Police and demonstrators clash after a limo was set on fire on K Street NW following the inauguration of President Donald Trump on Jan. 20 in Washington, D.C. (Photo credit: SPENCER PLATT/Getty Images)
The phenomenology of extraordinary violence
The failure of the questions that we have tried so far is that they ask, in one way or another, whether or not political violence is warranted or wise. Should we do it? Does it work? Is it OK? The limitation of such questions is made plain by even the most cursory examination of reality. There is political violence. We are not in a position to decide if there ought to be.
I have no moral verdict for political violence nor any tactical advice to give about it. What I am interested in is its phenomenology and circumstance. There are Nazis. There are men in black hoodies punching them in the streets. Why? For all but the most zealous, political violence is a risk seldom worth taking, even when it is as mild as a single punch. For all the conviction in the world, for all the moral and tactical certainty, it is still too much for most people under most circumstances to imperil their freedom and their bodies in service of a cause. As the reach and power of the state have grown, so has the danger. There are always, at any rate, plenty of luxuries and distractions. Yet violence persists in spite of all this. Why? This is the phenomenological question, and it seems to me the only sensible one to begin with, for if we cannot say why political violence occurs, there’s little sense coming to moral or tactical conclusions about it. We don’t yet even know what it means.
The cheapest answer is found in the savagery of the human heart, but it is not sufficient. Perhaps we are always looking for a license to kill and burn and break; perhaps it is an inextinguishable constant that political disputes settled in words and laws are temporary but conflicts settled in blood are permanent. Bellum omnium contra omnes. If so, then the curious feature of society is not that political violence occurs but that we have so thoroughly contained it. But I do not believe this, and I doubt that many do. Moreover, I know that even if this were so, then it would not answer why political violence in the Western world is rising or why it feels as if it is. Even if Leviathan is only leaking, we still must know where the leak is coming from.
Phenomenology is, at least, a good method for finding the right question. If we want to make sense of political violence, we must know why it happens and why it is happening now. I’ll give a provisional answer for our present moment. If political violence is a risk and is therefore rare, then its increasingly frequent outbreak must reflect some intolerable pressure, circumstances sufficient to overcome every prohibition we have put in place to prevent it. This is perhaps what is meant by the curse of living in interesting times.
With the ascension of Donald Trump, the United States finds itself in an uncertain place, and this uncertainty is felt most acutely among the poor and oppressed. Perhaps it should not surprise us that under such circumstances, more and more people are convinced that the official channels of political redress have broken down, that the system is not working and therefore extreme measures must be taken. For two years, mainstream American media has called Trump a fascist. I don’t believe that, but for those who do, what strategic conclusion can they reach? You don’t fight a fascist the same way that you fight a standard stock reactionary. You certainly don’t fight him by calling your Congressmen and writing sternly worded takes. The more dire the stakes, the more inadequate the sanctioned and encouraged avenues of redress, and this, perhaps, is the great power that violence has over its commissioner. Even in small doses, it seems to honor the seriousness of his circumstances. We have made great progress, in this country, confining political violence to the place beyond the pale. In ordinary discourse, it is beyond even the uncivil and unwise; there is no recourse that provokes more ready condemnation. But this only heightens its significance. If violence is an extraordinary recourse, then its use signifies extraordinary circumstances, affirming the abnormality and urgency of its conditions. A voice calling in the wilderness may not be heard. It is difficult to ignore a forest fire.
On Inauguration Day, black bloc protestors smashed the windows of banks and coffee shops in Washington, D.C. They painted a golden “A” on a limousine and set it on fire. Perhaps this was immoral. Perhaps it was tactically wrong, useless in the best case. But if the calculus of political violence converts fear and pressure into flames, then there is no sense insisting that the product is wrong. It just is. “They preferred the invention because this invention expressed and corroborated their hates and fears so perfectly,” James Baldwin wrote of the dubious causes of a riot in the New York City neighborhood of Harlem. “It is just as well to remember that people are always doing this.… The effect, in Harlem, of this particular legend was like the effect of a lit match in a tin of gasoline. The mob gathered before the doors of the Hotel Braddock simply began to swell and to spread in every direction, and Harlem exploded.”
Violence does not come from its immediate causes, and it is immune, in every case, to corrective lecturing. The intolerable pressure of a hateful and fearful world is always waiting to explode.
