With a Donald Trump presidency and no checks in place to stop him from exploiting his newfound executive powers, those who oppose him are forced to turn to alternative ways of resisting that go beyond relying on their elected officials for the foreseeable future. As the Women’s March on Washington illuminated, many of the people now participating in direct action are new to it. The additional numbers of people on the streets and increased level of enthusiasm for grassroots combat should be helpful in achieving the political successes we need. But this new energy comes with a caveat.
While those who bear the brunt of the violence of the state have always rightly resisted in whatever limited ways available to them, progressives exposed to radical action on the streets for the first time, and white liberals specifically, often act as an impediment to many in the ranks they’ve joined. By consistently shying away from and demonizing people for defending themselves using tactics that don’t fit comfortably into the narrative of civil society, well-meaning liberals who do not comprehend the realities the most abused communities are facing often act as syphons of radical energy within the crowds they have joined. Though they claim to want a revolution, violent revolt remains especially unthinkable for many of these people.
Not All Violence is Equal
After disgraced right-wing troll and white supremacist Milo Yiannopoulos was invited to speak at the University of California, Berkeley, the liberal student body and faculty erupted in protest. Milo, it was pointed out, not only regularly contributes to less tangible violence against marginalized communities through his white supremacist writings and speeches but has also perpetrated this violence more directly, as was the case when he led a vicious internet mob in the anti-Black and sexist harassment of the comedian Leslie Jones that eventually drove her off Twitter.
The protests of his speech turned violent, with an estimated 150 “anarchists” joining in to hurl rocks at the police, and the university sustained approximately $100,000 worth of property damage. When Milo’s appearance was canceled, one of the protesters called the revolt “stunningly successful.” Indeed, if the goal was to stop a bigot from spreading hate on campus, they had done the job.
But many well-meaning liberals have different goals. They do not simply want to stop hate but do so quietly and comfortably. Actress and liberal commentator Whoopi Goldberg blasted the Berkeley protesters on The View, equating their actions to the hate Milo himself espoused. My colleague Shane Ryan at Paste Magazine followed up with an article entitled “The Violence in Berkeley is a Very, Very Bad Idea For the Left.” In the article, he argued that “if you don’t subscribe to the idea that violence itself is an idea that must be avoided for our health and the health of democracy, consider the warning: You are playing into [the Trump administration’s] hands. Nonviolent action is what moves people, and exposes the hatred and brutality of those we’re opposing.” For those of us who have been active in the Movement for Black Lives especially, this liberal castigation of what are considered cruder responses to white supremacist violence is not new.
Over the last few years alone, violent protests have erupted in Black communities after police killings in Baltimore, Ferguson, and Charlotte. Each time, well-meaning liberals were quick to shed unhelpful tears—none of the officers involved in these cases have been convicted, much like the close to 100% of officers involved in all fatal shootings in the U.S.—but they were even quicker to spurn any violence from the most affected people. White supremacy has shown its willingness to kill over and over again without redress, but the well-meaning liberal believes anyone who ever even thinks to fight back is part of the problem or just as bad.
When Violence is Abuse
Abuse is about dominance and control and can be defined by economic, mental/emotional, and or physical violence and manipulation. Systems of oppression are based on abuses of all kinds. Black people and other people of color are economically disenfranchised. They face the mental and emotional trauma of both explicit and implicit statements of their inferiority written directly into the law. And of course, they have always withstood physical violence at the hands of the police and other white supremacists.
Abuse apologism is a set of behaviors implying the victim of abuse somehow deserves what happens to them. When it comes to sexual violence, for example, it can be observed in the idea that a victim of rape is somehow implicated by drinking too much, wearing skimpy clothing, or otherwise being provocative.
In the case of violent revolt, the belief that the violent protester’s actions are just as bad or “playing into” the system of abuse also implicates the victim and lets the abuser off the hook. If violent revolt plays into Trump’s hands, then the people participating in it who are abused by Trump are at fault for their own abuse. If the violence is just as bad, we have to focus on it with the same vigor, although the other side does not intend to address its violence at all. This is apologism in action.
Retaliation is a Right
There may or may not be many different avenues for movement work that lead to better results than retaliatory violence, but what is undeniable is that retaliatory violence in and of itself is not the problem. Those who resort to violence in response to oppression have often already been denied these avenues, and if access to other paths seem so much more sensible to us, it is generally because our perspective is skewed by our own distance from the most abused.
It is the right of the people who bear the brunt society’s violence to have the most say in determining appropriate responses to it. Those of us with status, money, and/or other privileges granted by the same state inflicting this violence should consider our reluctance to the most radical responses to be at least in part informed by our conflicts of interest, and unpack our intentions accordingly. As none of our hands are at all clean, we should always prioritize finding solutions to divesting our ties to the state over attempting to dictate the appropriateness of someone else’s response to the violence they experience under it. And we should understand that it is reasonable for our solutions to differ depending on what we have access to.
Just because we are able to participate in long-term organizing does not mean that every Black person already targeted and criminalized by the system has the same privilege, time, and resources. Even if they did, it is not their responsibility to choose the option we deem most efficient. Even when retaliation is violent, if the damage does not go beyond the scope of damage inflicted by abuse, we should be focused on condemning the actions of the abuser. And white supremacy has done unmatchable damage.
The argument is, of course, that the school, its property, and bystanders who feared for their safety were innocent collateral. However, it was the school that agreed to give hate a platform within its walls, and safety is not a right when it is dependent on the unsafety of others. If my safety requires that a white supremacist be allowed to spread hate that infringes on the safety of others, my safety is violence as well. Personal comfort cannot trump the lives of others.
Well-Meaning Liberals, Step Aside
By highlighting the actions of the abused as the problem, well-meaning liberals ultimately reinforce justifications for abuse. As the system intends to keep abuse going, well-meaning liberals become a willing pawn in its effort to deflect focus from its original sins.
Rather than discussing how to address and ensure there are no more Yiannopouloses, the media is dominated by how to address and ensure there are no more revolts in response. The View would have never covered the story had Yiannopoulos’s hateful speech gone off without a hitch, yet Goldberg remains convinced that the violence is equal. If it were, wouldn’t the response to each be, too?
Abused people fighting their abusers, especially when their lives are at stake, is not the problem. Abuse is the problem. Unless this is reinforced, it is easy for our language and actions to become just like abuse apologism of any other kind when it comes to blaming people—especially those who are poor and have few alternatives —who participate in violent revolt against those oppressing them.
Much debate exists over how welcoming we should be to well-meaning liberals who are bringing this new energy to the movement in the aftermath of Trump’s election. In citing its usefulness, many overlook how this energy comes primarily from people who would rather distance themselves from radical action than support it.
In fighting a monster that becomes increasingly dangerous by the day, we can no longer afford to threaten radical action in our own ranks. We should hold everyone accountable for ensuring they do not compound the abuse of the most abused before prioritizing their welcome. If they are really about freedom, they’ll do the work necessary to ensure they aren’t impeding it.