On Monday, a Missouri Grand Jury decided that when a police officer kills an unarmed young person, no crime has been committed as long as the officer can spin a fanciful tale of The Incredible Nigger Hulk. That officer not only need not be locked up, decided the Grand Jury, but he doesn’t even need to see the inside of a courtroom. He doesn’t need to be cross-examined, his story doesn’t have to be questioned, there need be nothing more than the pathetic ghost of a due process that the people of Ferguson have been told to shut up and wait for.
Predictably, the residents of Ferguson weren’t pleased with the result. Peaceful protest and non-peaceful protest filled the streets, shut down traffic, and in the latter case, destroyed many local businesses and other property. In response to the protests (which have, by the way, been called “riots” in the media from day 1, regardless of the predominantly peaceful nature. Until the cops showed up, at least), a chorus of voices has gone up condemning violence and looting. This would be a defensible position from people on the ground in Ferguson, or people who are leading specific civil rights projects relevant to police brutality – in that case, it’s brand management and promotion. Nothing wrong with that.
The problem, in my eyes, is that the “violence solves nothing” crowd has a broad swath of representation from people with absolutely no connection to the issue. It is the ever-present spectre of respectability politics manifesting itself as a treatise about the merits of violent vs. non-violent protest. It is an excuse to remove one’s self from any sense of responsibility or complicity in the situation that has triggered the violence – “well, I agree that things are bad, but that’s no excuse to be violent!”
In response to this sneer disguised as a moral stand, I sent out a couple of tweets:
“Violence never accomplished anything” say people in a country stolen through murder, built by slavery, and secured with war.
“Looting is wrong” say citizens living on stolen land, built by stolen labour, powered by resources stolen from poor countries.
Violence and looting are wrong and futile unless you have white skin and a flag. Then they’re manifest destiny and Providence.
The tweets were meant to be read as a series, but each of them technically could stand on their own.
I am not sure by what mechanism this happened, but these tweets quickly went viral (as of the time of writing, tweet #1 has been retweeted about 4700 times). It is certainly gratifying to have my words resonate so strongly with this many people. However, as is the nature of social media, there have been a number of confused and/or angry responses to my tweets, and I’d like to address them.
Before I do that, though, I want to make an observation: in none of these tweets have I been threatened, racially abused, or otherwise treated with anything worse than what is a fairly ordinary level of contempt for social media. As crass as it is to say so, it is moments like this that I am glad I am not a woman. Considering the amount of abuse that I see my female friends on Twitter get directed at them for things that are far less provocative/widespread than what I’ve said, I cannot escape the conclusion that I am being judged on my ideas because I am a man, rather than for my moral worthiness or fuckability. There are many reasons why it’s called “male privilege”, and this is certainly one of them.
The Argument I am Making in These Tweets
The settler colonial state is birthed in violence and looting. White supremacy, the specific tool developed by the settler colonial state that created the USA (and Canada – more on this later) is an inherently violent ideology that is inextricably interwoven into the American identity. White supremacist ideology was used to justify the violent genocide of indigenous nations in order to loot their land and resources. It was used to justify the centuries-long plunder and brutalization of the African continent and its people. The stolen labour, enforced through violence, is the reason the United States (and its European allies) were able to rise to economic supremacy. This supremacy has been and continues to this day to be enforced through violence, allowing the United States to extract resources from poorer countries for much less than they would be able to if those countries hadn’t been destabilized through violence, or cowed into submission through threats of violence.
The settler colonial state is violence. The settler colonial state is looting. Violence and looting are not incidental activities of the settler colonial state – they are the engine that make the wheels of oppression turn. The state was founded on the myths of manifest destiny and Providence – these are really really important concepts to understand when trying to grok settler colonialism (and for you atheistic folks, important in understanding how religion has been and continues to be a tool of settler colonialism).
People who live in that settler colonial state reap the benefits of that violence and looting – both historically and contemporarily. They (we) may not directly participate in the violence and looting, but insofar as we are law-abiding, patriotic, loyal citizens, we are complicit in the actions of the state. We enjoy the fruits of violence and looting – violence and looting put the food on our table, they keep us warm at night, they drive our cars to work, they are the lifeblood of our entire society.
