In Defense of Revolutionary Violence

Thankfully, our country may at last be entering a pre-revolutionary period. Forces of both right and left are emerging hell bent on social change.

Of course, I’m referring to the recent riots in Washington DC and the threat of further violence this inauguration week. I’m also referencing last summer’s largely peaceful Black Lives Matter (BLM) demonstrations mis-portrayed in the media as setting entire cities aflame. 

Mis-portrayals or not, both rebellions have the United States government on the run and ready to tamp down the disturbances with drastic policy changes.

Moreover, participation in the uprising by DC police, former military, and psyop officers indicates that society’s armed forces – local law enforcement and some military rank and file – are beginning to come over to the side of revolution. (Historically speaking, such switching of sides is an absolute prerequisite for any revolution’s success.)

The whole configuration has government officials like Nancy Pelosi, Chuck Schumer, Mitch McConnell and Mike Pence hiding under their desks for fear for the mobs with pitchforks.

Thank God.

After all, we should be clear about this: none of them, not Pence or McConnell, not Schumer or Pelosi is our friend. Quite the opposite. Their loyalties lie elsewhere – with the natural enemies of wage earners like us. They are friends of the one percent who have been exploiting the rest of us for decades. None of them deserves our sympathy or respect. It’s gratifying to see them frightened out of their wits.

It’s quite ironic, isn’t it? Those whom Dr. King called the world’s greatest purveyors of violence now have their tables turned. A week after voting to spend more than $2 billion a day on war and armaments, they’ve suddenly become pacifists obsessing about violence!

And the rest of us will be seduced by their outraged discourse unless we understand that the term “violence” is more complicated than most of us think. In fact, there’s a lot to be said in favor of revolutionary violence.

Violence Is Multi-Dimensional

Sadly, as was the case with the birth of this country, revolution necessarily involves violence. But let’s face it: so does maintenance of the system at hand. As we’ll see below, the social arrangements we experience every day are based on a violence responsible for untold suffering and death. In the eyes of many, the only rational response is to defend ourselves in kind. And the violence is often justifiable.

Speaking precisely as a theologian, I’ll say, they may be right. In fact, even Catholic bishops like Brazil’s Dom Helder Camara and St. Oscar Romero of El Salvador made a similar argument years ago during their peoples’ own revolutions against U.S.-supported dictatorships.

Both prelates pointed out that “violence” is more complicated than most of us think. It actually has four dimensions – and only one of them (the one usually most ardently vilified in our culture) is by any stretch justifiable. The levels include (1) structural violence, (2) the (often revolutionary) violence of self-defense, (3) reactionary police violence, and (3) terrorist violence. According to Camara and Romero, only the second level can claim any legitimacy.

Let me explain.

Structural Violence

The riots I’ve been referring to here are an indication that U.S. citizens are mad as hell and aren’t going to take it anymore. Consciously or unconsciously, we’re mad about unjust structures – about economic, social, and political arrangements – whose short-list includes:

  • A government that has criminally mishandled a pandemic it has allowed to kill 400,000 of us (and counting)
  • Completely inadequate health care that few can really afford
  • A rigged electoral system
  • Police repression unevenly targeting people of color
  • A bailout of the rich and powerful and a middle finger to the working class, unemployed, and uninsured during a crisis that has record numbers of us unemployed and plagued by inescapable debt
  • Inadequate wages that have most of us up to our ears in hock
  • Unaffordable education along with overwhelming student debt
  • Unpayable rents coming due
  • The maintenance of a military system that spends more than $2 billion each day, while increasing numbers of Americans are sleeping in the streets and under bridges
  • An embarrassing infrastructure that is falling apart before our eyes making our cities, transportation systems, breadlines and beggars on the street look like Brazil used to look.
  • Government inaction about climate change and immigration

Again: all of that (and more) represents structural violence. It causes untold suffering and kills people every day. However, it has been such a part of our daily lives that few of us even recognize it as deadly, criminal and even homicidal.

And if someone is trying to kill you, anyone has the right to self-defense.

Violence of Self-Defense

And that brings me to Camara’s and Romero’s second level of violence, the response of oppressed people to the first level.

Self-defense is a human right. Perhaps the heroic among us – like Gandhi, King and those who followed them – can forego its invocation. However, let’s not fool ourselves, the vast majority of Americans – in fact the vast majority of Christians – is not and has never been pacifist.

