An Abolitionist Approach to Reactionary Violence

An Abolitionist Approach to Reactionary Violence: Lessons from the Kyle Rittenhouse Case

On August 25th, 2020, Kyle Rittenhouse shot two people dead and injured one at a protest against the police murder of Jacob Blake. Though this event (and the trial proceedings that follow) will be the main focus of this article, my analysis and conclusions should generally apply to most other manifestations of reactionary violence. All that said, we’ll be discussing right-wing terrorism, police violence, and vivid descriptions of really fucked up shit. Consider this a content warning.

Before we continue, let’s set some ground rules. First and foremost, we’re only going to look at the facts of the case leading up to Rittenhouse’s acquittal rather than speculating about what “should” have happened. While there’s plenty of discussion to be had about how and why things escalated, I don’t see value in having that conversation right now. People are dead, Rittenhouse was found “not guilty” on all charges, and a lot of people continue to actively support him. Pure theory will not save us now. 

My second constraint is perhaps more radical; I’m going to completely ignore Rittenhouse’s testimony and stated intentions, as well as most of the details of the trial. I don’t care whether his intention was to kill protesters and I don’t believe the state’s legal system provides legitimate conclusions to questions of premeditation or justification. My sympathies explicitly lie with the victims, Joseph Rosembaum and Anthony Huber; the survivors, including Gaige Grosskreutz who was shot in the bicep by Rittenhouse; Jacob Blake, whose murder on August 23, 2020 provoked the Kenosha protests; and all of the families affected by this horrific series of events. This unambiguous bias will inform the rest of this piece, but I’m still capable of engaging with the facts and allowing evidence to guide my claims. If that’s not fair or balanced enough for you, thanks for reading this far at least, I encourage you to do further research (checking your sources for their own biases as well, of course). With that, let’s begin.

Vigilance, Verdicts, and Violence

No matter how this case turned out, right-wingers were going to mobilize, either out of anger or a sense of validation (“if Kyle could do it, maybe I can get away with it too!”). Which one is worse is an open question, but what’s not up for debate is that we’re definitely going to witness more violence from the right, and cops will not intervene until it’s too late — assuming they do at all. Many of us are now very aware of the unavoidable reality; if we don’t defend ourselves and each other from fascist violence and government tyranny, no one will. But like… how? What can we actually do?

While copagandists and “pragmatists” often use this question as a thought-terminating cliche (“Who you gonna call? The Ghostbusters???”), when asked in good faith, it’s an open invitation to think about alternative solutions. If we want to know if a neighbor is doing okay, but we don’t want people with guns and qualified immunity to get involved, who do we actually call? Is there an app for that? Can I phone a friend? Hyperlinks aside, people have been organizing to respond to nonviolent situations and neighborly disputes long before the recent explosion in police violence, and they’re never going to stop. I could go into way more depth about the large body of organizations and initiatives meeting the demands of communities who reject the police, but Logan Marie Glitterbomb already does a much better job of that in her excellent piece, Don’t Call the Pigs.4

Of course, we can’t ignore the reality that some disputes do get violent, people do get hurt, and situations sometimes escalate to the point where someone is killed. There’s a valid discussion to be had about the disparities between media coverage and the actual prevalence of violent crime but for now, given the main focus of this piece, let’s table it. So, people die sometimes, that much we’ve already covered. What do we do about it? Add more guns to the situation? Gaige Grosskreutz, Rittenhouse’s only surviving victim, was armed with a pistol, but this good guy with a gun didn’t save the day; Grosskreutz was shot in the arm and nearly died. If you’re at all familiar with basic self-defense procedures or have ever gone through safety drills at your school or workplace, you might be wondering why he didn’t run away from the man with a gun, instead getting closer to the active shooter situation. Gaige Grosskreutz, in addition to being a gun owner, is also an EMT; medics are trained to go towards the sound of gunfire, he was not approaching with the intent to outgun Rittenhouse.

For those of us who aren’t trained medics, however, if there are gunshots, RUN TO SAFETY. Self-defense isn’t glorious, it’s not a hobby for adrenaline junkies, and it’s absolutely not supposed to be fun. Keeping yourself safe and alive often requires getting the fuck out of a bad situation, and that’s perfectly okay. If brandishing a weapon de-escalates a situation, that’s also fine; asserting that you have the capacity to respond to immediate physical intimidation is a key component of defending oneself in certain cases. Just because you have a gun does NOT mean you have to fire it at anyone. Gun ownership for self-defense against real threats isn’t an aspirational power fantasy. It’s preparation for dangerous situations that require the possession of lethal force. 

