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Violence and Nonviolence

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I do not “believe in nonviolence” as a principle. Violence in resisting oppression is often justified. However, violence is almost always a terrible tactic for a social movement that significantly contributes to disaster. Sometimes it is central to a social movement. There’s little question that the Black Panthers and Black Power movement more broadly were morally justified in defending themselves against police violence. But what did that violence get the Black Panthers? It got them COINTELPRO and the assassination of many of their leaders. The IWW talked about violence in their rhetoric. Even though they rarely followed through on that violence, the rhetoric gave government and corporate forces the justification they needed to crush that movement during World War I.

Sometimes this is committed by some deranged individual outside the structure of an organized movement. This is what we saw in 1892 when the anarchist Alexander Berkman took it upon himself to assassinate steel magnate Henry Clay Frick after he brought in Pinkertons to crush the Homestead Strike. Berkman’s failed assassination attempt moved public opinion significantly away from the strikers, even though he had no connection to them. Similarly, the murder of the two New York City police officers has gone far to undermine what was an increasingly powerful movement against police violence toward people of color in this country. Even though the murderer was evidently totally unconnected to any of the protests, it has already deactivated the anti-violence movement while giving the cops an open field to attack anyone they perceive as their enemies, such as Bill DeBlasio. Of course police violence isn’t going to go away, but how many people have to die and how much time has to pass before the movement reorganizes? That the dead officers are Latino and Asian only shows how stupid random acts of political violence can be.

It’s just hard to see what violence is going to accomplish within the American context. Even if violent resistance can be morally defended, tactically it can’t be defended.

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