A Meditation on Violence

CW: descriptions of war, violence, and torture

One of the key debates around antifascist action centers on the question of defense and aggression. For many in the liberal and libertarian milieus, the heuristic for acceptable versus unacceptable violence is the non-aggression principle (NAP), which states that the only justified violence is that which seeks to prevent other violence and/or the infringement of one’s rights to person and property.

This formulation leaves a lot to be desired (and defined). Here are just a few of the ways this approach leaves things open to interpretation:

  • Aggression is hard to define. Especially in a world where violence is cyclical and ever-present.
  • Not all rights violations are equal in kind and effect.
  • We are not atomistically individual. I have a legitimate interest in the defense of my friends and family just as I do in my own defense.
  • Defense can be proportional or not and this matters.  

Before we dive into each of these points, I want to share a meditation on violence that I’ve prayed with often in the past six months — bear with me:

10 years ago, I read a Time magazine article about the civil war in the Democratic Republic of the Congo. Maybe it was Newsweek, it doesn’t matter. It could have been any piece about any war.

It had many terrifying points, but what stuck with me was the description of how some soldiers would terrorize families by killing the children in front of their parents. In particular, there was a practice of throwing infants into pots of boiling water. They would scream. They would burn. They would die. And the soldiers would leave the parents alive, to clean up the burning flesh.

I often revisit that image. The screaming mother. The sobbing father.

It wasn’t about seizing resources necessary to some fight. It wasn’t even about the brutal truth of killing an enemy combatant because you had to — or thought you did. It was about cruelty. It was about gleeful violence and the pathology of hate.

It was inhuman. And yet, it was something that people, real human beings, could be brought to do with less effort than you’d think. I started to see it everywhere. The co-mingled fear and hate that drives people to desperate, horrific violence.

Only fear can make you boil a child.

I learned more about this war later — how these soldiers had been brought on as children themselves, tortured and enslaved, and brought to fear their commanders so desperately, they would do anything asked. Violence is a water wheel, and fear is the river.

I was attracted to the US libertarian movement because of it’s emphasis on peace, on opposing war, and on opposing force. As I dug deeper into the ideas, I discovered an even deeper tradition of liberalism and tolerance. This was a tradition of peace not only in the relationships between nations, but also in the relationships between people.

I became a friend.

I began to meditate.

I tried to seek peace with all people. In all the ways that I could.

But violence is persistent, just like the fear it stems from. Four years ago, I threatened a man with a knife. It was self defense — he made it clear he wanted to beat me and rape the woman I was with. Another time I threw a set of keys at a lover because losing her love and support terrified me so much. I talked joyfully about the things I wanted to do to agents of oppression. About the guns I wanted to own and the cops I wanted to hurt. About the Nazis I would punch.

As the political violence in America escalated, my friends started to defend things I found absolutely disgusting. They were talking about beating uninformed young people. No, these kids weren’t capable of reform, they had to be destroyed, just like their older compatriots. I couldn’t see how anyone could feel this way.

Then I had a stun grenade thrown at me by riot cops. It was tense situation, but I was standing with the clergy unarmed and peaceful. And I started to understand. It’s frustrating to remain nonviolent in the face of such naked force. And I was afraid again more of the things this experience made we want to do than of anything that could happen to me.

I saw that fear again in the eyes of one policewoman as we stood toe to toe and she almost broke rank. We were chanting to her that if she just came over, we could all go home and enjoy a nice afternoon. But she was afraid of the black masked mass before her and of the federal agent standing beside her. He was literally holding her back one arm on his riot shield, one gripping her arm.

I wish she’d done it. She was so very close.

But she was also very afraid.

Aggression is hard to define

One thing we know about violence is that it doesn’t occur in a vacuum. Violence is both cyclical and contagious. People who act violently, often do so because they are afraid and because they have experienced violence themselves. This doesn’t excuse it, but it’s important to understand — especially when thinking about fascism.

Like the policewoman who was too afraid to break rank, fascists are kept in line and driven to violence primarily by each other. It’s the same internal group dynamic that drives military conditioning (remember those Congolese soldiers?), locker room bullying, and gang initiation rites.

There are two forces at work here: in-groups commit violence against each other to get members to commit violence against outsiders; when in-groups commit violence against outsiders it builds the in-group connections. The notorious internal violence of Hitler’s SA and SS is illustrative here.

Anarchists do this too. I lost friends and was threatened by acquaintances for suggesting the first Battle of Berkeley wasn’t strategic or well-planned. I feel much closer to the people I’ve faced police lines with than nearly anyone else.

