Violence Begats Violence
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The bar for launching a revolution has to be set high, but how high?
On the cover:
An ongoing series of protests and civil disorder began the day after the fatal shooting of Michael Brown on August 9, 2014, in Ferguson, Missouri. As the details of the original shooting event emerged from investigators, police established curfews and deployed riot squads to maintain order. There was looting and violent unrest in the vicinity.
Violence in Baltimore didn't start with the protests.
Don't get me wrong, I had no intentions of grabbing an rifle or a bomb and taking to the streets. But when I read about the radical leftists of various stripes who did so, I didn't think they were automatically wrong. America was founded by armed insurrection; one of its founding documents asserts "the right of the people to alter or to abolish" a government that isn't based on the consent of the governed. The precedent was there.
By adulthood, I no longer felt that way. I'd grasped that violence was much messier and more brutal than TV made it look, not a tool to use lightly. I'd also realized that using force to effect change is difficult. The majority of armed revolutions since 1776 have just swapped out one bunch of thugs for another.
It was also clearer to me that lots of people who believed the government's actions justified violence were wrong. The Confederacy. The Weather Underground. The Klan. Timothy McVeigh and the Unabomber. All of them were on the wrong side of history. For society to function at all, the bar for launching a revolution has to be set high ... but how high?
The question came to my mind again after the recent outbreak of violence in Baltimore, and the long history of police violence that preceded it.
On the one hand, I don't think rioting and violence is a good way to bring about reform or express anger against the government. On the other, it's hard to see the rioters as any worse than the Baltimore police department. The Baltimore Sun's recent report shows the cops have used so much brutality and excessive force, the city has paid out more than $5 million in settlements since 2011, and another $5 million in legal fees. Among the Sun's accounts:
- Eighty-seven year old Venus Green told police they'd need a warrant to search her basement. An officer handcuffed her and flung her around roughly enough to break her shoulder.
- A detective arresting Antony Anderson for drugs threw him to the ground so hard that Anderson ruptured his spleen and died.
- Three cops kidnapped two city teens and abandoned one of them in a park without shoes, socks or his cell phone.
- Police assaulted Jerriel Lyles and beat him around the face until he bled. Lyles wasn't charged with any crime, and the cops later claimed he'd poked himself in the face (a jury disagreed)
As Ta-Nehisi Coates wrote recently, it's all very well for civic leaders and others to call for peace and calm when civilians employ violence; where were the same voices when the police were the ones breaking the law and busting heads? Case in point, right-wing pundit Stephen Crowder: writing about how the rioters disgust him he says "If you are able to harm your fellow man, to scare their children, to do so with a clean conscience ... you are a horrible human being." Nowhere in the column does he discuss the harm the cops inflicted on their fellow men.
I believe in non-violent change. It's produced incredible results during my lifetime for women, gays and blacks, among others. So a part of me thinks that's the reasonable approach. The Sun article says the police department is making reforms, though slow and lurching ones, so why not wait and see how it progresses?
Then again, it's 50 years since LBJ signed the Civil Rights Act and the Baltimore police still treat blacks as if we were back in Jim Crow days. The Tampa PD routinely tickets black residents for bicycling while black. Prominent news columnists have written that police targeting black men for searches or questioning is justified because black men are just that scary. If my skin color put me on the receiving end of that, I might be feeling militant myself.
It's impossible not to see race as part of the issue. White America has been worrying about race wars, slave uprising and blacks assaulting whites since the days of the Founding Fathers. The bogeyman's details have changed -- these days, we have conservatives claiming the black president is organizing riots and plotting race war -- but the root fear is still there.
That fear puts everything in a different light. G. Gordon Liddy once told his radio-show audience how to kill federal agents wearing body armor; if a black leader in Baltimore said anything like that it would generate way more outrage (some of it probably from Liddy's fans).
So at what point is violence justified? I still don't know. And a part of me still feels that unjustified violence by the authorities -- cops, the military -- is somehow better and more acceptable than violence by ordinary people like us.
But it's becoming a lot harder to believe that than it used to be.
Fraser Sherman, : Having graduated college with a degree in biology, no interest in grad school, and no interest in a science career, Fraser Sherman decided he’d try writing. It turned out he liked it. And he was even reasonably good at it. Over the next couple of decades, he sold articles to Newsweek, The Writer, Dragon Magazine (yes he played D&D. Want to make something out of it?), Air & Space and more specialized markets such as Painting and Wallcovering and Gulf Coast Condo Owner. Because he wanted... (more...)