Face It: President Trump Is Right; There Was “Violence on Many Sides”

Trump Charlottesville

Commentators on both left and right were understandably outraged by President Trump’s tepid remarks about the violence in Charlottesville last weekend. He condemned what he referred to as “violence — on many sides.”

Can you imagine his words if the driver of that car in Virginia had been Muslim?

Yet, the president’s (for once) measured response proves to be unwittingly perceptive and wise.

That’s because in Charlottesville, there was indeed violence on many sides. In fact, if we adopted President Trump’s low-key perspective, our responses to violence in any form might be similarly measured and sage. It would help us recognize that in Charlottesville only the antifa violence enjoyed any degree of justification.

Let me explain.

Violence is never one-dimensional. As Dom Helder Camara, the sainted Catholic archbishop of Recife in Brazil, pointed out years ago, in most cases, there is a predictable “spiral of violence” that is often overlooked. It involves structures, self-defense, police response, and sometimes terrorism on the part of individuals and (most often) the state.

Consider Charlottesville; it clarifies by representing every turn of the spiral.

In the eyes of African-Americans, the statue of Confederate General Robert E. Lee represents the structural violence of slavery and white supremacy. Such institutionalized violence is invisible to most white people. However, the alt right reaction to the statue’s removal finally rendered monument’s real institutionally violent meaning unmistakable. It represents white nationalism, and not “southern pride” after all. As a result, nationalists’ march was itself an act of institutionalized violence.

That violent assertion of white supremacy led to a second level of violence on the part of African-Americans and their allies. When their peaceful protest was attacked by the white nationalists, the protestors defended themselves – yes, violently. Archbishop Camara identified such self-defense (against institutionalized cruelty) as virtually the only form our culture recognizes (and typically condemns) as violence. And yet, it is perhaps, the only justifiable type. Everyone has the right to self-defense.

The third level of violence entered when the Charlottesville police “stood down” in the face of the mayhem taking place before their eyes. Usually, police (third level) response simply restores the violent status quo ante. Ironically, however, in the case of Charlottesville, it was police inaction that represented Dom Helder’s third level of violence.  Their standing-down facilitated the alt right attacks.

Finally, in Charlottesville last weekend, there was the terroristic violence of the Nazi sympathizer and Trump supporter who murdered Heather Heyer and injured many others when he plowed his car into those demonstrating against the institutionalized violence represented by white supremacists. That’s the fourth turn in the “spiral of violence.” In the case of Charlottesville, such terrorism too was aligned with violence’s structural form.

Unfortunately, the driver’s terroristic expression might soon be institutionalized itself as states like North Carolina are on the verge of granting motorists the legal right to run over protestors who might be blocking traffic. In that case, an individual’s terroristic act would be transformed into state terrorism, which happens to be terrorism’s most common incarnation as seen, for example, in drone killings, torture, and threats of nuclear war.

So, as you can see, the president was right. Violence is indeed many-sided. Applying Trump’s Principle of Understanding might well make him and all of us much more thoughtful and cautious in responding to tragedies like Charlottesville last week. It would always prompt us to examine context and make crucial distinctions. It would help us recognize that of all forms of violence, only the second (self-defensive) level has any hope of justification at all.

Violence is a powerful word. President Trump inadvertently reminds us that we should be careful in its use and in any actions it might inspire.

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Mike Rivage-Seul's Blog

Emeritus professor of Peace & Social Justice Studies. Liberation theologian. Activist. Former R.C. priest. Married for 45 years. Three grown children. Six grandchildren.

14 thoughts on “Face It: President Trump Is Right; There Was “Violence on Many Sides””

  1. Hi Mike,

    I find myself torn between “Everyone has the right to self-defense” and the images of John Lewis (and others) being pummeled by the Birmingham police and not fighting back. If they had fought back, the moral statement made would have been lost.

    When is it OK to hurt another human being? The hate-filled Nazi is a child of god. I think only saints get it right with any consistency.



    1. I think you’re right, Hank. The “saints” do get it. I know you do. Few among the rest of us, however, are pacifists. In fact, (as you know, of course) pacifism in our culture (even among Christians) is not the dominant mode of thought or action. We can therefore hardly blame most people violently attacked by others, when they swing back. All I was trying to say was that in the case of Charlottesville, the violence of the self-defenders was not the same as the other levels Dom Helder enumerated.

      Liked by 1 person

      1. Thanks for the compliment, and it’s undeserved. If some one came after me what I would be judging at some automatic level is not easily describable (because of the many factors involved), however passively accepting the attack would be an very unlikely outcome.

        Of course one never knows until the time comes.


  2. I do not agree that the march, in and of itself, was an act of institutionalized violence. Under the First Amendment the Alt Right has the legal right to a nonviolent protest. They did get permission from the city. I feel we must grant them their right to free speech, no matter how distasteful it may be to us, or we may someday be censured ourselves. As a Christian socialist and a pacifist, I fear my right to protest might be taken away unless I support the same right for people whose positions I abhor. As the police were well aware, counter protests increase the chance of violence. This in no way excuses the abominable act of driving a car into a crowd, killing someone and causing multiple serious injuries.

    Jesus said I should love my enemies. What am I do do of that?

    We live in a culture of death. Violence is modeled to us by our government on a daily basis. International Gallup Polls have found that – by far – the United States is considered to be the greatest threat to world peace. No other nation is even close.

