’er the land of the free…..?
If we, now, travel the nearly 9,000 miles from the Southern African plateaus and veldt to the Bayous and iron laden mountains of the United States. The land of freedom and democracy, where all men are created equal, and everyone has a fair shot of the American dream. How could we possibly go from Apartheid South Africa with its white minority rule and denial of rights and political inclusion of the black majority to this beacon of freedom? If we look past the perfect white teeth and gym toned bodies of America that is shown every night on primetime. If we tear down the curtains and lift up the carpets, we see some of the truth. We see violence, injustice, social depravity, murder, racism and robbery played out in the inner city’s and trailer parks all over that nation. We are confronted with a long list of African Americans murdered by police officers and other citizens, and react in horror at the circumstances: Trayvon Martin, the seventeen-year-old African American shot in the chest for walking through a neighbourhood; Eric Garner suffocated for selling cigarettes on the street; George Floyd, pleading for his life while a white policeman kneeled on his throat. The world watched many of these incidents in horror as these young men died unnecessarily, victims of systematic violence towards black people whilst the perpetrators, in many cases, walked away from prosecution. A huge signal to the rest of the world that black lives really didn’t matter. How can this be?
How can a group of citizens who have been part of America since its inception STILL be asking for something fundamental to all citizens, a fair deal? They are asking for the basic concept of the founding of the American democracy, the right to life. Happiness? … that can come later. The United States was built upon the “Right of the People to alter or to abolish....” destructive governments… “and to institute new Government, laying its foundation on such principles and organizing its powers in such form, as to them shall seem most likely to affect their Safety and Happiness”. The Declaration of Independence goes on to state that when a people suffer “…a long train of abuses and usurpations.” then “….it is their right, it is their duty, to throw off such Government, and to provide new Guards for their future security.” Although not an outright recommendation of the use of violence, the prior and subsequent events of the bloody birth of America bear witness to the founding fathers attitude to violence when confronted with Tyranny.
The prevailing arguments of the civil rights movement, that violence doesn’t solve anything, holds some water. The declaration of Independence states that overthrowing the despot is something not taken lightly, stability being more important. So, in defence of the civil rights movement, which preached peaceful protest under the guardianship of Dr Martin Luther King, maybe the time wasn’t right, after all history is replete with examples of the misuse or counterproductive effects of using violence to right a political wrong: The IRA used violence to achieve what John Hulme’s SDLP was already doing through peaceful means; the French use of torture and violence in Algeria was totally counterproductive. There is also the defence that the Police do a difficult job in dangerous neighbourhoods and continually run the risk of being killed by increasingly heavily armed gangs and a gun loving general population. Due to this increased danger, we can understand the occasional mistake in law enforcement. We can also understand that every police department has a number of bad apples. And these arguments are perfectly legitimate, however they are not the full story. But after years of peaceful protest, why are black men still dying and why are their killers being allowed to walk free against the overwhelming evidence of police brutality? This is what we cannot forgive.
Let’s dig a little deeper into the historical nature of violence faced by African Americans (please note that the issues discussed here are not unique to the African American community, but for the sake of this article I am focusing on them). American Author, James Baldwin argues that America was built on the labour of African Americans, yet they were not included in the distribution of the rewards. The African American, according to Baldwin, was a handy comparison for poor whites to rationalise their lives, ‘we may be poor but at least we’re not Ni@@ers’. It was this mantra that perpetuated the American dream for whites, as if maybe they hadn’t reached the stars but at least they were’nt in the gutter and they’re thankful. Impoverished whites had something that their European counterparts never did, a class below that of their own (even the Serfs of Russia were eventually brought into the peasant fold). An opportune excuse to think, ‘it could be worse……’.
