Violence Never Works? Really?
How do you think this country came to be?
The moralizing has begun.
Those who have rarely been the target of organized police gangsterism are once again lecturing those who have about how best to respond to it.
Be peaceful, they implore, as protesters rise up in Minneapolis and across the country in response to the killing of George Floyd. This, coming from the same people who melted down when Colin Kaepernick took a knee — a decidedly peaceful type of protest. Because apparently, when white folks say, “protest peacefully,” we mean “stop protesting.”
Everything is fine, nothing to see here.
It is telling that much of white America sees fit to lecture black people about the evils of violence, even as we enjoy the national bounty over which we claim possession solely as a result of the same. I beg to remind you, George Washington was not a practitioner of passive resistance. Neither the early colonists nor the nation’s founders fit within the Gandhian tradition. There were no sit-ins at King George’s palace, no horseback freedom rides to affect change. There were just guns, lots and lots of guns.
We are here because of blood, and mostly that of others. We are here because of our insatiable desire to take by force the land and labor of others. We are the last people on Earth with a right to ruminate upon the superior morality of peaceful protest. We have never believed in it and rarely practiced it. Instead, we have always taken what we desire, and when denied it, we have turned to means utterly genocidal to make it so.
Even in the modern era, the notion that we believe in non-violence or have some well-nurtured opposition to rioting is belied by the evidence. Indeed, white folks riot for far less legitimate reasons than those for which African Americans might decide to hoist a brick, a rock, or a bottle.
We have done so in the wake of Final Four games, or because of something called Pumpkin Festival in Keene, New Hampshire. We did it because of $10 veggie burritos at Woodstock ’99, and because there weren’t enough Porta-Potties after the Limp Bizkit set.
We did it when we couldn’t get enough beer at the 2002 Winter Olympics in Salt Lake, and because Penn State fired Joe Paterno.
We did it because what else do a bunch of Huntington Beach surfers have to do? We did it because a “kegs and eggs” riot sounds like a perfectly legitimate way to celebrate St. Patrick’s Day in Albany.
Far from amateur hooliganism, our riots are violent affairs that have been known to endanger the safety and lives of police, as with the infamous 1998 riot at Washington State University. According to a report at the time:
The crowd then attacked the officers from all sides for two hours with rocks, beer bottles, signposts, chairs, and pieces of concrete, allegedly cheering whenever an officer was struck and injured. Twenty-three officers were injured, some suffering concussions and broken bones.
Twenty-two years later, we wait for academics to ruminate about the pathologies of these whites in Pullman, whose culture of dysfunction was taught to them by their rural families and symbolized by the recognizable gang attire of Carhartt work coats and backward baseball caps.
Back to the present: To speak of violence done by black people without uttering so much as a word about the violence done to them is perverse. And by violence, I don’t mean merely that of police brutality. I mean the structural violence that flies under the radar of most white folks but which has created the broader conditions in black communities against which those who live there are now rebelling.
Let us remember, those places to which we refer as “ghettos” were created, and not by the people who live in them. They were designed as holding pens — concentration camps were we to insist upon plain language — within which impoverished persons of color would be contained. Generations of housing discrimination created them, as did decade after decade of white riots against black people whenever they would move into white neighborhoods. They were created by deindustrialization and the flight of good-paying manufacturing jobs overseas.
And all of that is violence too. It is the kind of violence that the powerful, and only they, can manifest. One needn’t throw a Molotov cocktail through a window when one can knock down the building using a bulldozer or crane operated with public money. Zoning laws, redlining, predatory lending, stop-and-frisk: all are violence, however much we fail to understand that.
As I was saying, it is bad enough that we think it appropriate to admonish persons of color about violence or to say that it “never works,” especially when it does. We are, after all, here, which serves as rather convincing proof that violence works quite well. What is worse is our insistence that we bear no responsibility for the conditions that have caused the current crisis and that we need not even know about those conditions. It brings to mind something James Baldwin tried to explain many years ago:
…this is the crime of which I accuse my country and my countrymen and for which neither I nor time nor history will ever forgive them, that they have destroyed and are destroying hundreds of thousands of lives and do not know it and do not want to know it…but it is not permissible that the authors of devastation should also be innocent. It is the innocence which constitutes the crime.