    Here is a very long but important list of military aggressive acts by the United States:


    We are the modern equivalent of the Roman Empire. Let’s not forget that Jesus was executed for sedition against the Roman Empire and those who catered to it.


    1. Larry, thanks so much for your last two comments. I agree with every word of what you have written in both. Saying that the demonstration was an expression of institutionalized violence does not mean that it should have been prohibited. It should not have been, I agree. As your list points out, if we forbade all acts of institutionalized violence, life would come to an absolute standstill in this capitalist-dominated and militarized world. But the very realization of that sad fact helps us come to grips with the loose (and often unwittingly hypocritical) and one-dimensional employment of the term “violence” that virtually outlaws self-defense against violence’s institutionalized forms. That’s what I was trying to address.


  3. It is not always possible to avoid violence, but in this case there was a way this could have been done. Those opposed to the Klan and the Nazi’s could have gained a permit to hold their demonstration in a place distant from the site the city granted to those protesting the removal of the Robert E. Lee statue.

    There have been some precedents to such a strategy. Here in Ky. I am told that one community decided to have A family barbecue picnic at a distant park away from the Klan march, and deal with it by ignoring it.

    This tactic is reminiscent of the Aikido Way of nonviolent means to deal with conflict.

    Liked by 2 people

    1. Good suggestions, Mike. However, in my perception, it borders on blaming the victim. (I know that’s not your intention; believe
      me.) But what you say seems to give a false equivalency to the Klan and Nazis on the one hand and the counter-demonstrators on the other. I’m suggesting that when we recognize the institutionalized violence represented by the Klan and Nazis (and embodied in Lee’s statue), the violences in question are not equivalent. Those affected by institutionalized, first-level variety (and its defenders) do us a service by direct unmistakable action that reveals the destructive nature of that otherwise invisible (to most whites) violence. Ignoring that violence accords it a validity (and equivalence) it does not have.


    2. As someone who was a civil rights worker back in the 60s, I am certainly not a supporter of white supremacy. That said, the counter protesters didn’t have a permit and they came to make trouble. Many were carrying big sticks, many had helmets, several brought cans of mace, some carried balloons full of ink, quite a few were shouting obscenities. A newsstand was torn down and hurled at the opposition.

      If the counter protesters had had a peaceful demonstration at a different place in Charlottesville, there probably would have been no violence, no death, and no serious injuries.

      Gandhi said an eye for an eye makes the whole world blind.


      1. Actually, the protestors did have a permit. http://www.politifact.com/truth-o-meter/statements/2017/aug/17/donald-trump/donald-trump-wrong-charlottesville-counter-protest/

        I do know that the antifa people did counter-attack the protesters when they clergy were being attacked, and when the protesters attempted to attack a synagogue. I am not aware of any verified instances of the antifa attacking first, and that might have happened. Violence is not the answer, and defending the innocent is a virtue.


  4. On the other hand there are situations that seem to demand meeting violence with violence in order to minimize present or future violence. The war against Hitler’s Nazis is often cited in this context. The troubling question of what constitutes a just war has to be considered. Of course now every State actor wishes to justify their aggressions on this basis, usually falsely. In the absence of morally evolved States, it is left to individuals to determine if they will take part in such wars. In making such a personal decision, I don’t think belief in the Old Testament War God is helpful for making a spiritually true choice. Jesus is a better inner guide in my opinion.


    1. There actually was some successful nonviolent resistance to the Nazis. The Rosenstrasse protest in Berlin is a prime example . Also, the Danish Resistance Movement.


      1. Thanks for the reminder, Larry. Remember, I’m not advocating violence here. I’m simply trying to point out that the term is not univocal. As Dom Helder and Oscar Romero pointed out, all violence is not the same. And the only level that has any chance of justification is second level (self-defensive) violence.


  5. There was no statement of equivalence by me between Klan/Nazi violence and the actions of those who protested it. On the other hand Mike, I would ask you is violent confrontation desirable when it could be avoided? Your statement seems to say that you approve the protestors confronting the Klan group closely, which was understood by all involved would result in violence, and in this case people were seriously injured, and three dead. Do you really think encouraging that confrontation was better than avoiding it?

    On another note, the NBC Evening News tonight had a piece on Lexington KY. detailing their plans to deal with the civil war statues in that city. How would you advise the Mayor about planning for a visit by the Klan, in the event Lexington decides to remove these ugly reminders of Lexington’s segregationist legacy . ( I grew up in Lexington, and remember whites only signs around public facilities.)

    I am not picking a fight Mike. We are just going into some questions from somewhat different points of view, seeking clarification. I am open to having my mind changed about this – or not. Feel free to enlighten me further about your views. I agree with you on damn near everything, and am far from concluding you are dead wrong on this. Maybe we will find grounds to agree, or maybe we can agree to disagree on this one, who knows? That’s what dialog is all about….


    1. Mike, I’m unable to “enlighten” you; you have plenty of light — as your welcome comments invariably demonstrate. I’m just thinking that it’s necessary to confront Neo-Nazis at this point, lest their domination of the stage give the impression that there are more of them than there are. Remember, many often wonder why Jewish victims of Hitler in the ’30s didn’t do more to resist the thugs. I’d hate to see that history repeated. This is no time for silence or letting White Nationalists control the microphone. Now is the time for us all to get out in the streets in counter-protest. Mayor Gray and others in similar positions are wise to move ahead with plans to remove those statues. And it’s important for those who can to be there and celebrate when they’re removed, even if right wing counter protestors object.


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