The word “violence” is going to be used a lot to describe the events in US cities over the weekend and all this week. So it’s going to be important to be clear about who is violent and what violence is. Property destruction and harming human beings are profoundly different actions, and with a few exceptions (seemingly interlopers in the protests) virtually all the violence visited on human beings during this round of civil unrest across the US has been inflicted by police.
This began with the death of George Floyd in public in direct violation of what the Minneapolis police department manual says about chokeholds. He told officers he couldn’t breathe and begged for his life. What is particularly stunning about the brutality of the police across the country is that they seem to expect impunity. They do not serve the public or keep the peace; they serve themselves.
Nevertheless, much of the finger-wagging has been about property destruction, and it is dismaying to see that some are more upset about broken glass than public killing – or rather that they seem to believe society ought to rest on a foundation of stable property relations, not human rights and justice.
The distinction between damaging or destroying human beings and inanimate objects matters. But it’s not simple. People trapped inside a burning building break down the doors to escape; an estranged husband with a restraining order breaks down a door to further terrorise his ex-wife. The same actions mean different things in different situations. Martin Luther King famously called riots “the voice of the unheard” – and as the outcry of people who have tried absolutely everything else for centuries, property damage means something very different from merely malicious or recreational destruction. When they riot, the black people most impacted by police brutality and by four centuries of poverty, dehumanisation and deprivation of basic rights and equality, are more like people trapped inside that burning house trying to break out. [Continue reading…]