Since the March 15 demo against police brutality, a lot of unsettling talk and writing has gone down about the actions of protesters.
The malicious reactions of the general public and the invalidating portrayals of protesters by the mainstream media were to be expected. Yet while describing this crowd as a bunch of anarchists, vandals, left-wing thugs, criminals, hooligans, and angsty teens was meant to belittle and dismiss them, I considered this to be a fairly accurate assessment of who they were. Black-clad, punked-out, and masked, this motley crew was an encouraging one.
While perhaps more allied with these dissidents, an array of liberals, leftists, and radicals have expressed muted refinements of those same disapproving reactions. Time and again, they denounce the violence of protesters while “cleverly” pointing out the irony of protesting violently against police brutality. Begging for peaceful (read: non-violent) protest, they’re quick to dissociate themselves from the taint of militancy.
If you believe oppression exists, then you better be prepared to rethink your understandings of violence. Poverty, (neo)colonialism, racism, sexism, ableism, transphobia, and homophobia are no walk in the park. They’re coercive, dehumanizing, and brutal forms of domination. Ripping their way through our lives, they’re systematic, institutionalized, internalized, embodied, and they shape how we relate to one another. “Keep the peace!” they cry out. Peace is a farce.
Condemning the violent actions of these protesters reduces violence to a smashed window, a graffitied wall, a kick in the back, or a beer bottle to the helmet. Over-emphasizing the (supposed) depravity of these actions at once flies in the face of the realities and anger of these marginalized protesters, and distracts us from more socially sanctioned and normalized forms of violence.
How many times have you heard the “bad apple” argument used to defend police brutality? This argument positions most cops as good and the state as benevolent. What’s omitted here is that the state has a monopoly on legitimate violence. A “good” cop and a “bad” cop are trained to smack you down with the same force. And they do so with impunity. The Société de police de la ville de Montréal has killed 43 people since 1987, and not a single cop has been convicted of either voluntary or involuntary manslaughter. A call for non-violence at demos implicitly supports the concentration of force in the hands of the state.
The government carves out a special place in the political and geographic landscape for opposition to its dictates. Peaceful protests, demos, and marches galore, these are state-authorized displays of dissent. While significant in their own right, the fanatical rejection of violent actions from within their ranks panders to the wider public and appeases those in power.
Radical and uncompromising actions that directly challenge the purported integrity of the state are necessary. By widening the spectrum of what resistance can be and look like, we make room for an expansion of political and creative possibilities. Freeing us from the limits of what’s considered socially acceptable struggle, violent tactics can work to energize dissent. There’s something incredibly moving and inspiring about watching someone shoot a firecracker at the po’.
Over beers the other night a friend asked me if I agreed with these sorts of tactics. Ultimately, I think this is a misguided question. People who fight oppression have a diversity of experiences, means, and goals. As a result, how people resist will always look different. I’m extremely wary of playing the good protester versus bad protester game. Playing into the logic of divide and conquer dilutes our movements and sucks out their strength. We need solidarity now more than ever.
Lisa Miatello’s got one column left in her. Drop her a line at firstname.lastname@example.org.