Far from it, most of us – even religious people – are enthusiastic advocates of “just war,” always rationalized as self-defense. (That $2 billion we allow our government to spend on “defense” each day is proof enough of that.)

Even more to the point, our nation’s founding document, the Declaration of Independence, underlines the right of citizens to engage in the very type of violence displayed in Washington last week. Referring to the origins and aims of government, Jefferson and his co-signers declared: “That whenever any Form of Government becomes destructive of these ends, it is the Right of the People to alter or to abolish it, and to institute new Government, laying its foundation on such principles and organizing its powers in such form, as to them shall seem most likely to effect their Safety and Happiness.”

Judging from the violent actions of our founders, those words arguably justify Americans’ assuming arms, destroying property, and arresting criminally negligent officials administering a government as dysfunctional as the one described above.

Police Violence

The inevitable reactionary response of violent institutions to citizen rebellion constitutes the third level of violence. It’s what we saw last summer in response to the (again) largely peaceful demonstrations of BLM activists precisely against out-of-control police forces.

This level of officially sanctioned violence took the form of tear gas, pepper spray, beatings, mass arrests, and running over protestors with squad cars.

It’s here, of course, that the problematic differences between the revolutionary forces of the left and those of the right come under blindingly bright light. Our system’s endemic racism and its accompanying white privilege prompt police and military forces to align with white revolutionaries, while crushing their black and brown counterparts.

The difference in response ignores the commonality of complaints shared by basically working-class protestors. (The disparity describes the arena of dialog and cooperation that must be recognized and entered by all participants. But that’s another story.)

In any case, because this third level of violence supports a criminal status quo, it is just as illegitimate as the first level.

Terrorist Violence 

The fourth level of violence is that represented by terrorism – in the case of the DC riots, domestic terrorism.

The FBI defines domestic terrorism as “violent, criminal acts committed by individuals and/or groups to further ideological goals stemming from domestic influences, such as those of a political, religious, social, racial, or environmental nature.”

According to this characterization, what occurred in Washington on January 6th fits the category. Its acts were violent and against the law. They were committed by a group seeking to further goals stemming from domestic influences – in this case, that of a sitting U.S. president inciting action to reverse an officially sanctioned and repeatedly court-vetted election.

Likewise, the definition’s parameters could justify classifying some of last summer’s BLM protests as terroristic. After all, they sometimes involved property destruction and were motivated by religious, social and racial concerns.

All of this reveals however the system-serving nature of terrorism’s official definition. It too supports the status quo and forbids revolutionary action of the type supported by the Declaration of Independence. Hence, like the system itself, the definition is entirely questionable.

Such conclusion is further justified given the fact that its proponents (the FBI and U.S. government) themselves stand accused of domestic and international terrorism on a scale that absolutely dwarfs the pre-revolutionary events of 2020. By all accounts, state terrorism is a far greater and more destructive problem than any domestic form.

Conclusion

So how should we look upon the pre-revolutionary events currently fomented by social activists at both ends of the U.S. political spectrum? The answer is: with both enthusiasm and caution.

Enthusiasm because this country needs a revolution – even entailing destruction of property. Our government no longer represents anyone but the 1%. Its police forces support that government and terrorize black and brown people. Its electoral system is completely corrupt. “Our” representatives are standing by idly while literally thousands are needlessly dying every day. Etc., etc., etc. etc.

As Helder Camara, Oscar Romero and Thomas Jefferson posthumously suggest, the crucial moment may have thankfully arrived. And if history provides any indication, the moment may sadly witness desperate people doing desperate things – in ways that are completely understandable and arguably justified.

Those who recognize the need for revolutionary change are patriots, though many of them have been badly misinformed to the point that they are punching downward rather than above.

And that’s where the caution comes in. For any revolution to serve all of the people, forces at both ends of the political spectrum must recognize their shared common ground. The short-list shared above makes that point quite clearly. Trump’s supporters have far more in common with Black Lives Matter advocates than they do with their cult leader.

Rather than echoing the official chorus uncritically denouncing undifferentiated “violence,” forces on both the left and right need to think more critically about the topic. We need to unify against our common enemy and threaten its supporters with consequences for their treasonous misrepresentation.

We’ve got to keep them under their desks.