But who can blame the white working class for wanting to enforce these differences? Faced with the choice of realising that they are at the bottom of society, they fight to maintain a perceived supremacy over the African American community. Rather than embrace as one commonality, a fine socialist ideal of workers uniting against the elites, they hijack symbols and ideals of American nationalism as uniquely white. They eschew the idea of the American melting pot in their efforts to cling on to their notions of white supremacy, in order to find some value in their social position. So, it is understandable, not forgivable, that the uneducated poor white masses would do everything in their power to maintain their status. And it is the conservative elites in US society who use the poorly educated white community as their foot soldiers, in their attempt to maintain the status quo. The one ideology that could save them is used as a bogey man to mobilise them. Universal healthcare is socialism; unions are socialism; government regulation is socialism; caring about black lives is socialism; anything that looks like wealth distribution from the rich to the poor is socialism and socialism is bad. It’s an easy sell to the white working class, who felt that their fathers or even themselves, were sold out to the communists in Vietnam; after all the US had spent the last 75 years fighting communism in one guise or another. From Russia to China, one ‘evil empire’ after another to borrow from Ronald Reagan.
This echoes the situation that the Delmas four found themselves, a hierarchical society with a white apex with the full force of the state employed to maintain their power. Even poor whites in South Africa thanked their gods that they were not black, and the system of government overtly maintained that status quo. When judge De Klerk declared that the situation under apartheid rule was so extraordinary, that the violence carried out by these men was excusable enough to spare their lives he was, arguably, advocating the utility of violence in extreme circumstances. Whites, by supporting this regime for their community’s gain, were complicit in its excesses. This complicity then compromises their shield of innocence.
So when Donald Trump is accused of dividing America, he was merely continuing a long tradition of divide and rule. American History is full of these social divisions, with political and industrial elites using successive waves of immigrants against each other as some awful twist to Lenin’s notion of ‘refined nationalism’ where culture and nationalism is used by elites to divide workers globally. And Its not just the US who have used divide and rule, colonizers throughout history have divided areas under their control using different societal groups against each other in order to mask the colonizers insufficient numbers for such large swathes of land. The British in India took advantage of differences between Hindus, Sikhs and Muslims in India in order to control the sub-continent using local troops. The Belgians exacerbated differences and bred hate between the three main ethnic groups: The Hutu, Tutsi and Tri, and we can still see the effects of these policies today.
Howard Zinn, in his seminal ‘The Peoples History of The United States of America’ argues that the US elites used successive waves of nationalities against each other, especially when the workforce began unionising. An example of this occurred in the February of 1917 when the majority white, workers of the Aluminum (sic) Ore Company in St Louis went on strike for better pay. Rather than give in to the demands of the strikers the company owners hired 470 black labourers who were fleeing the Jim Crow laws in the south. The subsequent furore from the white population of St Louis ignited months of bloodletting against the black population who, in the eyes of the White Anglo-Saxon Protestant (WASP), population of St Louis were coming to take their jobs by undercutting the established workers and lowering wages. This bloodletting started with a march of 3,000 white union members protesting the employment of these strike breakers. It soon culminated into groups of whites attacking random black people in the streets and horrific acts of violence including lynching’s. By the end of the disturbances between 100 and 200 black people were dead and 6,000 left homeless.
This and the subsequent events where no isolated incident as the massive industrial growth the US was experiencing required huge amounts of labour. The original WASP population were well placed to benefit from the industrial and economic boom of the USA at the turn of the 20th century. However, as the US economy grew so did the desire for labour. The request, in Emma Lazarus’s famous sonnet ‘The New Colossus’, “Give me your tired, your poor, / Your huddled masses yearning to breathe free” was duly obeyed, by masses of Italians, Slavs and Jews from Eastern Europe at the turn of the 20th Century in what was termed as the ‘New Wave’ of Immigrants. This new influx, coinciding with the movement, north, of black labour from the South, created a buyer’s market for the northern industrialists. It was this use of Black and Italian labour to break strikes and drive down wages, just as the Irish did in the previous century, which exacerbated the divisive atmosphere in US race relations which continues to this day. Outsiders taking our jobs, sound familiar? Perpetuated by the elites who’s only interest is wealth creation for themselves, sound familiar? Divide and rule, the oldest trick in the colonialist’s handbook.
The grip of the long line of white Anglo-Saxo Protestant men on power was slightly loosened when John F Kennedy was elected president. There was widespread adulation amongst the Irish American Catholic population, as the first of their number to sit in the oval office. Yet America still wasn’t ready for a black president? Nor was it ready for an Italian or Slavic President. Black people had been building America long before the Irish so why not a black president? Why did it take so long for America to welcome a black president to the highest political seat in the land? Even that victory was tempered, Barack Obama, let’s not forget, had a white mother. It’s as if even a black president still needed to have some form of dilution.
