Monday, November 20, 2017

Violence On All Sides

by Dean Dettloff

Ferguson, 2014

This September in St. Louis, police arrested well over 100 people during protests that lasted for several days. Demonstrators were responding to the acquittal of Jason Stockley, a white man who shot and killed Anthony Lamar Smith, a 24-year-old black man, as a member of the St. Louis Police Department in 2011. The killing came at the end of a chase during which Stockley was recorded by a dashcam saying he was “going to kill this motherfucker, don’t you know it,” referring to Smith. Stockley claimed to find a gun in Smith’s car; the gun was found to have no DNA evidence showing Smith had ever touched it, though it did have Stockley’s DNA.

Before the verdict was released, the SLPD was already preparing for a confrontation, remembering the events of the nearby Ferguson revolt three years earlier in response to the killing of Michael Brown by white Ferguson Police officer Darren Wilson. A year after that, the Justice Department found the Ferguson Police Department was glaringly racist, based on a lengthy investigation that revealed that despite Ferguson’s black community making up two thirds of the population, they made up 93% of arrests there. Unsurprisingly, many in St. Louis found Stockley’s acquittal to be one more in a series of mishandled cases involving the death of black people in Missouri at the hands of white police officers.

Protests started peacefully but escalated when police agitated the crowds in the evening. Social media circulated the usual protest scenes, with a video of an older woman being trampled by St. Louis officers in riot gear emerging as an especially troubling and viral moment. And in response to the usual protest scenes, the usual protest reactions began to emerge, too.

Archbishop of St. Louis Robert Carlson condemned the violence in a press release saying, “While acknowledging the hurt and anger, we must not fuel the fires of hatred and division… Reject the false and empty hope that violence will solve problems. Violence only creates more violence.” The statement summarizes what has become a default position for many Americans, Catholic or otherwise: the onus is on the protesters to keep calm, and while the rage that erupts is understandable, that rage needs to be reined in. Violence begets violence, not change.

The response seems reasonable enough, especially in a country that saw the political and spiritual witness of Martin Luther King Jr. It also seems reasonable coming from Archbishop Carlson, a representative of a church whose spiritual leader, Pope Francis, has been a vocal promoter of nonviolence around the world, even delivering a message on the 50th Day of Peace entitled “Nonviolence: a Style of Politics for Peace.

Yet reasonable as it might seem, we should ask whether or not general condemnations of violence obscure more than they reveal about what happens on-the-ground in situations like the one in St. Louis. In the first place, exactly what we mean by “violence” is usually left undefined and assumed, though criticisms of protest violence often revolve around either the destruction of property or potential bodily harm.

We should ask whether or not general condemnations of violence obscure more than they reveal about what happens on-the-ground in situations like the one in St. Louis.

But how would our criticism of violence shift if we took into account the pervasive, structural, and society-building violence of ideologies like white supremacy? Is violence only on the scene when a body meets another body or object in physical space? Or can we call a society itself violent if it habitually treats some bodies as threats simply for being bodies in physical space at all?

When we expand these questions, condemnations of violence during protests or riots start to appear lopsided. Compared with the daily violence of white supremacy, where nearly every ticket, traffic stop, citation, jaywalking offense, and arrest involves a black citizen in the St. Louis suburb of Ferguson, throwing a non-lethal bottle at a police officer in riot gear seems quite reasonable, maybe even painfully restrained. That Archbishop Carlson did not see the need to immediately condemn, for example, the racist conditions that caused the outburst following Stockley’s acquittal, nor the excessive use of force on the part of the SLPD who chanted “Whose streets? Our streets!” as they went on an arresting spree, suggests a certain uniquely problematic kind of violence on the part of those fed up with the daily violence they encounter and, generally, put up with.

All this might seem a little too sociological, too Marxist, too leftist--and, in the interest of full disclosure, those are indeed my points of departure. I confess to not being so convinced that “nonviolence” is, after all, the only style of politics for a just and peaceful future. But these points are also found in none other than Pope Francis himself (also one of my points of departure), in his first Apostolic Exhortation, Evangelii Gaudium, which provides a more complicated perspective on violence within a nonviolent framework:

“The poor and the poorer peoples are accused of violence,” writes Pope Francis, “yet without equal opportunities the different forms of aggression and conflict will find a fertile terrain for growth and eventually explode. When a society – whether local, national or global – is willing to leave a part of itself on the fringes, no political programmes or resources spent on law enforcement or surveillance systems can indefinitely guarantee tranquility.”

Note the careful phrasing. Francis says the poor are accused of violence, a suggestive move that helps us to be suspicious of attempts to derisively write off outbursts of rage as irresponsible or immature, where “violence” is a polemical term that covers up broader social questions. On the contrary, Francis suggests it is unsurprising and even to be expected that “forms of aggression and conflict” will “explode” in a system that rests on exacerbating social contradictions. A solution will not come, Francis says, from more policing or law enforcement--and that means we should not be so quick to assume the police are good or trustworthy diffusers of violence after all, leaving the only guilty party to be the one that feels it is fighting for its very survival. If nothing else, we might pause to consider why privileged groups consider the violence of citizens to be incomprehensible while the daily violent repression of those citizens often receives little to no comment.