So, what does Kyle Rittenhouse’s acquittal mean? Simply put, not much. As said in the intro paragraph, the ongoing threat of white terrorism and armed opposition to protests against police brutality would remain no matter how the trial concluded. If he got life in prison, the right would be angry; if he got acquitted (the worse timeline), the right would be overjoyed. Both scenarios end with a bunch of energized right-wingers being validated, organizing a motivated base of supporters, and showing up to protests with the stated intention of “protect property.” Nothing has changed and we have to stay alert.

Justice: A False Promise

Radicals of all stripes (or at least a fair majority of us) are deeply concerned with the concept of “justice.” Workers winning tangible benefits from striking, marginalized communities getting reparations for generational harm, confederate monuments getting torn down by protesters — these are all powerful symbols of progress, and it genuinely feels awesome when that stuff happens. Of course, these are only symbols, momentary signals of gradual changes in perception, not massive systemic upheavals. Court proceedings, especially high-profile televised criminal trials, function the same way. Let’s endorse, for a moment, the possibility that Kyle Rittenhouse got sentenced to life in prison without parole. What would that change?

Sure, he would be off the streets, but that’s just one white kid with an AR. What about his supporters? Maserati Mike, the man who stalked the courthouse grounds with a long rifle during the trial, was allowed to go home after a nice chat with the cops, and he probably wouldn’t have been too happy with that verdict — nor would the thousands of other white folks with gun licenses who idolize this crying little twit. With all that considered, is the harm not potentially increased when we publicly send right-wing figures to prison and agitate their loyal, trigger-happy, armed supporters?

“Harm,” it turns out, is an immensely complicated thing to measure in any circumstance, let alone politically motivated violence. This makes accurate proportional sentencing extremely difficult (if not impossible), so how does the justice system get around this problem? Short answer: it doesn’t. The idea that justice systems function as detached, neutral, and “rational” systems of deliberation and restitution is itself a legal fiction.1 In practice, justice systems serve primarily to allocate punishment. Victims are never the priority because punitive justice is a framework that doesn’t recognize their agency; it’s not about protecting people from harm, it’s about violent reinforcement of legal order.

Sadly, this issue isn’t resolved when the process is democratized. The jury system, while it technically operates on random selection, hardly embodies the sentiment “by the people, for the people” in the conventional sense. In addition to numerous assessments of qualification for service, individual jurors may be automatically excused for “extreme views” on a given law (the death penalty, for example) that might compromise the “rationality” of their conclusions.1 Though technically illegal, jurors may also be dismissed on the basis of political identity, race, and gender if those identities pertain to the details of a given case. Considering the fact that juries are constructed as representative “cross-sections” of highly localized communities, this presents a huge problem for hate crime legislation. How does the neutral “all facts no feelings” system of punishment identify crimes motivated by reactionary premeditation? If Rittenhouse’s case is any indication, it certainly doesn’t appear to bring these people to “justice” in any meaningful sense.

In fairness, we can’t just blame jurors for everything (though Rittenhouse’s case definitely raises serious concerns about their neutrality) just like we can’t blame all citizens of a democracy for the crimes of their elected officials. Even though juries may come to a consensus, it’s inaccurate to say they’re exercising power. The jury didn’t write the law nor directly participate in any violence, that’s the state’s job. Juries serve the symbolic purpose of cosmetically democratizing an otherwise hierarchical system, involving laypeople to the extent that government can share its responsibility with “the common people” when it enforces the law (Conley). Would a system of direct mob rule be desirable by comparison? Would this lead to the realization of a genuine “people’s justice”?

At this point, we’re forgetting what abolition is supposed to accomplish. Abolition isn’t just a rejection of present structures and proposing “new and improved” versions of the same thing; it’s the radical declaration that the current system is so fundamentally broken and dysfunctional that everything, from its foundational principles to its post-hoc justifications, needs to be dismantled. “Justice,” as we understand it now, is one of those archaic constructs we need to seriously re-examine, if not totally reject. 

