When Are Violent Protests Justified?

 [The New York Times is not starting this discussion, but noting that many are raising the question of mass violence (and a challenge to the “non-violent” mantra) in the wake of repeated state violence against oppressed people and popular protests.  This is a discussion long held, but growing and intensifying, as growing numbers of revolutionary activists discard polite appeals to an oppresive system, and take more active and determined steps.     —  Frontlines ed.]
By    | opinion | New York Times

Credit: Jim Young | Reuters

Demonstrators in New York and around the country, angered by a Staten Island grand jury’s decision not to indict the police officer Daniel Pantaleo in the death of Eric Garner, have seized on Mr. Garner’s last words as a rallying chant: “I can’t breathe.”

Some observers noted a chance congruence between those words and a quotation from the influential Martinique-born philosopher of anti-colonialism Frantz Fanon: “We revolt simply because, for many reasons, we can no longer breathe.”

The demonstrations last week coincided with the New York release of “Concerning Violence,” a film by the Swedish documentarian Goran Hugo Olsson that serves as a sort of introduction to Fanon’s ideas. To Mr. Olsson, who was in New York promoting the film last week and who took the opportunity to participate in several marches, the similarity between the protesters’ chant and Fanon’s text was not a coincidence, he told Op-Talk.

“He was a psychiatrist,” Mr. Olsson said. “He exposed the dynamics and the mechanics of structural violence, how people react after being exposed, for generations and generations, to this violence.”

He acknowledged the differences between the largely peaceful expressions of discontent in New York and Fanon’s subject of armed anti-colonial struggle during the Cold War — in the film, found footage from this era accompanies the musician Lauryn Hill’s narration of extracts from Fanon’s 1961 text “The Wretched of the Earth.” But he also said that he had intended for the film to send a message to the “privileged.” Fanon’s text can be applied, Mr. Olsson added, to predict that pressures related to globalization and the mistreatment of minorities are apt to create a backlash.

Mr. Olsson was not the only one to note a parallel between Fanon’s theories and current events. At Al Jazeera, Belen Fernandez wrote that the New York release of the film “provides us with a good opportunity to ask ourselves: Has the world order changed much since Fanon?”

While focusing largely on what she felt were contemporary globalization’s retreadings of the colonial exploitation Fanon addressed, she also cited events in Ferguson, Mo., as evidence of what Fanon called “the taints, the sickness and the inhumanity” of America. All, Fanon felt, were a legacy of the nation’s origins in European colonialism.

As early as August, in the immediate aftermath of Michael Brown’s death, publications that pride themselves on drawing readership from among the young, the left-leaning or the angry published challenges to the idea that riots in Ferguson, which had resulted in property damage and clashes with police, were an unacceptable or counterproductive means of social expression.

Natasha Lennard, in a piece at Vice that quoted Fanon directly, wrote that she privileged “the political force of a riot over the preservation of shop windows,” a sentiment echoed by Robert Stephens II in Jacobin, who also noted that the common tendency to blame outside agitators for property damage could instead be taken as evidence of the protests’ ability to attract “marginalized people throughout the region.” “Rather than evidence of illegitimacy,” he wrote, “the presence of these ‘outsiders’ reflected the magnetic power of the political moment.”

Willie Osterweil, writing in The New Inquiry, specifically addressed condemnations of looting, writing: “If protesters hadn’t looted and burnt down that QuikTrip on the second day of protests, would Ferguson be a point of worldwide attention? It was the looting of a Duane Reade after a vigil that brought widespread attention to the murder of Kimani Gray in New York City. The media’s own warped procedure instructs that riots and looting are more effective at attracting attention to a cause.”

He said it was important to recognize that a narrative associating the success of the civil rights movement with nonviolent action did not represent the full story. “Some of its bravest, most inspiring activists worked within the framework of disciplined nonviolence,” he wrote. “Many of its bravest, most inspiring activists did not.”

Months later and after several more incidents, including the nonindictment of the police officer Darren Wilson and later that of Mr. Pantaleo in Eric Garner’s death, many of the same sentiments were being echoed in more widely read news outlets.

Ta-Nehisi Coates, writing in The Atlantic in response to a speech in which President Obama called for calm after the Ferguson grand jury decision, also noted the importance of riots to the history of the civil rights movement. “Violence and nonviolence are tools,” he wrote, and “violence — like nonviolence — sometimes works.”

Responding to Jonathan Chait at New York Magazine, who had written that “property damage and looting impede social progress” by “destroying the town and livelihoods of residents of Ferguson” and “fostering a backlash,” Mr. Coates wrote: “Taken together, property damage and looting have been the most effective tools of social progress for white people in America. They describe everything from enslavement to Jim Crow laws to lynching to red-lining.”

And in a piece titled “In Defense of Rioting” at Time, Darlena Cunha wrote: “I would put forth that peaceful protesting is a luxury of those already in mainstream culture, those who can be assured their voices will be heard without violence, those who can afford to wait for the change they want.”

She said the a common tendency of “head shaking, finger pointing, and privileged explanation” in response to rioting aims to “separate the underlying racial tensions that clearly exist in our country from the looting and rioting of select individuals,” in a way that obscures the problem.

At the same time ideas in the spirit of Fanon’s were being more widely discussed, the possibility that current events were giving rise to new forms of activism was being considered.

In The Baffler, L.A. Kauffman wrote that the “entirely peaceful” protests she attended in New York represented “a bold new kind of street action.” “I can’t come up with another time when protesters have engaged in as much spontaneous and simultaneous disruptive action,” she wrote.

“Marches splintered, then rejoined; they met police blockades, and defiantly swarmed around them; they stopped to block key sites, then quickly moved on. The protests have been mobile and deft, steered by tactically savvy organizers for maximal disruption and minimal arrests.”

In other words, a focus on disruption rather than destruction allowed the protests to minimize outright clashes with police without fading unnoticed into the urban fabric.

“I’ve been attending and observing protests for 30 years,” she wrote, “and I’ve never seen anything quite like what I’ve experienced in New York City over the last week.”

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