Francis’s words are prefigured by Martin Luther King Jr., whom he often cites. In his 1968 speech “The Other America,” delivered just a month before he was killed, King addressed the growing black power movement and a rolling series of riots saying, “I think America must see that riots do not develop out of thin air. Certain conditions continue to exist in our society which must be condemned as vigorously as we condemn riots. But in the final analysis, a riot is the language of the unheard.” King goes on to say, “Social justice and progress are the absolute guarantors of riot prevention,” the same conclusion Pope Francis comes to in Evangelii Gaudium.

What are a few broken windows compared to the disproportionate murder and incarceration of black people?

Considering violence in this way helps us to understand protests and riots as responses to injustice, that is, systemic violence, rather than the sheer release of arbitrary energies. A particular judgment of the violence on the part of protesters (violence that often emerges in further response to a militarized police presence) becomes less important than judging the comparably much larger system of violence where protests are needed. Chastising protesters while safely inside and off the streets risks not just misunderstanding the problem, but doubly marginalizing those who have been shoved to the fringes. What are a few broken windows compared to the disproportionate murder and incarceration of black people?

What Francis and King, both committed to nonviolence, are trying to do is enlarge our frame of reference. Injustice and violence are found primarily at the root of society, not in the discrete moments of seeming “unrest” in a society that some have the privilege of seeing as mostly placid in their daily lives. The risk of knee-jerk condemnations of violence is to sound like those God indicts in Jeremiah 6: “They have treated the wound of my people carelessly, saying, ‘Peace, peace,’ when there is no peace.”

It is this kind of violence that leads political philosopher Richard Gilman-Opalsky, who teaches nextdoor to Missouri in Illinois, to suggest, “In light of this everyday violence, which is of course not the only form of violence, revolt is patient, revolt is kind. Revolt may even appear too moderate, too restrained, and too peaceable.”

Pushing the insights of Francis and King a little further, Gilman-Opalsky goes on to say, in a passage that dovetails with Evangelii Gaudium, “Those who condemn the revolts actually love them because they get to condemn a ‘violence’ that justifies the violence they defend, the violence they love. Critics of revolt do not, therefore, fear the violence, but rather the transformative potentialities of revolt, its abolitionist (and creative) content. Their wager and hope is that nothing they love will be abolished, that the present state of things will be defended against every revolt.”

That might sound like a cynical take, but consider what Gilman-Opalsky is saying. The violence he refers to is the social, material, and political exclusion of people of color that white people benefit from each day. In condemning violence in the streets, critics of riots and protests often sidestep the hard work of understanding why people need to be in the streets in the first place, which in turn prevents them from working to dismantle the conditions that create that need.

Riots are ruptures in our daily goings-on, which means for some a rupture in a privileged life and for others a rupture in a violent routine. Riots are not childish tantrums but symptoms of a deeply sinful system, containing hopes and dreams for upending a social order that is evidently based upon oppressive structures. For those of us, like me, who are not subject to profiling and racist targeting, the violence we love is the violence that preserves our ability to ignore the conditions that make our lives possible.

This is the violence Francis indicts throughout his papacy, for example in Laudato Si’, where inequality lies at the heart of our ecological catastrophe, or even Amoris Laetitia, where material causes of poverty make significant burdens for family life, a point that has been well overlooked in favor of passages on divorcees. That so many American Catholics appear to have missed this central theme in Francis’s writings and nevertheless praise his commitment to nonviolence is a dangerous combination that makes for a detached “holier-than-thou” attitude, one that poses little threat to white supremacy. Needless to say, non-Catholics are likewise prone to ignore the complex social themes at the heart of so many Christian voices for justice.

Riots do not develop out of thin air, nor are they dispelled by hot air about the virtues of nonviolence.

The response to the Stockley acquittal in St. Louis will not be the last of such responses. As Francis says in Evangelii Gaudium, with a curt retort to those who have put their faith in the deliverance of liberal capitalism, “We are far from the so-called ‘end of history’, since the conditions for a sustainable and peaceful development have not yet been adequately articulated and realized.” Christians need to find a way to address these events that understands and works to eliminate the material conditions that undergird them. Riots do not develop out of thin air, nor are they dispelled by hot air about the virtues of nonviolence.

If those committed to nonviolence truly want to condemn violence “on all sides,” perhaps they would be wise to follow the lead of Francis and King and begin with the side that happily accommodates and perpetuates violence each day. It is no accident that Francis's thoughts on violence come in the context of Evangelii Gaudium, an exhortation about evangelization. Without a moral voice that understands the long and harried history of structural sins in the United States, Christians will inevitably continue to bulwark America’s own banality of evil, foreclosing its ability to speak a word of peace in a society of violence. Given that Francis’s exhortation seems to have gone largely unnoticed, I close with a passage worth quoting at length, following Francis’s observation that law enforcement and political programs will not quell the need for riots:

“This is not the case simply because inequality provokes a violent reaction from those excluded from the system, but because the socioeconomic system is unjust at its root. Just as goodness tends to spread, the toleration of evil, which is injustice, tends to expand its baneful influence and quietly to undermine any political and social system, no matter how solid it may appear. If every action has its consequences, an evil embedded in the structures of a society has a constant potential for disintegration and death. It is evil crystallized in unjust social structures, which cannot be the basis of hope for a better future.”