Rehabilitation: Abolishing the Gun with the Taser

The focus on rehabilitation among budding radicals reveals a fundamental misunderstanding of the main goal of abolishing prisons. In dismantling the prison industrial complex, we’re aiming to make space for experimentation where we can try totally different approaches to harm reduction that recognize and enable the autonomy of all. Anarchists don’t want an update to the criminal justice system’s mission statement; we want radical institutions and conflict resolution networks completely divorced from the carceral state in both function and underlying design. Most importantly, no individual, collective, or government has the legitimate authority to lock living beings in a cage. Yes, supervillains technically will exist, but never in a capacity that could empirically justify systemic confinement.

This is where advocates of rehabilitation often disagree with total abolitionists, relying on a mix of utilitarian logic and appeals to paternalism. Common amongst self-professed “abolitionists” is the desire to send fascists, reactionaries, and deviants to “rehabilitation programs,” rather than “prisons.” Instead of a cell, some argue, Kyle Rittenhouse needs “mental treatment” and “rehabilitative care” to iron out the psychological urges that led him down the radicalization pipeline. Humane treatment for the betterment of the “patient” is a huge improvement over the punishment of the “prisoner,” so they claim. Confining people “for their own good,” it seems, is a much more justifiable hierarchy.

(Full disclosure, this approach makes me sick. I want to maintain focus on the shortcomings of the rehabilitation argument for the purposes of this piece, but be aware that I’m actively restraining myself from just ranting at length about how repulsive I find this position and the people who hold it. If for some reason you want to see me do that, follow me on twitter.)

Ignoring for a moment the fact that “confinement for one’s own improvement” was the original justification for prisons, this obviously runs counter to the premises we discussed earlier — enabling and recognizing autonomy. Paternalism, the exercise of authority over others in their supposed best interest, is an active violation of individual agency, a denial of autonomy in favor of benevolent governance. This is the logic of statism, but it’s disturbingly popular among self-proclaimed anarchists.

Put bluntly, this is a pretty clear extension of the left’s long history of ableism. Whether that’s the result of poor translations and over-reliance on old sources, or a byproduct of systems and narratives that dehumanize disabled people, is still an ongoing, worthwhile discussion to have. In the meantime, we need to deal with the present issue: there is a common association between reactionary violence and “mental illness” that we need to dismantle in order to address the real factors that lead to stochastic terror. 

For good measure though, let’s investigate the claim that mass shootings and firearms offenses more generally are committed by “mentally ill” individuals. They aren’t. Far be it from me to suggest that politicians and lobbyists might be lying to you, but if the general empirical consensus is to be taken seriously, the truth is much more complicated. People turn to reactionary thought for a wide variety of reasons, some psychological, others mostly circumstantial. While they often emphasize uniformity, reactionaries are, ironically, a very diverse bunch; some are ardent capitalists, while others have taken a deliberate turn towards “anti-capitalism” to shift leftist discourse towards thinly-veiled ethnonationalism and economic protectionism. Every radical community has had to deal with these grifters and authoritarian fusionists, either as a result of deliberate infiltration, uncritical regurgitation of essentialist narratives, botched platforming to a gentrified audience, or something entirely different. 

To loosely paraphrase Dan Olson, reactionaries are not otherwise empty vessels that believe in one wacky thing.3 They have an agenda, and everything else is subsumed by that greater belief in social order and authority. Skepticism towards authority isn’t a sign of a “healthy belief system,” it’s got nothing to do with wellness or mental aptitude. The sad truth is that some people just suck, advocating for bad things because they genuinely believe them. People don’t fall down reactionary pipelines because they’re stupid; reactionaries exist because intelligent, creative, and passionate individuals disagree with the premise that society should be free. Compulsory therapy won’t magically fix any of those problems, and it’s not worth the investment to try.

If we want to build a new world that actually is free, we need to allow for the fact that people will believe different things and have genuine disagreements. Kyle Rittenhouse and his supporters should, broadly speaking, be allowed to express their repugnant chauvinism freely on whatever platform will host them. What they have zero right to do is impose their worldview and maintain their existing privilege through police violence, military intervention, and vigilante statism (i.e. going to anti-cop protests to “defend private property”). In the interest of not becoming that which we seek to destroy, we shouldn’t center our strategies around the hearts and minds of reactionaries; we just need to make sure they never have the power to shape society in their image.