The psychology of group violence matters on both sides of the line. It means that meeting Nazis with violence probably strengthens their in-group bonds. It also means that simply talking to people motivated by desperate fear and intense in-group pressure is a tall order indeed. It means that anarchists acting together in defense builds movements and trust in a way that’s hard to achieve otherwise. Part of the reasoning for doing this now is that when it does become more necessary, we don’t want a loosely knit group of people who don’t trust one another. We want people who have fought together before.

What I’m saying here is that there’s more at play in violent confrontations than the immediate goals and effects. If we’re going to debate the the usefulness of violent confrontations, we have to look at the factors that surround what might look like aggression in the abstract.  

Not all rights violations are equal in kind and effect

Violence is baked into the world in which we live, but that doesn’t mean all violence is equal. The non-aggression principle oversimplifies aggression, but there are some important factors to look for. There are two factors in particular: effectiveness and intent.

We all know what a difference in effectiveness means. Here’s a violent example where two people of very different physical ability trade blows (cw: interpersonal violence). This video was shared around by Men’s Rights Activists for a while. “Explain why this isn’t justified?” they asked. The NAP says it is. But any sane person can see why the effectiveness of one’s violence is relevant in a case like this.

Liberals like to lump all rights violations together, but a slap in the face is not a bullet to the brain. More importantly, violations of person and property are not morally equivalent. Restitution is (relatively) easy when the violence is against property. A Starbucks window can be replaced. A human life can’t be.

The vast majority of anti-fascist violence is against property. The violence against people is almost always both non-lethal and directed against agents of the state. There are outliers, and we should speak out against these excesses and celebrations of violence (here’s looking at you Berkeley). However, the overstepping of some anti-fascist groups should not condemn the whole movement.

This is where I see a lot of people miss the mark, treating this violence as equivalent to say, Heather Heyer’s death or the fascist shootings that have happened in recent years.

“Why are they carrying sticks and shields and smoke bombs if they don’t want to hurt anyone?” ask the apologists for Nazi violence in Charlottesville. It’s because the cops want to kill and injure them. I know this because I’ve seen cops continue to pepper spray already-detained people. I know this because cops pose a significant danger to the same groups targeted by fascists: people of color, immigrants, and queer people. I know this because one of my comrades had both her ankles broken during an arrest — despite the fact that she was very much cooperating.

At the center of the non-aggression principle is the analysis of intent. Violence meant to get what one wants, or for simple cruelty, is wrong. Violence intended to protect is fine. This general thrust is the one thing the NAP gets right.

Nazi’s tell us their intent: they want genocide. And when they get the chance, they act on this intent.

Now let’s look at the intention of anti-fascist violence. There are two goals: to protect people and to show force and strength in an attempt to discourage the Nazis.

To see this, just pick up any piece of black bloc literature. The point of the bloc is to do damage to property in order to show force and make a point and to protect other protesters, including de-arresting those who are detained. As the Crimethinc communique linked above puts it: “A Bloc presence may convey important information: to the powers that be, don’t fuck with this march, or don’t you dare rig that jury; to allies or possible allies, don’t despair, we’re with you.”

If you’ve ever been in a bloc, this is abundantly clear. You stick together and don’t leave your comrades unless it’s absolutely necessary. People more at risk — black folks, smaller people, disabled activists — stand toward the center. If there are non-bloc protestors, you put yourself between them and the cops.

Another clear indicator here are the weapons of choice. Nazis carry pipes and guns. Antifascists carry sticks, shields, smoke bombs, and, yes, sometimes fireworks.

These are meant to warn off attackers and to show them that their aggression won’t be as effective as they think. It’s the same principle as that at work with schoolyard bullies and with muggers. Fascists are afraid, and that means they’re only in for it if the targets are easy.

Here’s a personal anecdote to illustrate what I mean:

When I was in high school, I got bullied and beaten up for being trans. At one homecoming dance, a guy approached me and started saying some things about how I “wasn’t a real man” and didn’t deserve to be dancing with the girl I’d come with. He ended up pushing me.

Now, I have no reason to believe he was going to do anything more than that. In fact I’m pretty sure he wasn’t. But people were watching, and other guys had done much worse to me before. So I decked him. I had to show I was capable of defense and retaliation. Not because this particular dude was an imminent threat — he wasn’t— but because taking the hit without retaliating would have opened me up to even more abuse in the future.

We are not atomistically individual

One conversation I’ve had a lot recently is what constitutes a true threat.

