Violence (5/2/14)

So, at the last Violence class, we were talking about both a section on the rise of the Black Panther Party (from Black Against Empire) and on the early inroads of militarization into police forces (from Rise of the Warrior Cop). A few interesting things came out of the conversation.

First, what ended up being the first question was, “why aren’t we talking about violence in prisons in this class?” Good question. The best answer I could give the guys was that research on violence in prisons is pretty sketchy (at least in the US), and so I was not in a position to teach anything about it. Actually, I am quite interested in it, but am trying to get my ducks in a row on how to actually conduct research. Unfortunately for researchers, the Maryland Department of Public Safety does not currently permit interview research in correctional facilities (and cannot guarantee confidentiality for mail surveys). I did invite them to talk about it in class, but no one volunteered. I also invited them to write about it, so let’s see.

Second, while I did try to keep bringing it back around to the material for the class, the conversation they kept wanting to bring it back around to was the issue of what violence is, particularly the concept of “structural violence.” Unsurprisingly perhaps, most of the folks in the room were pretty friendly to the idea of structural violence, though we did have some interesting discussions about whether there was a need to draw the line somewhere (so that not everything bad is violence), and about how to understand “local” power imbalances – e.g., one (white) student was skeptical that black prejudice against whites is never backed up by power (meaning it’s not “racism” in the way that academics tend to use the term), because he’d been beaten up a few times when visiting a black girlfriend in her neighborhood. So we had a lively debate about that (there were divergent theories about why I don’t get beaten up when I bike my daughter to her school in Park Heights).

Third, we talked a bit – and some of the guys had been in either my class on James or Josh’s on Arendt – about the Panther’s use of violence. As Mr. Jihad pointed out to me, it’s telling the story a bit unfairly to characterize the Panthers as a “violent organization,” but it was important to their role that they were at least willing to threaten and use violence in a way that other groups weren’t. Newton’s analysis of the need for armed resistance is in line with the Marxist analysis of the lumpenproletariat – the proletariat has a lot of (potential) revolutionary potential if it can become organized, because it can down tools, break the machines, stop working, etc. The bosses need the workers! The problem for unemployed inner-city blacks at the time of the Panthers was that many of them lacked even this kind of power – they were lumpenproletariat in the Marxist analysis, outside the class struggle. So, on the one hand, the idea that they need to assert themselves via violence is sharp. On the other hand, there’s a reason that Marx (unless I’m misremembering) identified the lumpenprotetariat as the “dangerous classes” – violent, and a tool particularly of nobility and financiers because they share a lack of productive role in the current system. The concern is essentially that the violence of the lumpenproletariat cannot or will not be turned to revolutionary ends, but only lets them serve as thugs for existing power structures. Seen through the lens of Arendt on totalitarianism, there’s the worrisome possibility that violent action by disenfranchised groups may not be aimed at supporting the powers that be, but may end up serving those ends by creating a kind of ‘reaction formation’ of state repression. This is all very impressionistic, but the roots of US police militarization in reaction to the unrest of the 60s makes it suggestive. We also had some splits there – some folks arguing that repression was the inevitable result of non-nonviolent action, while others supported “diversity of tactics.”

Finally, Josh called me out in the class on the way that the concept of privilege interacts with questions about whether, e.g., it’s helpful to analyze black-America-in-general as a kind of internal colony of white-America-in-general. But I’ll probably have to get to that later.

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