My current dissertation work is based on the idea that although we think we know violence when we see it, things are far more complicated than the term initially implies. The use of the term ‘violence’ is fundamentally contested, and its use always implies a set of violable boundaries that are both epistemological and ontological (such is my argument). Violence is not only a contested concept in itself, but it is also a keyword that points outward to broader social problems that lie at the base of western societies.
In the recent conversation on protest movements in the United States, the term ‘violence’ is used as both a legitimizing and delegitimizing tactic, meant to authorize some uses of force or coercion and deauthorize others. Given the readily usable character of the term, the questions at the root of my work are: Who decides how the word ‘violence’ should be used? How is the term used? How should it be used? How can we understand the term as simultaneously descriptive and normative? Turning to occasions of violence helps to disentangle this knot of what is and what ought to be. Understanding violence requires attention to police violence because police violence is paradigmatic of the greater problem of violence.
As we know, George Floyd – a black man – was killed in Minneapolis on March 25 by a white police officer named Derek Chauvin. Three different sets of video footage show Floyd complying with officers. Although Floyd tells the officers that he is claustrophobic they successfully force him into the back of the cruiser, after which Chauvin (who has just arrived on scene) pulls him through the opposite door and onto the street. Chauvin then kneels on Floyd’s neck for over eight minutes. While he is still conscious Floyd can be heard saying the words: “I can’t breathe.” Chauvin continues to compress Floyd’s neck with his knee until after EMTs arrive and instruct him to release Floyd. According to two autopsies – one private and one from the state – Floyd’s death was determined to be homicide by asphyxiation.
The four officers involved were fired by the Minneapolis Police Department and each face charges, but the public response has swept the United States and beyond. Protesters flooded the streets of major American cities, marching in support of Black Lives Matter and against police violence. Among many peaceful marchers were also those who committed acts of looting and vandalism, but one must ask: does the fixation on violence and the fact that it sells cause media outlets to overemphasize looting and vandalism at the direct expense of large numbers of peaceful marchers who do not make good news? I think so.
Since Floyd was killed thousands of people have marched in protest of police violence against Black Americans, and by May 30 at least twelve major American cities had declared curfews.
In short order, the president of the United States wrote on Twitter: “My heart goes out to George’s family and friends. Justice will be served!” However, in a later tweet he threatened protesters with violence, saying “when the looting starts, the shooting starts.” Then, on June 2, Trump was pictured in the news holding a Bible in front of St John’s Episcopal Church in Washington, DC – an act that clearly shows the unique American entanglement of religion and politics.
During the protests in Minneapolis more video footage shows members of the National Guard marching before an armored vehicle through a residential neighborhood while shouting at people on their porches to get inside. Some who did not obey were shot with paint pellets by soldiers, despite their clear compliance with the curfew order.
In the face of police violence and protest, some have shown hospitality rather than aggression. In Washington, DC, during the protests last week Rahel Dubey opened his home to protesters who had been blocked into his street. As the curfew and threat of police violence approached, he let at least 80 people into his home. Video footage shows Dubey welcoming his guests to stay “as long as it takes.”
However, police violence continues. Without provocation, during recent protests in Buffalo a police officer pushed an elderly man to the ground. As the man lay motionless on the pavement while bleeding from his head, video footage shows one officer kneel down to help him before another pulls him away. The two officers involved were suspended without pay, and the governor of New York Andrew Cuomo wrote on Twitter: “Police Officers must enforce — NOT ABUSE — the law.”
But what is the difference between enforcing and abusing the law? Who decides which acts of violence are legal and legitimate, and which acts of violence are not? The concept of violence itself does not give an answer to these questions. There is a double problem at the core of the question that violence poses. On one hand, what counts as violence is contested. On the other hand, what justifies violence is contested.
Disagreement about what counts as violence and what justifies violence is at the heart of the current conflict between police and protestors in the United States. Deciding what is properly called violent or not is a powerful act made by many public and political figures. For example, despite the fact that, according to the FBI, the group had no involvement with the violence in DC on May 31, Trump’s threat to designate ‘Antifa’ as ‘terrorists’ is an expression of this kind of power, and his more recent response to the events in Buffalo exhibits the easy conspiracism that dominates right-wing thinking in North America.