It is absolutely ludicrous, therefore, to act shocked and dismayed and baffled when violence is directed against the settler colonial state, or when those marginalized by that state engage in violent acts. It is rank hypocrisy to hold ourselves as ‘better than’ those who would resort to violence and looting. We like our violence and looting when it’s sanitized for us, but pretend to be shocked when it is perpetrated in a way that is not officially sanctioned.
Furthermore, the timing of our distaste for violence and looting is too coincidental by half. The respectability politicians among us have no shortage of opprobrium to level at “those people”, but manage to find no shortage of excuses for violence when it’s “one of us” – more poignantly in this case when the violence at every turn has been instigated and perpetuated by police as an arm of the white supremacist settler colonial state.
So while it is certainly appropriate to express dismay at the destruction being wrought on an already-reeling community, it is absurd to think of the violence as something foreign to us. It is certainly wrong to think of it as something we have no connection to, that we do not participate in, that we do not benefit from for both historical and contemporary reasons. To say that “violence and looting don’t accomplish anything” is to betray a belief that we are not the direct beneficiaries of violence and looting.
Things I am NOT Saying:
I am not saying that looting is okay because other people did it. I don’t think looting is okay. I don’t think it moves meaningfully toward a more just world in which there are fewer Darren Wilsons and Bob McCulloughs (the ‘prosecutor’ who bent over backward to fail to get an indictment – white supremacy with a briefcase instead of a gun). If the goal is to have something productive result from the death of Mike Brown, then I do not believe that violence and looting will get anyone there – although that too may be up for debate. However, as someone who is aware of the role that violence and looting have played in giving me the life I enjoy, I am staying as far away from a high horse as I can. Nobody asked me for my thoughts on violence – when they do, I’ll offer them.
I am not saying that America is unique in its perfidy (although I do personally believe that to be true). My argument does not in any way require the country I live in to be perfect – and holy fuck is Canada not perfect. We have committed almost all of the same sins as the USA, and like our American cousins we continue to perpetrate those acts while blithely congratulating ourselves on being a peaceful country. I am part of the same settler colonial state. I have no pretensions of superiority, and I apply my criticisms to myself in equal measure, except insofar as I am not doing the specific behaviour I am complaining about.
I am not saying that you should feel personally guilty for the things your ancestors did. Guilt is largely a useless emotion and I have little patience for it. I don’t care about your feelings, for the most part (although I would like it if you were angry at the situation that caused the riots). I am, however, saying that you should recognize your complicity in those acts. They are not merely historical relics that can be safely forgotten or discussed in “what a shame” terms at a cocktail party. They have force and effect in explaining where we are today. They have force and effect in explaining why Mike Brown died, why Darren Wilson did not even have to see the inside of a courtroom, and why Ferguson is out in the streets. Our failure to confront our history only ensures that we will continue to perpetrate its atrocities. And let’s be clear: we are still doing it. It’s not ‘the past’ – it’s the present. And it will likely be the future, unless we confront it directly and accept our place in it.
I will close this essay with the words of someone whose name has been thrown at me many times by people who clearly don’t know a damn thing about what he said and what he stood for:
Now I wanted to say something about the fact that we have lived over these last two or three summers with agony and we have seen our cities going up in flames. And I would be the first to say that I am still committed to militant, powerful, massive, non-violence as the most potent weapon in grappling with the problem from a direct action point of view. I’m absolutely convinced that a riot merely intensifies the fears of the white community while relieving the guilt. And I feel that we must always work with an effective, powerful weapon and method that brings about tangible results. But it is not enough for me to stand before you tonight and condemn riots. It would be morally irresponsible for me to do that without, at the same time, condemning the contingent, intolerable conditions that exist in our society. These conditions are the things that cause individuals to feel that they have no other alternative than to engage in violent rebellions to get attention. And I must say tonight that a riot is the language of the unheard. And what is it America has failed to hear? It has failed to hear that the plight of the negro poor has worsened over the last twelve or fifteen years. It has failed to hear that the promises of freedom and justice have not been met. And it has failed to hear that large segments of white society are more concerned about tranquility and the status quo than about justice and humanity.
P.S. Here is my favourite writer, saying many of the same things but in a specifically American context