The difficulty here is that  it’s hard to see the danger when you’re not in their targeted groups. Lots of market anarchists are white men. There’s a lot to be discussed on that point alone, but I think the movement’s discomfort around anti-fascist action has a lot to do with this demographic landscape. Conversely, the anti-fascist activists I’ve worked with are overwhelming female and  queer, and usually face other forms of oppression as well: on the basis of immigration status, race, and disability.

It’s a lot easier to take fascists’ threats seriously when they’re directed against people like you. This is precisely why it’s important for cis and white people and men to get involved in community defense. As always, those most at risk are taking on the biggest burdens. There’s a Martin Niemoller quote that I think describes precisely what we’re seeing right now:

First they came for the Socialists, and I did not speak out—

Because I was not a Socialist.

Then they came for the Trade Unionists, and I did not speak out—

Because I was not a Trade Unionist.

Then they came for the Jews, and I did not speak out—

Because I was not a Jew.

Then they came for me—and there was no one left to speak for me.

The fears of those being targeted are far from overstated.

Why are people of color, immigrants, and queer people so afraid of fascists? Well, one reason is that the fascists — unlike the radical left — work hand in hand with the most violent people in society: cops. And when I say “hand in hand,” I’m not being flippant: white supremacists are common in law enforcement.

This makes fascist violence deadly effective, and it has implications for how we respond to fascists’ calls for violence. When fascists say they want genocide, are we to interpret this as an empty political desire? If they’re not pointing a gun directly at you, how can you justify acting defensively?

They don’t have to pull the trigger, they just show up and let the cops do their dirty work for them. Want to violently break up immigrant families? No need to hurt them yourself, just call ICE. Want trans people to get killed? Out them to the general population and general bigots will do the rest (CW: this link contains extremely graphic descriptions of anti-trans violence). Or even better — put them in a situation where there’s a confrontation with cops.

Furthermore, fascist violence isn’t always identifiable as such. They don’t always show up with swastikas and tiki torches. Our difficulty in telling when and where we’re under threat stems in part from the fascist’s ability to blend his violence with that of the state, that of general societal bigotry, that of the patriarchy, and that of the police.

It’s understandable that, living in a world where you know these people want to kill you — in part because they’ve said as much — and having no idea where they are or when they’ll strike, one might strike back at them the few times they make themselves identifiable and stand up for those threats.

I agree that violence should only be our last resort. But it’s hard to know when other approaches have failed when the threat is ubiquitous and constant.

And there is some illuminating history on trying to stop fascists with persuasion alone. The mainstream left tried that in 1930s Germany, and there’s some evidence that their fear of doubling down on the Nazi’s chosen language of choice —violence— is what sealed the fate of Germany and Europe. The urge to resist violence until absolutely necessary is a noble one. But you don’t want to wait until the harm is already done.

Defense can be proportional or not and this matters

There’s no easy way to know if this kind of defensive action is necessary or effective.

Did I really have to hit that guy to prevent others from hurting me? What if I hadn’t pulled a knife on the subway attacker? I’ll never know. Would the fascists in Charlottesville have “crushed” the peaceful demonstrators if anarchists hadn’t shown up to stop them?

Dr. Cornel West certainly thinks so. But that’s the difficulty of effective defense: if it works, you can never prove it was necessary.

And that makes violent confrontation a slippery beast indeed. It’s hard to tell if those acting with force are doing so because they’re legitimately worried about true threats to the wellbeing of themselves or those in the community, or if they’re just getting off on violence the same as the Nazi thugs. As one It’s Going Down editor put it to Vice, some of them think “this shit is fun.”

We should be careful to make sure that any violence done is strategic and necessary.

It’s simple to just give into the fear and start beating Nazis. It’s simple and it does feel good. But even if we think violent resistance is sometimes necessary and strategic, we, as anarchists, absolutely cannot revel in it.

The central thrust of the NAP is intent, and there are so many ways to get this wrong. The best way to know you’re on the right side and not acting out of misplaced fear, a desire to dominate, or as a result of ingroup pressure is to approach the question from a place of taste. You have to keep abhorring the violence even if you do think it’s necessary.

And that’s what I try to do. I try to maintain a shame around the fact that I’m not always brave enough to resist my fears. I try to hate the part of myself that loves my own life and that of my friends so much that I would risk someone else’s. If we give into the jubilation and simplicity that comes with viewing our own violence as righteous, we’re no better than the fascists and their worship of death. No violence is righteous, even if it’s sometimes necessary.

Anarchy and Democracy
Fighting Fascism
Markets Not Capitalism
The Anatomy of Escape
Organization Theory