Terms like ‘terrorist,’ ‘radical,’ ‘extremist,’ and ‘fanatic’ are very often used to disqualify the violence of one group and authorize the violence of others. So too with the term ‘violence.’ In his work on death and politics, Achille Mbembe argues that “the ultimate expression of sovereignty resides, to a large degree, in the power and the capacity to dictate who may live and who must die.” Mbembe’s work helps us see that violent power is exercised when police officers and political leaders decide that certain lives are expendable or worth less than other lives.
The power that Derek Chauvin wielded when he killed George Floyd was violent in large part because Chauvin used his power as a law enforcement officer to prevent bystanders from intervening to save Floyd’s life. This powerful decision about who lives and who dies is a constituent part of policing.
In his recent book Critique of Sovereignty, Daniel Loick argues that, as “a monopoly on legitimate physical force,” sovereignty is a modern European invention that is not naturally given, but made and perpetuated. Indeed, there have been many societies that do not rely upon the threat of physical force by police to maintain social order.
How does the historical relativity of sovereignty reframe the conflict often presented between police and protesters? I think it points to the fact that to say there are violent members of ‘both sides’ is to diminish the kinds of violence described above.
Both supporters of police and supporters of protesters use the word ‘violence’ to condemn the other. But is there really a ‘debate’ between protesters and police? The term ‘violence’ is used to characterize protestors by those who call for more military involvement. Even though the majority of protesters have been peaceful, in a violent article for the New York Times, Tom Cotton called for “an overwhelming show of force to disperse, detain and ultimately deter lawbreakers.” Pointing to three instances of police officers being shot by protesters (one of which was fatal), Cotton argued that the military should use physical force to preserve the law.
But consider that hundreds of thousands of people across the United States have marched peacefully in protests this past week, and compare the results of this social movement with the statistics on police violence against Black Americans. In 2019 police in America killed 1099 people, 24% of whom were Black, despite being only 13% of the total population. These statistics should shock us and show us why protesters continue to respond to the violent killing of Black Americans by police, while police and the National Guard attempt to preserve ‘law’ and ‘order’ by means of physical violence.
Some try to present a neutral and balanced view of these two opposing groups, arguing that there are ‘bad apples’ among both police and protesters. Others point hopefully to police who lay down their gear and join protestors, or to police who kneel in solidarity with protestors. These moments hold great potential, but many were followed by further police violence in the same locations, making any clear interpretation of them difficult.
When we try to present police violence in a neutral light by pointing to problems with ‘both sides’ we miss the violence of systemic racism that persists within police forces in America and around the world. We don’t need a universal concept of violence to see that police violence is masked by those who present it as a debate with two equal sides about which we should be balanced and moderate.
In a time when journalists are being attacked by police, and when unmarked officers refuse to identify which federal agency they belong to, the problem of police violence remains. Defenders of the police and those who advocate for police reform point out that not all police forces conduct themselves in the violent ways we have seen on the news this week. But again, presenting this fact and using language of ‘reform’ rather than ‘abolition’ has the effect of stalling substantial conversations about police violence and standing in the way of serious changes to community safety practices.
Despite the ill-considered words of several politicians, Canada is not exempt from the problems of racism or police violence. Indeed, the conversation on police violence is just as relevant in Canada given the high number of Black and Indigenous Canadians who are victims of racial and police violence.
Following the encouragement of a recent anthology that sustains the conversation on police violence, I think that we should ask incisive questions about “how exactly and how lawfully the police works, and on the other hand how disproportionately, or even excessively, it makes use of its force and authority.” As the public reckoning with police violence continues in the United States and Canada, the difficult task will be to ask these complex questions in ways that move beyond both neutrality and polarization while actively valuing Black lives and clearly condemning police violence.
Much of this task, I think, should involve taking a closer look at the values that underpin our uses of the term ‘violence.’ My work is based on the notion that violence points back to values, so that the question becomes: what is violated when violence is done? If we value human life then instrumental uses of the term ‘violence’ to damn, vilify, and demonize – and here I intentionally use these theopolitical terms – are not sufficient, and this is precisely because they reproduce what they purport to oppose.