Issue 14, Volume 17
This article is a response to a piece entitled “On Violence,” which appeared in Issue 14, Volume 17 of De Minimis. The author of that piece warned against the use of violence as a form of protest; they express concern that people who see violence as a legitimate form of process “celebrate the destruction and damage visited on communities and norms of social cohesion.”
This is not the case.
People who look upon the looting and damage that has been caused by the protests against the murder of George Floyd and see that damage as legitimate recognise that the “virtues of civil discourse,” and “norms of social cohesion,” which the original author exalted so highly are the very same virtues which perpetuate a culture of repression. Therefore, violent disruption of the status quo is the only effective response to the violent repression of people of colour by law enforcement.
To that end, I put forward 2 theses in reply.
Let’s be clear, these protests – or “riots” if you insist upon that term – are not an isolated incident, and there is a reason they have spread across multiple major U.S. cities and across the world. On Saturday, there will be a Black Lives Matter protest right here in Melbourne on the steps of Parliament House, a protest against the murder of Indigenous Australians in police custody.
The Washington Post reports that 1,023 people have been shot and killed by police in the past 12 months in the United States. Black Americans account for just 13% of the United States population but are killed at twice the rate of White Americans. These shootings have taken place in every single U.S. state. More alarming however, is that these shootings are continuing to increase on a steady trajectory.
It is not to be disputed that these shootings in the United States are emblematic of a system in which the police are given legal immunities in respect of the use of militarised force to keep racialised communities ‘under control.’ The United States is systemically violent towards people of colour.
The police embody the state apparatus of the law, as do judges, and lawyers, and every other person you encounter in an institution of law or law enforcement. Embody is the key term here: the law works in and through actual human beings, people who err, who are biased, and whose actions sometimes produce horrifically unjust results.
Which one of us hasn’t read a judgement and thought “this isn’t a just outcome.” The recognition of the simple fact that people err is the reason we have an appellate court system. Similarly, the original author acknowledges that the murder of George Floyd was “horrific and grotesquely wasteful,” of human life.
To be clear, I am not saying we should throw the law out entirely – that would put the lot of us out of business. But we must recognise that sometimes the law fails people – more than this, the law can be an instrument of violence, both repressive and ideological. The repressive aspect of the law is obvious to anyone – it inheres in law enforcement, the Police and, even potentially the Army. The ideological functioning of law may be less clear, and legal scholars have written entire books on this complex point, but suffice it to say that the law expresses a certain set of values about how our society should be. To quote Louis Althusser as an example, “the distinction between the public and the private is a distinction internal to bourgeois law.” That is to say, this distinction is internal to the institution of the Law as it functions in a western, capitalist democracy, and is not to be taken as a universal given. This is one simple way in which the law expresses an ideology. Legal ideology is perpetuated in judge-made and statutory law; it imposes itself with the repressive authority of the Law upon the whole of society. To avoid getting too Foucauldian about it, this is a form of ideological violence which has the potential to repress minority voices.
Ideological struggle is a legitimate form of protest. Symbolic gestures like peaceful protest express that one does not consent to the current politico-legal discourse. But when these forms of protest are met with repressive violence by the police, people begin to realise that ideological resistance is only one element in fighting back against a system that is violently repressive.
To summarize the gist of my response; violent protest is the only way to counteract a violent system. It is not enough to resist symbolically a system which uses repressive violence to silence minority voices. Yes, violence disrupts the norms of social cohesion, but this is precisely the point. Stonewall was a riot which paved the way for LGBTQ rights. The 1968 DC riots led to the Civil Rights Act of 1968. Real change starts when ‘business as usual’ stops.
Anonymous is a group of first year JD students.