There’s something rather baffling about hearing politicians and high-level government officials condemn the usefulness of violence and extol the virtues of nonviolence.
In the recent documentary series about her life and political career, Hillary Clinton discusses the 1968 protest movements during her politically formative years, and claims: “I was never in the camp that thought violence was the answer to violence. I never believed that, and I still to this day don’t believe that.”
What’s striking about this claim is that there’s basically no way it could be true. Anyone, like Clinton, who has spent their career supporting and funding the police and backing numerous wars and military deployments must at some level believe that violence is very much the answer — not only in response to violence but also to many other challenges. As author and professor Alex Vitale said recently on the Rumble podcast, “Police are violence workers.… The tools the police have to manage social problems are tools of violence.” This is why blanket claims from government leaders about the lack of utility of violence ring very hollow.
In response to the recent spate of protests and uprisings against anti-Black racism, we’ve heard condemnations of violence and corresponding valorizations of nonviolence from progressive mayors to conservative federal politicians. Together they sing the praises of nonviolence both for its moral superiority and its greater efficacy, and they reject violence for both its wrongness and its wrongheadedness.
“Violence never works,” proclaimed New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo.
“Violence and vandalism is [sic] never the answer, and they have no place in Dallas, Fort Worth, or anywhere in the state of Texas,” denounced Texas Gov. Greg Abbott.
“You’re not honoring the legacy of Martin Luther King Jr. and the civil rights movement,” rebuked Atlanta Mayor Keisha Lance Bottoms.
While the motif of nonviolence has traditionally been less common on the right, in recent years conservatives have become very adept at cynically weaponizing the moral rhetoric and mystique of nonviolence against protest movements. Liberal and progressive politicians, on the other hand, often come across as more sincere in their praise of nonviolence, especially those who see themselves as having gained access to political power due to the work of nonviolent social movements.
“As someone who stands here as a direct consequence of Dr. King’s life work,” said a newly elected President Obama in his 2009 Nobel Peace Prize lecture, “I am living testimony to the moral force of nonviolence.” He even quoted King’s own 1964 Nobel lecture, saying, “Violence never brings permanent peace. It solves no social problem; it merely creates new and more complicated ones.”
So what allows for these statements to be made by public officials without a hint of irony or concern about flagrant hypocrisy? It is, of course, the longstanding doctrine that the state has “a monopoly on the legitimate use of force in a given territory,” in the famous words of social theorist Max Weber. In this view, violence is only properly entrusted to and wielded by governments; it is not to be used by social movements and other civil society actors. Violence is never the answer… for them.
The strict binary between state and non-state violence is so loaded and taken for granted that it often makes the former not even appear as violence to many. Politicians can make blanket condemnations of violence without sounding hypocritical precisely because of this double standard. It also plays a role in why so many people can be outraged about riots and property destruction and not even mention the immense, highly-militarized violence of police during the recent uprisings, to say nothing about the Black lives lost at the hands of police that have provoked the protests.
Indeed, the necessity and utility of state violence was at the heart of Obama’s (in)famous pivot in his Nobel lecture, which immediately followed his praise and citation of King: “I know there is nothing weak, nothing passive, nothing naïve in the creed and lives of Gandhi and King. But as a head of state, sworn to protect and defend my nation, I cannot be guided by their examples alone.”
Something very interesting is happening, however, in the midst of the current uprisings against anti-Black racism. Where only two legitimate options have conventionally been recognized — state violence and non-state nonviolence — four quadrants are increasingly being taken seriously. The topic of non-state violence has often been so moralized as to not even be entertained, but today many more honest discussions are taking place regarding when and what kinds of non-state violence might actually be necessary, effective, and/or justified under deeply violent and oppressive conditions. Furthermore, an increasing number of questions are being raised about why the principles and techniques of nonviolence that are so often lauded for social movements are not adopted by the state itself.
The current conversation about defunding and abolishing the police is the clearest example of the erosion of the conventional dualism around state violence and non-state nonviolence. The idea that the state must use force or the threat of force as a routine part of so many of its actions no longer seems so given; in fact, it increasingly appears rather misguided. Why are armed police dispatched to respond to mental health crises? Poverty and homelessness? Drug and alcohol issues? Noise complaints? School safety? Traffic violations?
The common sense around sending “violence workers” to deal with nonviolent offenses and social issues of all kinds, as well as to handle the aftermath of violent incidents when the threat is no longer imminent, is clearly and finally breaking down. The availability and threat of lethal force in these situations regularly generates more problems than it solves. Furthermore, important questions are being raised about why the police seem so much less skilled in nonviolent techniques of de-escalation and conflict resolution than the average bartender, ambulance attendant and social worker. If nonviolence is as powerful and persuasive as government officials keep telling us it is, then why don’t they lead by example and implement it in their own institutions?
Politicians love to remind the public that “violence is not the answer.” If they actually believe that at all, and aren’t being entirely disingenuous, they certainly have an ideal opportunity to prove it.