After Monopoly

So what is the solution then? How do we keep the bad people away from their victims without the state? How do we know what the future of law and order looks like?

The short answer is we don’t know, we can’t know, and we likely never will. Crime is complicated – even the word “crime” doesn’t accurately capture the full scope of what we’re discussing here, not only due to the whole “no government” premise (Statists don’t usually have a good answer for this either beyond “more better cops and prisons,” which is funny considering that doesn’t work). The best we can do is understand the anarchic conditions we’re trying to achieve and make informed estimates as to what institutions will thrive absent the state.

The first major difference, of course, will be increased involvement of “citizen-consumers” in the provision of defense and conflict resolution services. This phenomenon, co-production, is already a major component of existing law enforcement; while police forces have their own surveillance systems, civilians, by calling 911, recording potential crimes, and generally existing as witnesses, are a vital component for deterring and responding to violence.2 In the context of a decentralized, polycentric system with multiple overlapping jurisdictions, co-production plays a much more significant role. This necessarily incentivizes the direct construction of local norms by affected communities, rather than distant representatives or legal authorities.

Secondly, we can reasonably assume that post-state “justice” will be decentralized. Decentralized networks can respond to conflicts much more efficiently and are less susceptible to failure than centralized, monocentric systems. If one point in a decentralized system fails, the rest of the network isn’t necessarily harmed, a vast improvement over our current, piss-poor excuse for community defense. Most importantly, decentralization distributes power; without state monopoly, taxation, and the civilian/non-civilian divide, individuals have a choice over who, if anyone, defends them or their community. Some might reel at this description and my source for this analysis, since this is, bluntly speaking, a market for defense. Terminology aside, “market” or not, free experimentation based on mutual exchange and cooperation is the heart of anarchy, and whether or not Koch-funded Austrian economists make particularly convincing arguments for it, we on the left shouldn’t shy away from it.

Not a Conclusion

This is only one of many potential abolitionist approaches to the problem of reactionary violence, a point I hope I’ve established from the outset by titling this piece “An Abolitionist Approach.” Crime is a complicated issue, even in cases that are supposedly clear cut; there are no absolutely proportional uses of force, unambiguously righteous acts of appropriation, or “just” murders that need to be committed. Any framework providing certainty in the area of arbitration is reductive, uninformed, and, at worst, actively hostile to genuine liberation. Abolitionism is not the construction of a new institutional order to supplant the current one, but a method of discovery based on the total rejection of existing narratives and hegemonies.

“Without cops, who will lock up the murderers?” is a question we can’t answer with certainty, but it’s also a question that misses the point of abolition. We aren’t updating existing systems via minor adjustments to changing conditions, that’s what moderate reformists do. Abolition is a rejection of the premise that the current system was ever necessary, let alone presently, challenging us to explore alternative arrangements beyond the state, beyond monopoly, and beyond justice.

 

Notes and works cited:

[1] Conley, Robin. Confronting the Death Penalty: How Language Influences Jurors in Capital Cases. 2 November 2015. 

This book is incredibly accessible and greatly informs my perspective on not only the current US justice system, but all systems that claim to keep society orderly and safe. Absolute banger, one of my favorite anthropology readings.

[2] Coyne, Christopher J. and Goodman, Nathan, Polycentric Defense (September 11, 2019). GMU Working Paper in Economics No. 19-31, Available at SSRN: https://ssrn.com/abstract=3451634 or http://dx.doi.org/10.2139/ssrn.3451634

This paper is a great example of contemporary Austrian economics absent Mises Institute bullshit, using consistent analysis to build a convincing argument for polycentricity, particularly on a “national” scale. I’m not strongly committed to the Austrian method, but this is a great representation of its radical potential.

Nathan’s other work is also great and worth checking out.

[3] Folding Ideas – In Search of a Flat Earth: “Flat earthers are not otherwise empty vessels that believe one wacky thing. Flat earthers have an agenda.”

Not only a great line, but Dan Olson’s work here is some of the best analysis of reactionary conspiracism you can find on YouTube. Is that setting the bar too low? Perhaps… go watch the video though.

[4] Yes, this is behind a paywall, but also Logan could use your money. Also, to my knowledge, it’s the latest version of the piece, so that’s two good things by my calculations. 

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