Violence in the streets: It’s real, but who started it?

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I had an interesting conversation with a colleague the other day, and in light of a recent Adbusters article I think it is one we should all consider.

I mentioned that I was upset about Obama’s recent Executive Order that could allow martial law in a time of peace. He hadn’t read about it, but he said that, abstractly, he understands why we need martial law. In a time of crisis, if there’s violence in the country we need a mechanism for rapidly restoring order.

Ok, I said, maybe, abstractly, I’ll concede that point. That may be arguable in a time of civil rest. But let’s consider reality. At this moment America is in a time of civil unrest and there is violence in the streets. Our current crisis may very well get worse before it gets better. And we know that once violence starts, it can get out of control really fast. So I asked him: if, right now, we’re going to give someone legitimacy to stop the violence, should it be the same people that started it? If there is violence in the streets and we want to end it, we have to ask where it came from.

All over our country police departments are beating up citizens who try to politicize public spaces. By and large, Occupy has been a very nonviolent movement. In my field study of nonviolent direct action at Occupy people repeatedly told me that nonviolence was a tactical and philosophical commitment with in the movement. But nonetheless, almost everywhere Occupy goes there is violence. Why? Rebecca Solnit explains it well in The Truth About Violence At Occupy. The truth is the police – the state, the same organization that would implement martial law – have brought the violence to this movement. And so can we legitimately trust them to stop it?

I’m not arguing that the police should be stopping Occupy. But, like Adbusters contributor Sunaura Taylor, I always believed they were tasked with keeping us safe. And like Taylor, the more I see – online and up close – of police action the more that trust is crumbling. In discussing her experience at Occupy Oakland, Taylor describes initially feeling upset that other protestors used the violent language “Fuck the cops!” She also describes coming to see “just how privileged that sentiment was.” She writes,

“I have seen footage of police brutally beating students…with batons, pulling their hair and jabbing them forcefully in the stomach. I’ve been a short distance away from them as they shot tear gas into spaces they know included disabled people, homeless people, and animals. I’ve seen footage and read stories of officers shamelessly shooting rubber bullets at people, including those with cameras. …This type of brutality is new to many of us. …But to many communities in Oakland this is simply more of the same. I will now have much more understanding for those who yell, ‘Fuck the cops!'”

(This article appears in the current issue of Adbusters so I can’t link directly to the text. But you can find it on your local newsstand, or order a copy here.)

Taylor is talking about a change in sentiment and language in her piece; she isn’t advocating we take up arms against the police. But her article is titled “Violence vs. Non-violence.” I think that this article, like Solnit’s and many others I’ve read lately is telling: violence is being discussed, seriously, and it is happening, and as a nation we need to be realistic about it. I’m an optimist and I believe that Occupy and all of the brilliant activists and mobilized people in our country are going to make America all rainbows and sunshine again. But those things quite literally come after storms. And so if the violence in our country gets out of control, we can’t expect the police and military to stop it. They started it. We will have to stop it, and we will have to do so by becoming creative peacemakers in our own communities. Fortunately, there’s a lot of evidence that we can succeed in this daunting task: we all already are. When was the last time you used violence in your community? When was the last time you used nonviolence? But we will need to be increasingly realistic, serious, and strategic about it. We have to look at the statistics that find nonviolence to be twice as effective as violence, and the work that exists about how to do it well. And then we can find real progress and nonviolent success.

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