Demonstrators protest the shooting of Michael Brown in Ferguson, Mo., on Aug. 16, 2014. (Photo credit: JOE RAEDLE/Getty Images)
Is political violence on the rise in the United States? We have gone so far supposing that it is, but we should stop a moment to be certain. What have we seen lately? A few punches and petty looting, a few fires. Hot crowds. Even in the more than three-year history of the Black Lives Matter movement, which perhaps represents the focal point of civil discontent in this decade, only two or three cities have hosted a sustained uprising. The recent presidential campaign did not produce much either. Chicago saw a single night of unrest. In June, protestors at a Trump campaign rally in California assaulted several attendees, throwing fists and eggs but hospitalizing no one. The press called it a riot, but it wasn’t. Several weeks later, Micah Xavier Johnson assassinated five police officers in Dallas, acting, we are told, from political conviction, but it is more surprising that he has been the only one so far. Is this all? It is nothing even approaching the 1960s, when the president of the United States was assassinated; when Malcolm X and Martin Luther King Jr. were killed; when race riots and anti-war riots rocked every major city and even the Democratic National Convention became a running fight between protestors and the police; when the Weather Underground bombed buildings and a man won the California primary, gave a speech, walked outside, and was shot in the heart. We are even further from Blair Mountain. In this century, it is heartening to see even a peaceful strike of a thousand workers for a single day.
It is tempting to suspect that the phenomenology we should be after here is not that of renewed political violence but of the clouded looking glass that has deceived us into thinking we’re teetering on the brink of a new era at all. It would be comforting — and it would ring true enough, as far as it goes — to say that we have gained a distorted sense of our moment, something owing to the amplifying effects of social media, and it would be a simple matter to produce charts that show political violence is at its lowest level in decades. But charts bear their own distortions.
Political violence is not declining, but it is not rising, either. The fact of the matter is that political violence has never left us. It has only undergone a shift in the balance of its forms.
In Ferguson, Missouri, Darren Wilson opened fire on Michael Brown, leaving his body in the street for hours. Thousands of immigrants languished in U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement detention centers, while in Arizona their countrymen were held in prison tents in the summer heat by a thrifty sheriff. In the name of global security, drones whistle their impersonal homicides in the skies above Pakistan. Federal marshals return runaway slaves. Strikebreakers fire down the mountain at miners.
This, too, is political violence. How can we call it anything else? When worried pundits ask if we are in a new era of political violence, they are speaking only of the unsanctioned kind, the kind prohibited by convention and law, which tempts the dangerous and instant retribution of the state. They ask after only a small part of our subject, and they find it alien, like a great whale launching suddenly out from beneath calm water and crashing back down to disrupt our ordinary peace. But sanctioned brutality is the constant ambience of our republic and our empire. It is with us all the time. The whale disrupts the sea, but the sea is far larger and it is never calm.
If unsanctioned violence is the product of intolerable pressure, does sanctioned violence deserve to even share a name with it? There is no identifiable pressure behind nor any clear prohibition in the way of the sanctioned violence that constitutes the vast majority of the world’s political violence and which is itself the very cause of grinding pressure in individual lives. Anarchists burn limos because limo owners burn the planet. The miners strike because the company robs and breaks them. The streets of Ferguson explode because the city of Ferguson loots and kills the streets.
What is so terribly difficult to understand about the clutched pearls of our present day is how readily those most eager to condemn the incivility of burning cars and punches overlook the most basic fact about their home. This is America. We do not resolve our disagreements with debate here; we do not respect all views, settle differences at the ballot box, and live calm and dutiful in civil peace except when we are interrupted by callous and unjustifiable outbursts of violence. The continent was cleared by guns and smallpox, the nation built up by the whip. A police baton and a jail cell prop up our civil life, and this is not simply a matter of who struck first. Political violence is a violation of our status quo, even one indulged by “both sides” of some political struggle. It is the essential mechanism. We have been examining what we took to be a feature of the landscape but instead discovered a foundation, deep and essential to the stone.
In May 1920, 13 agents dispatched by the Stone Mountain Coal Company arrived in Matewan, a town in the West Virginia coalfields. Their purpose was forcible eviction, but the first family on their list did not cooperate. The agents threw the contents of the home into the road, forcing a mother and her children out at gunpoint, their things scattered all around them. Word spread quickly, and when the agents were leaving town, the local police chief and a group of deputized miners stopped them. The chief attempted to arrest the agents. The agents produced a warrant for the chief’s arrest. The mayor intervened. We are not sure what happened, but 10 men — seven from the agency and three from the town — were shot and killed in the rain. Even then, the Battle of Blair Mountain might still have been averted, but it cannot escape our notice that violence did not merely interrupt the ordinary operation of the coalfields. Violence is how the coalfields operated at all.
Left: A mob burns the remains of Will Brown in Omaha, Neb., after he was accused of assaulting a white woman in September 1919. (Photo credit: Chicago Tribune); Right: Dylann Roof appears via video uplink at Centralized Bond Hearing Court on June 19, 2015. (Photo credit: GRACE BEAHM/Pool/Getty Images)
The Violence of the Right
On Sept. 26, 1919, a 41-year-old black man with acute rheumatism named Will Brown was accused of viciously assaulting a white woman in Omaha, Nebraska. We do not know if he was guilty because before he was arrested, he was dead. The night of the alleged attack, a mob gathered outside Brown’s home, forcing dozens of police officers to escort him to the county courthouse. The crowd followed and grew. Despite nearly 50 officers kept on for crowd control, they could not stop the thousands of people who surrounded them. The mob looted nearby stores, stealing guns and firing into the courthouse windows. They lit the building on fire next. When firefighters arrived, they were stopped from extinguishing the flames.
