Back in the mid-1980s, when the African National Congress was still fighting the South Africa’s apartheid regime, I recall Secretary of State George Schultz testifying before some Senate committee. He clutched his pearls at the appearance that “some members of this body are speaking in favor of violence.”
Even then, when I wasn’t an anarchist or anything approaching it, I laughed myself silly. Just what, exactly, did he imagine those American troops were doing in Grenada? “We’re here from the Western Hemisphere Ladies Auxiliary, and here’s a fruit basket with some coupons for discounts at local merchants?” For that matter, what did he think those guys with the flintlocks were doing on Lexington Green?
In the official narrative, the question always concerns whether anyone and everyone but the state should engage in violence. The question of whether the state should engage in violence, or whether state violence should be evaluated in terms of the same standards of reasonableness as violence by nonstate actors, never crosses the threshold of visibility. The legitimacy of violence by the state is never even articulated as an issue.
That’s a shame. The state is not a mystical entity, a sum greater than the human beings making it up. The state is simply a group of human beings cooperating for common purposes — purposes frequently at odds with those of other groups of people, like the majority of people in the same society. And violent actions by an association of individuals who call themselves “the state” have no more automatic legitimacy than violent actions by associations of individuals who call themselves “the Ku Klux Klan” or “al Qaeda.”
The violent actions of the state deserve to be evaluated using the same criteria by which we judge the morality of the violent actions of any other grouping of individuals. Alexander Berkman, in “The ABC of Anarchism,” argued that the death and destruction caused by the institutionalized violence of the state was many times greater than that caused by anarchists or other revolutionaries. Who do you think has thrown more bombs — anarchists, or government military forces?
Despite all the mystification of “national security” and “national interest,” the interests served by the state’s military violence are every bit as particular as those served by any other violent actions carried out by other groups of individuals. The state is nothing but an association for armed violence on the part of those who make money at the expense of other people. As Howard Zinn said:
“In the history of secrets, withheld from the American people, this is the biggest secret: that there are classes with different interests in this country. To ignore that — not to know that the history of our country is a history of slaveowner against slave, landlord against tenant, corporation against worker, rich against poor — is to render us helpless before all the lesser lies told to us by people in power.”
So it is with all the hand-wringing over “violence” in recent confrontations between Occupy Portland and the Portland police.
Andy Robinson, a professor at Cambridge who specializes among other things in networked resistance movements, argues that there’s a very pernicious framing going on in news coverage of the issue. “There’s no mention of the fact that police have repeatedly, violently attacked Occupy protests which consisted simply of sit-downs and camp-outs. … The fact that police use violence routinely and with impunity is not mentioned. In fact, police violence as such (as opposed to excessive brutality) is treated as uncontroversial. … Protective moves such as using shields and face coverings are portrayed as proactively aggressive.”
Or as anarchist Occupy activist David Graeber says in response to Chris Hedges’ recent clueless attack, “the US media is simply constitutionally incapable of reporting acts of police repression as ‘violence.’ If the police decide to attack a group of protesters, they will claim to have been provoked, and the media will repeat whatever the police say … as the basic initial facts of what happened. This will happen whether or not anyone at the protest does anything that can be remotely described as violence.”
We saw Oakland mayor Jean Quan, with a straight face, quacking about protestors alleged to have violently invaded a YMCA building, when in fact they were desperately trying to escape through the building after police had “kettled” them and begun the wholesale use of chemical weapons upon them.
Such official lies by politicians and cops, Robinson argues, are a “psyop designed to conceal their own repeated use of violence. … People are quoted as being against ‘all violence’ without the implications for police violence being examined. It’s basically a double standard — we never see it questioned whether supporters of the status quo have a right to use violence (only whether the violence they use is excessive) … a bit like starting a debate, ‘should an invaded country use violence against the invaders,’ without mentioning the violence of the invaders or the act of invasion.”
This last comparison is telling, given the farcical entertainment we get every night on CNN. Iran, a country ringed by military bases garrisoned by a global superpower that spends nearly as much on its military forces as all the other countries in the world combined, constitutes a military “threat” to the country which is besieging it. And the beseiging country, which has military bases in half the countries of the world and has overthrown more governments than any previous empire in human history, is “defending itself.”
What’s more, if you look at the American “Defense” Department’s planning documents, the main “threat” presented by Iran is the horrifying possibility that it might be able to successfully defend itself against an American attack. Which attack, of course, would be entirely justified by the “aggressive” act of defying a direct order by the U.S. (or its UN Security Council proxy).
In this Orwellian conceptual world, the question of whether the state has the right to use violence doesn’t bear looking into. But in the real world, it does. The state is by far the greatest concentration of organized violence, and it almost always employs such violence for evil purposes — whether at Tahrir Square, Hama, or Oakland.
So if you’re arguing over whether Occupy should “use violence,” you’re asking the wrong question.