Returning to the idea of peaceful protest and arguments against the use of violence. If peaceful protest worked, why was there a need for Black Lives Matter? If peaceful protest worked why did Colin Kaepernick’s kneeling, at the national anthem, end his career and force the NFL and the team owners to disown him for “disrespecting America”? Why did John Carlos and Tommy Smith become ostracised from the US sporting Community, and receive death threats, for their black power salute on the podium during the 1968 Olympics? This incident led to Time Magazine to describe the scene as, “angrier, nastier, uglier”. Let’s not forget, this was during a period where racism was overt in US society. This was a cry for help on the world stage. ‘Look at what our own countrymen are doing to us’. They were viewed as American whilst they wore their medals in team USA’s uniform. Take the uniform off and they were just….…well you know. White Americans could look at these two men’s achievements and be proud to be an American because they were a product of the American system. They could then look at their own life and feel better about their slow or stalled progress toward the American dream because their system had been proved superior on the world stage and at least they weren’t black, and America beat the commies.
Fast forward to the 2020 NFL season which took place against the backdrop of the George Floyd murder and subsequent nights of violence. Gone where the angry voices of the commissioner Roger Goodell and the team owners. In 2017 Jerry Jones the owner of the Dallas Cowboys declared that any of his player that takes a knee during the national anthem won’t play for his team again. Yet in June 2020 Goodell released a video apologising for the NFL’s previous stance and told America that Black lives did matter. Even Jerry Jones softened his stance on the protest. Watch any game of the 2020-21 season and you will see the names of victims of police brutality and racism on the padding on the backs of players helmets. What changed? Violence as a form of protest? It could be argued that the violence created a spotlight on the injustices heaped upon the African American community.
What if Peaceful protest doesn’t work?
If peaceful protest worked, or a sense of collective guilt or shame for deeds done worked; why didn’t the brutal murder of 14 year old Emmet Till, the Chicago boy who was beaten and lynched for being rude to white lady in a shop, trigger longer lasting change? Sure, the internet age has meant that George Floyd and Eric Garner, to name but two, had their murder filmed and posted all around the world. Even Emmet Till’s open casket, requested by his mother, illustrating to the whole world the brutality of the beating and lynching that young Emmet had been subjected failed to result in a violent backlash or major change. The Montgomery bus boycott did lead to change and was a major episode in the search for civil rights. But it was violence, or the fear/threat of it, inflicted by the white population on the African Americans of Mississippi which helped maintain the status quo. Black people feared further lynching’s if they attempted to engage in any form of violent retribution for Till’s murder. The threat of violence suppressed one groups actions so why would violence force another group to reconsider theirs?
In 2020, throughout America, Americans came out to protest the killings of black men by the hands of predominantly white police officers. The movement known as Black Lives Matter was born. Why there was a need for such a movement speaks to the ultimate failure of the civil rights movement. In their research on, ‘Explaining support for political violence’, where they studies attitudes to Violence in; Northern Ireland, Nepal and Guatemala, Karin Drystad and Solveig Hillesund argued that the more people think that their voice counts, the less likely they are to commit violence. In other words violence becomes an act of desperation, a cry for change.
Other contributing factors from this study are, state favouritism and increased economic inequality, ascontributors to the increase in support for political violence. If we consider that African Americans represent 13.2% of the US population yet represent 23.8% of the people in poverty population. And that, although the percentage has dropped since the 1950’s the African American population have remained top of the poverty spectrum. If we then add the lengths that some authorities have gone in the the US to suppress black voters such as limiting voting machines (some black voter queued for up to 11 hours during the 2020 election). It is more surprising that violence has not erupted earlier and the violence that did erupt, during the BLM protests, wasn’t more violent and nihilistic.
So when faced with a situation of consistently being at the bottom of the social pile, like African Americans have found themselves, and peaceful protest has only got you so far, what are your options? Judge De Klerk knew what the options were, which is why he was so lenient on the Delmas four. When you no longer feel that you have a say in politics then violence is a viable answer. If a child cries for a sweet and is ignored eventually that child will tug on their parents’ coat for a response, the physical act is the final scene of the scenario where the child feels that it has no option but to physically grab the attention.