The policemen and other officials escaped somehow, either let go or exchanged for Brown, who could not escape. The mob stripped him and tied him to a lamppost. They hoisted him into the air, hanged, and shot over and over. When they were done, they tied his body to the back of a car and drove it downtown. Then they burned what was left of Will Brown.
Somewhere between sanctioned and unsanctioned brutality, there is a liminal kind, officially condemned but operating in the service of sanctioned power. What are we to make of it? Two men beat an immigrant on the street, “making America great again.” George Zimmerman stands his ground. Dylann Roof walks into a church in Charleston, South Carolina, and murders nine people in prayer. If we are speaking of political violence today, then surely these right-wing acts are among its most visible terrors, but how can they be classified?
Zimmerman stood trial. Roof was even found guilty and will be put to death. In the strict sense, lynching was never entirely legal, but if we attempt to call it unsanctioned, to make hate crimes commensurable with strikes and slave revolts, our conscience invariably rises up to contradict us. If neo-Nazis burn down the block, their riot is not Martin Luther King’s language of the unheard. The right-wing killer operates outside the strict boundary of the law but in accordance with the structure of power. He is not rising up against his oppressor. He is beating and killing those over whom he already has dominion.
Of course, this hardly matters to the psychology of the situation. Zimmerman believes a skinny black teenager means to kill him. Disgruntled white workers believe immigrants are stealing their food and raping their daughters. Roof believes that America is facing a white genocide and acts accordingly. Motivations are not frequently subject to fact-checking. But psychology cannot make sense of the organized campaigns of right-wing terrorism that followed the end of Reconstruction nor the perverse sport that persists into our own time of provoking queer Americans into confrontations and beatings. Individual psychosis does not explain this unless every Klansman carried out a century of terrorism in a fugue.
The liminal violence of the right exists within a framework of the permissible: a nation that implies through its rhetoric and its legal habits that while it isn’t saying this is allowed, take care not to get caught, or be too obvious, and you stand a good chance of getting off.
It would insult the intelligence of evil men to say that they do not understand this, that they are not, at least, cognizant on some level that they do not risk life and limb quite so fully as violent actors on the left. Although many may be suffering in their own ways, growing restless under the strain of economic and demographic forces they do not fully understand, their violence is not the result of intolerable pressure; if it honors the seriousness of its commissioner’s circumstances at all, it honors only a sublimation. Neither unsanctioned nor sanctioned, this liminal violence is a third kind, the unsanctioned violence of pure will. Its actors see a world slipping away or changing, a state insufficiently committed to their preferences. Their violence is political, but it is not for or against official power. It is for their own power, of which there is never enough.
The Violence of the Whole World
Have we got the question right yet? I set out to make sense of political violence, of a moment in our history when it appears to be on the rise. But even settling on the right avenue has produced too many answers. The phenomenology of violence is the explosion of pressure. It is the churning mechanism of the republic and the electric wrath of a reactionary will to power. It comes from every side and every angle, from some calculus that is adding new variables all the time. It is no longer difficult to see the causes of political violence but to find some area untouched by its effects.
For all this, we are afraid of violence. We dislike it and rightly prefer in almost every case to see it gone. We hate to be reminded of it, and that’s what all the worry is right now. But despite this, it is everywhere, in the miner charging up the mountain, the policeman murdering a child, in the burning car and the burning cross and the burning city street. It is everywhere because although we hate it, we do not hate it half as much as the terrible gulf within our hearts between the world as it is and the world as it ought to be. This is the secret. What we are seeing now and what we have always seen is only this fury and desire projected outside our bodies. We are social animals. Politics is the art of deriving an is from an ought, and no matter our self-deception, we have never done this with words alone. Political violence is redundant. I believe that. Political violence is politics by degrees.
Politics are the channels of power, and violence is the byproduct of their imbalance. The world changes violently, and violently it tries to hold itself together. It works toward equilibrium but cannot find it. Power breeds violence in its obligations and in its absence, in the lust it inspires within the wicked and the yearning it summons in the oppressed. The question is not how politics became violent. It is whether we can conceive of a world where it is not. We’ve never seen one. The world is not as it should be, and the chasm grows wider with every tectonic upheaval; the problem of political violence, then, is the problem of turning continental plates. Is this an impossible task? If it is not, then we have our final question: What is to be done?
Top photo credit: AP/Getty Images/Charleston Gazette/Foreign Policy illustration