White America has a long and storied tradition of not knowing, and I don’t mean this in the sense of genuinely blameless ignorance. This ignorance is nothing if not cultivated by the larger workings of the culture. We have come by this obliviousness honestly, but in a way for which we cannot escape culpability. It’s not as if the truth hasn’t been out there all along.
It was there in 1965 when most white Californians responded to the rebellion in the Watts section of Los Angeles by insisting it was the fault of a “lack of respect for law and order” or the work of “outside agitators.”
The truth was there, but invisible to most whites when we told pollsters in the mid-1960s — within mere months of the time that formal apartheid had been lifted with the Civil Rights Act of 1964 — that the present situation of black Americans was mostly their own fault. Only one in four thought white racism, past or present, or some combination of the two, might be the culprit.
Even before the passage of civil rights laws in the 1960s, whites thought there was nothing wrong. In 1962, 85 percent of whites told Gallup that black children had just as good a chance as white children to get a good education. By 1969, a mere year after the death of Martin Luther King Jr., 44 percent of whites told a Newsweek/Gallup survey that blacks had a better chance than they did to get a good-paying job. In the same poll, eighty percent of whites said blacks had an equal or better opportunity for a good education than whites did.
Even in the 1850s, during a period when black bodies were enslaved on forced labor camps known as plantations by the moral equivalent of kidnappers, respected white voices saw no issue worth addressing.
According to Dr. Samuel Cartwright, a well-respected physician of the 19th century, enslavement was such a benign institution that any black person who tried to escape its loving embrace must be suffering from mental illness. In this case, Cartwright called it “Drapetomania,” a malady that could be cured by keeping the enslaved in a “child-like state,” and by regularly employing “mild whipping.”
In short, most white Americans are like that friend you have, who never went to medical school, but went to Google this morning and now feels confident he or she is qualified to diagnose your every pain. As with your friend and the med school to which they never gained entry, most white folks never took classes on the history of racial domination and subordination, but are sure we know more about it than those who did. Indeed, we suspect we know more about the subject than those who, more than merely taking the class, actually lived the subject matter.
When white folks ask, “Why are they so angry, and why do some among them loot?” we betray no real interest in knowing the answers to those questions. Instead, we reveal our intellectual nakedness, our disdain for truth, our utterly ahistorical understanding of our society. We query as if history did not happen because, for us, it did not. We needn’t know anything about the forces that have destroyed so many black lives, and long before anyone in Minneapolis decided to attack a liquor store or a police precinct.
For instance, University of Alabama History Professor Raymond Mohl has noted that by the early 1960s, nearly 40,000 housing units per year were being demolished in urban communities (mostly of color) to make way for interstate highways. Another 40,000 were being knocked down annually as part of so-called urban “renewal,” which facilitated the creation of parking lots, office parks, and shopping centers in working-class and low-income residential spaces. By the late 1960s, the annual toll would rise to nearly 70,000 houses or apartments destroyed every year for the interstate effort alone.
Three-fourths of persons displaced from their homes were black, and a disproportionate share of the rest were Latino. Less than ten percent of persons displaced by urban renewal and interstate construction had new single-resident or family housing to go to afterward, as cities rarely built new housing to take the place of that which had been destroyed. Instead, displaced families had to rely on crowded apartments, double up with relatives, or move into run-down public housing projects. In all, about one-fifth of African American housing in the nation was destroyed by the forces of so-called economic development.
And then, at the same time that black and brown housing was being destroyed, millions of white families were procuring government-guaranteed loans (through the FHA and VA loan programs) that were almost entirely off-limits to people of color, and which allowed us to hustle it out to the suburbs where only we were allowed to go. But we can know nothing about any of that and still be called educated. We can live in the very houses obtained with those government-backed loans, denied to others based solely on race, or inherit the proceeds from their sale, and still believe ourselves unsullied and unimplicated in the pain of the nation’s black and brown communities.
As much of the country burns, literally or metaphorically, it is time to face our history. Time to stop asking others to fight for their lives on our terms, and remember that it is their collective jugular vein being compressed. It is their windpipe being crushed. It is their sons and daughters being choked out and shot and beaten and profiled and harassed.
It is their liberty and freedom at stake.
But by all means, white people, please tell us all the one again about how having to wear the mask at Costco is tyranny.