When I say grab the attention, the line must be drawn somewhere, and that is at the deliberate loss or threat of the loss of life. When I talk about violence, I am specifically targeting property and any violence that is necessary in self-defence, whether that be by law enforcement or rival protesters. It is this route that the ANC took at the start of their campaign against apartheid, by targeting infrastructure of the South African state in their bombing campaign. This is taking Bentham’s utilitarian approach where the value of the good that the violence will produce has to be weighed up against the value of the damage the violence inflicts. In other words are the lives and futures of 13% of the US population worth more or less than the damage to property that their rage inflicts. If we look at the cost in black lives that this situation has already taken it would be difficult to choose a place to begin. Do we start with the slave transportations and slavery and the deaths involved during that period or shall we start from emancipation and count the lynchings and miscarriages of justice? Or shall we keep it within the last ten years? The cost in black lives in the last ten years alone is more than enough to forgive the damage to property that the BLM protests have caused since their inception.
It is this grabbing the attention through violence, which has focused minds on the issues within American society. The protests cast a light on the inequalities and violence within the system more than the individual killings or the effects of poverty. The murder of a black man, filmed and streamed to our devices, is no longer enough to engender change amongst politicians and elites. This is a sad situation, where damage to property is more of a motivator for political change than the senseless loss of a life. It also supports the theory that something else is needed, and violence is that something. The propaganda of the deed, the act of carrying out violence on the streets of the US seems to be a good answer to solving America’s long standing issues with its treatment of the African American population. What have they got to lose? They are being killed anyway, some of them in their own apartments; the killers, protected by local politics and ‘good ole boy’ networks, allowed to act with impunity. Years of programs like Cops have fed the US public on a diet of good cops doing a tough job against, predominantly African American, poor people and white trailer trash. It’s interesting that these programs never feature white collar criminals or corrupt politicians. Conrad Black’s arrest was not filmed by a TV crew and beamed into the homes of America, when his crimes affected the lives of many more people, and in much greater ways, than the poor black guy who is being brutally ridiculed on prime-time TV for stealing a car or having a bag of drugs in his car.
The Revolution May be Televised
Musician and political activist, Gill scot Heron was one of the first people brave enough to compare Apartheid South Africa to the situation in the US. He was, arguably, correct in many ways about the similarities between the two systems. The African American population have never really been released from their shackles, they are still viewed as an underclass, a handy foil for poor whites to appreciate their situation. Like their South African counterparts, the African American community have been the victims of systematic violence and racism, for years this has been ignored. The deontological argument would say that this is wrong and should be corrected. The issue is that it has never been fully corrected. What the violence of the BLM movement has done is to make people sit up and take notice of the injustices. This is why the right has reacted with such vitriol against BLM, they are a threat to the white idea that they may be poor but at least there is a class lower than them. Right wing elites see this as a threat because they are at serious risk of losing their cultural hegemony over the poor white masses. Fed a cocktail of conspiracy theories and anti-communist US nationalistic bullshit, they are kept content with scraps from the tables of the rich and powerful; just enough to buy luxuries but not enough to break the cycle of poverty and ignorance.
However, it has also forced the people on the left (if there is such a thing in US politics) to stop paying lip service to civil rights and start looking towards serious change. Whether this occurs is something that time will reveal. Michael Walzer justifies the use of violence only when the actor puts constraints on their actions. i.e. innocents and people who are not directly involved in the conflict should not be targeted. Walzer is effectively asking if two wrongs make a right? The answer to this is no, two wrongs do not make a right however this also begs the question, if there is intolerable suffering inflicted upon a people or a way of life is in danger of extinction by a stronger group is it right to stand by and allow it to happen? The answer is certainly no which is why I am reconsidering my view on political change through violence. As, holocaust survivor, Elie Wiesel argues, “society was composed of three simple categories: the killers, the victims, and the bystanders” he goes on to argue that the real crime of the holocaust was the indifference of those who stood by and allowed this to happen. I am not indifferent to poverty and systematic violence, nor should you be.