What is violence? Who is permitted to wield violence?

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We live in a violent country. That much cannot be disputed. In this photo, a person holds a weapon and a flag as members of the Proud Boys and other right-wing demonstrators rally on Saturday, Sept. 26, 2020, in Portland, Ore. Photo courtesy of Allison Dinner / AP Photo.

We live in a violent country. That much cannot be disputed. All around us are the symptoms of a country built on slavery, genocide and displacement. All around us are evictions, unpayable healthcare bills, police brutalities and sexual assault. 

But most of this violence is accepted as the natural order of things. A single mother of two being kicked out of her apartment because she lost her job and is unable to pay rent is not considered violence — it is just the law. A teenager committing suicide because his parents couldn’t afford a psychiatrist is not considered violence — it’s just unfortunate. 

The state is consistently allowed to wield violence, and the threat of violence, to keep us in line. Prisons are violence. Police are violence. The state and their corporate accomplices use threats of starvation, homelessness and sickness without insurance to force millions of Americans into accepting low-wages and poor working conditions. On an international scale, America inflicts violence on a daily basis. Economic sanctions against countries like Iran, North Korea, Cuba and Venezuela are directly responsible for death. Military violence in the form of drone strikes and invasions — as well as the threat of violence through the United States’ hundreds of international military bases — keeps the rest of the world in check. 

The U.S. requires violence and the threat of violence to maintain its dominance. 

In recent months, we’ve seen the largest American rebellion against state violence in decades. Millions of protestors have taken to the streets in honor of George Floyd, Breonna Taylor, Jacob Blake and so many other victims of racist policing. 

In some cases, protesters have burned police stations and squad cars. They’ve stolen from Walmart and Target. Their actions have been met with a militarized state crackdown and familiar labels: “looters,” “rioters” and “anarchists.” 

In the context of these events, the question of what constitutes violence could not be more important. Why are the actions of some groups (namely black protesters) marked as violent, while others (namely the state and the police) designated as natural and necessary? 

For so many residents of America, state violence is not just common — it is total. For so many poor indigenous communities, poor black communities, for black women and transgender communities, violence is a condition of their existence. A country built on slavery, genocide, patriarchy and colonialism is necessarily violent. 

For so many white, wealthy Americans (a categorization which includes myself), violence is invisible. They don’t live in neighborhoods with aggressive policing. They don’t have to confront poverty and homelessness on a daily basis. They’re under no threat of deportation or otherwise being wrenched from their home and families. 

The world of racial capitalism is upheld by violence, but when those who are subject to the violence strike back, it’s cast as an overreaction, as the work of outside agitators and anarchists. This dominant narrative has forced so many organizers into labeling their protests as “peaceful” — when in truth, it’s entirely reasonable to accept violence as a reaction to hundreds of years of state violence. When the rebellion heats up again, I don’t think we should submit to arguments which privilege property and state violence above justifiable backlash. 

As Assata Shakur famously said: “Nobody in the world, nobody in history, has ever gotten their freedom by appealing to the moral sense of the people who were oppressing them.” 

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