Something interesting happens after every shooting or bombing that occurs in the United States. First, the politicians rush to the nearest media-outlet to tell the country about how deeply the event affected them & that they will be praying or thinking or something about the families of those involved. Then, the violence is condemned in statements issued by the organizations or people expected to speak for whatever group the attacker is linked to, which is usually when social media explodes with sad emojis, out-of-context MLK memes & new hashtags to display how distressed we all are. Everyone seems to know exactly what to do — almost as if it had all been rehearsed.
And that’s because we do — and it has.
What We Aren’t Supposed to Say
About Violence in the USA
“Let me be as clear as I can be — violence of any kind is unacceptable in our society, and I condemn this action in the strongest possible terms. Real change can only come about through nonviolent action and anything else runs counter to our most deeply held American values”
–Senator Bernie Sanders, after Wednesday’s shooting by a former campaign-volunteer
The predictable routine played out in a more-or-less typical fashion over the past week. After Wednesday’s shooting at a GOP baseball-practice by a former volunteer for Bernie Sanders’ campaign, the Sand-Man re-stated the doctrine that everyone in the US is supposed to accept. It’s a 2-part doctrine — the first clause is that “violence of any kind is unacceptable” & the second is “real change can only come about through nonviolent action.” There are a good handful of edgy individuals out there who would disagree, of course, but the public at-large is pretty solidly unwilling to advocate any kind of violence in the US. And few seem to wonder how the ethics of violence appear to loosen up for US police or military and almost disappear altogether for our military in other countries.
Sanders is right that any other view about violence runs counter to “our most deeply held American values” but — not in spite of my respect for Bernie Sanders but because of it — I must disagree with the rest of his statement. Now, listen carefully because what follows is almost certain to be misinterpreted…
No Justice = No Peace
The idea that violence of any kind is unacceptable in the US is wrong because violence of many kinds is accepted in the US, today. In the very week that James T. Hodgkinson shot a GOP congressman, the police officer who murdered Philando Castile not only walked away from the so-called “justice” system with no consequences for his violence but did so with severance pay at the public’s expense. And where were our deeply held American values, then? Or is there some nuance stopping our values from applying? Why wasn’t the violence which claimed the life of Trayvon Martin unacceptable? Or Sandra Bland? What about Kathryn Johnston, Sean Bell, Eric Garner, Amadou Diallo, Mike Brown, Kimani Gray, Kenneth Chamberlain, Travares McGill, Tamir Rice, Aiyana Stanley-Jones, & Freddie Gray?
In the same week, we learned the US military is sowing white phosphorus over Mosul & Raqqa — an indiscriminate chemical incendiary which poisons, suffocates, & scorches human flesh to the bone. How can we claim non-violence among our deeply held American values when those values are silent about the criminal violence inflicted in our names upon Iraqi & Syrian civilians in densely populated cities?
No, Senator Sanders — Americans eat violence for breakfast. We accept the police violence done daily to our black & brown neighbors, the violence of mass incarceration, & the violence visited on our indigenous citizens by mercenaries, peace-officers, & the wealthy bosses of oil companies. We accept violence in virtually any form so long as its the US military who uses it. And so long as we do not have to watch.
Violence is only unacceptable to Americans when poor people do it. When Black folks do it. When Mexicans, Muslims, & people from the Middle-East do it.
Non-Violence & Violence
“Those who make peaceful revolution impossible make violent revolution inevitable”
-John F Kennedy
The second claim – that real change only comes about by nonviolent action – is empirically & unfortunately absurd. One look at history ought to make it clear that most real change has been brought about by violence. The vast majority of it, really. The violence of systemic racism has changed the experiences of millions of Americans for hundreds of years in very real ways — shall we say to people of color that the changes wrought by police-violence upon their communities is somehow un-real? Is the climate change — which threatens our very species — not real because oil companies & governments have plunged the Arab world into chaos to keep fossil fuels flowing? This nation was forged by violence – colonized by violence. And denying that keeps us from addressing the very real problem.
Instead of saying that violence is unacceptable, we must acknowledge the real extent to which violence is accepted in the United States. And, instead of saying that real change only happens through nonviolent action, we must acknowledge the truth of history & of our current situation, which are riddled with violent change.
Instead of repeating ideas uncritically because we want them to be true, US politicians & media commentators could serve our people better by acknowledging reality — anything else obstructs the way to the change we say we want. Then — & only then — we might have a chance to empower people to change this society nonviolently. But, until we elevate the marginalized & the poorest among us so that they may be co-creators of the civilization we all must share, violence is inevitable. The world itself testifies to that truth.
When we condemn the violence of the dis-empowered, we silence what that violence is trying to tell us & stamp out the potential for nonviolence. The source of violence is not inside of people like James T. Hodgkinson and so I refuse to condemn him or his actions. People like Hodgkinson are like stress fractures in the structure of society — if we do not let them lead us to the injustices which must be mended, we will remember these shootings as the last sound we heard before the levees of our nation finally break.
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