Dean Dettloff is a Junior Member in the PhD program at the Institute for Christian Studies, where he researches media theory and religion. He is also the co-host, with Matt Bernico, of The Magnificast, a podcast about Christianity and leftist politics.

Image: "Ferguson, Day 4, Photo 26," used under the Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 4.0 International license from wikipedia user Loavesofbread.


  1. "Riots do not develop out of thin air"

    No. But they can be incited and purchased.

  2. Thank you Dean, for these thoughts on violence. I'm still processing, but I have some thoughts. Early on you ask about what counts as violence. Can we categorize violence? Can we distinguish the oppressor simmer of violence from the reaction violence of the oppressed? Those are two different things. Is there work out there that separates the phenomena? From that, how do we who are Christians make sense of the "mirror-violence"? Our understanding needs an incisive distinction mechanism. How can we better understand violence, and how can we stand with the oppressed violent as Christians? JW

    1. Hi, JW.

      These are all the kinds of questions that I find myself asking a lot. "Violence" is a very weighted term in so much of our conversation about contemporary life, but I find people rarely take a moment to define or think through what they mean by "violence." For my part, I think if we start poking at the definitions that get proposed, we usually find that they stop unnecessarily at a certain point, which leads me to ask not so much *what* violence is but rather *why* some things are called violent and other things are not. It would be great to have more Christians open to thinking through these problems, especially because it is so often Christians who denounce violence in the superficial way I tried to show here.

      One unique and provocative approach is taken by the Brazilian educational theorist Paulo Freire, who argues that the only party that can ever be violent is the oppressor party. In his view, responding to that oppression is not a violent act, and he attempts to argue that oppressed people are always nonviolent categorically, even when their responses to the violence of oppressors take the form of things like armed revolutions.

      I'm not totally sold on that approach, but it's one interesting approach coming from a Christian thinker, anyhow.

  3. That is an interesting approach. I have more questions. I live in Nigeria. a place that suffers from internal corruption. Violence is disguised by this state of affairs. How does an African country identify violence well? This may be beyond your powers, but your thoughts are welcome all the same.

  4. When I think of violence, I am led with JW to think of injustices being maintained (oppression), or injustice being corrected (revolutionary violence). The trouble with the latter is that no matter what we support (to say nothing of carrying out)--whether the seemingly innocuous attack on an empty bank, or the dismantling of military aircraft--the trouble is that in both cases we sin by returning evil for evil. That is the new law on correcting injustice spoken by the Word made flesh. How does the OT sense of justice fit with the spirit of grace? Vengeance is mine, says the LORD.

  5. The meaning of "violence" is being twisted and expanded by everyone to serve persuasive purposes. Its literal and metaphorical meanings are all but completely conflated today, and then used freely to draw equivalencies where none exist or where they are so remote as to be comparing apples to oranges. ("They are both fruit, I say!")

    Talking about "systemic violence" as in some sense justifying the violence of people rioting, is justifying violence by anyone with a claim to being one of the oppressed, or to be acting in defence of the oppressed. It is giving those acts approval in principle.

    And they are exciting acts that ignite the mind and make the heart race. Rhetorically defensible through a megaphone, and annointed with the easy virtue of "the cause", they are attractive to a very narrow demographic. There's a reason we don't see many 50 year old people throwing molotov cocktails, or wearing bandit masks, while they exercise their rights of assembly and free speech. It's not that they are too old to act; it's that they are wiser than that.

    So let's not call violence justified by any circumstances we choose to say it is justified by. Let's just say that it may be justified because it's useful as a political tool under certain circumstances, and then we can at least debate proportionality, effectiveness, and appropriateness to certain circumstances, with some semblance of integrity.

    Nonviolent resistance, and real, hard, dedicated and sustained groundwork, is not exciting, and produces no immediate satisfaction, but it's almost always the best way forward. That's why nonviolence is widely accepted as a principle, where violent reaction is not. We may personally remind ourselves of the facts of systemic violence if we feel ourselves losing sympathy with those affected by it, so we don't make the easy mistake of victim-blaming, but to give violent action itself any intellectual cover and justification is to make a grave error.


  6. Debating something as being "politically useful" depends on a democratic vote of some kind, which always coerces some, violently against their wishes. Consensus aims to mitigate the differences, but at some point the possibility of moving forward with 100% agreement is impossible. Everyone loses and then some lose more.

    You say above that the comparison of violence and less intense versions is like comparing apples and oranges, and you utilize the notion of fruitful. So take the executions carried out by nihilists in the 1890's in Russia. Killing upper class individuals is evidently violent, but fruitful, you say; and now compare this form of act with property destruction. Are both fruitful, in the sense of abiding in the vine? Are you saying something messianic here? As in truthful or bearing fruit? One could argue that both are politically useful, depending on which side of the fence you're on...