THE RESISTANCE HAS begun, and it looks pretty damn scary. Large crowds dressed in black shouting at cops, torching cars, shutting down fascist rallies, blocking streets, breaking windows. As in the massive Black Lives Matters protests, the actions of protesters can seem jarring, aggressive, ‘violent,’ even terrifying.
Some people are arguing they’ve gotten out of control, the tactics of Antifa, Black Bloc, and many other groups who are a topic of discussion for Liberal commentators and social justice advocates. They’re concerned, worried that civil, non-violent protest has given way to anger and destruction. They worry that the resistance will look scary, aggressive, that it will inspire fear, terror, and the potential of violent reprisal from those in power.
They especially worry that the we might alienate the middle-class.
Do You Even Resist, Bro?
We in Western Capitalist “Democracies” have an idea that there’s a certain balance of power between the people and the government. It goes like this:
The government exists because we need it. Laws keep us safe, police prevent crimes, courts sort out the innocent from the guilty, and the entire system functions well because we have the power to vote for those who control it. If the police ever get out of control, laws can be used to stop them, and if at any point the system stops working, we can select new people to run the government.
This has never been the case, but you might not have noticed until recently. Black and First Nations people in the United States know this better than anyone. Even the election of the first Black president couldn’t stop police murders of unarmed people, and the government repression of the water protectors at Standing Rock occurred under Obama.
When the poor attempt to resist the government, they are brutally punished. But so-called ‘middle class’ people don’t usually experience this direct violence when they resist. Why? The easiest answer to this is that the majority of the middle-class is white. This is true, and police are indisputably racist. This isn’t the full story though, since many poor people are also white.
People who make enough money to consider themselves ‘middle-class’ have more investment in the system of government than those who are poor, regardless of their race. A white suburban office manager and a Black suburban office manager both drive to work, pay mortgages on their homes, send their children to nice schools, and worry over things like retirement plans and their general security. While the Black woman in this example might also have to worry her male child might get shot by the police on his way home from a friend’s (a concern the white women need not fear for her own child), their economic lives are generally similar.
Even if both are liberal and hate Trump, neither will be willing to disrupt the entire system in order to show their displeasure. Instead, waving signs, calling senators, donating to election campaigns, and other ‘non-violent’ means of protest are the most they might be willing to risk. A night in jail because of a protest would be difficult to explain to their co-workers, a black eye from a police baton would raise eyebrows at the local Starbucks.
For the poor of any color, but especially for those who are not white, such considerations are generally irrelevant. There’s no mortgage to keep up, no 401k to worry about if the stock market collapses. The poor have no investment in the system, and thus have very little to lose.
The poor also know that the police aren’t there to protect them. Ask a homeless person what they think of the cops, and you’ll get a radically different answer from a home owner in a ‘nice’ neighborhood. Ask jobless Blacks on a street corner in a city if they think the cops are there to protect them, and they’ll give you a very different answer from the woman who doesn’t like them hanging out in front of her metaphysical store.
Non-Violence Is For The Middle-Classes
BECAUSE white and ‘middle-class’ people have more investment in the current system and different experiences with the police, many resistance movements adopted the tactic of non-violence in order to gain their alliance.
Non-violence as adopted by Ghandi and Martin Luther King Jr. did not mean non-confrontational protest. Rather, it involved confronting the police with the bodies of protesters and forcing them to make a choice: beat or kill unarmed, passively-resisting people, or allow them to break the law. It forced police to look like the aggressors they already were, stealing from them the defense that they were only responding to violence with violence.
This tactic works well if you are attempting to gain the alliance of middle-class people whose investment in the system prevents them from seeing the violence which sustains it. In India, this meant changing the opinions of UK citizens regarding the occupation; in the civil rights movement, this meant getting white liberals to side with the Black victims of police violence.
In both cases, the assumption was that the middle-classes did not realise the system they were a part of was racist and brutal. Watching elderly Black women beaten by cops or impoverished Indian grandmothers gunned down by British soldiers would shock them into coming to this truth. Seeing this, they would stop supporting the police and government policies, perhaps even joining in the protests. Once they did so, the powerful would be forced to comply, because the middle classes are the primary consumers of Democracy and Capitalism.
Non-violence is a strategy that coddles the concerns of the middle-classes, especially their fears. They fear disruption of their security, loss of their wealth, and the potential of personal harm. Non-violent marches now are designed specifically with their concerns in mind, assuring them that they have nothing to fear from resisting oppression.
Insisting that any resistance must bring the middle-class along with it makes little sense, anyway — they are not a revolutionary class. If anything, Trump is precisely what one gets when we coddle middle-class fears: fear of immigrants, Blacks, Muslims, economic insecurity, terrorism… anything that might disrupt their security and peace.
Reclaiming An Aesthetic of Fear
THE TACTIC OF NON-VIOLENCE also has the unfortunate effect of strengthening the core justification for state violence: that only the state is capable of legitimate use of violence. So, even in a fully-permitted, completely ‘peaceful’ protest, police brutality against a lone protester can still seem justified. The protester must have done something wrong to merit pepper spray or a violent arrest.
Police function under an aura of legitimacy because they are the enforcers of the laws by which we measure whether something is legal or illegal. This aura only exists insofar as we believe laws are unquestionably good — that is, as long as we think laws should be obeyed.
That aura of legitimacy has been fading rapidly in the last decade. Unless you live under a rock, you can’t have escaped all the reports of brutal killings of unarmed Blacks, Natives, and others at the hands of cops. If there were only a few stories, we could dismiss these as isolated incidents, ‘bad cops’ acting outside their legitimate mandate. But the stories keep increasing, the courts continue to absolve the cops of their crimes (or even refuse to prosecute them in the first place), and it’s now impossible to ignore what minority, poor, and radical victims of police violence have always known:
The police exist to maintain the current order, and their brutality is actually part of their mandate. The more the order starts to collapse, the more violent the police will need to act in order to keep ‘the peace.’
To do so, they’ve needed to cultivate an aesthetic of fear. If you’ve been to a protest in any Western Capitalist nation lately, you’ve seen the results of this: armored and heavily-armed police resembling Roman Centurions or Robocops, standing in military formation, ready to stop any potential violence to bank windows or luxury cars.
Traipsing around like stormtroopers, murdering people in the name of the law, driving around in military-grade vehicles, wielding microwaves that can fry your skin and sound-cannons that can deafen you for life definitely makes the police something to be afraid of. But there aren’t actually enough police to control us all if we ever engage in active resistance against them.
Fortunately, they have our middle-class commitment to non-violence to protect them. We have worried so long over the questions of ‘legitimate violence’ that we’ve failed to notice that the police no longer rely on it. Instead, they rely on our non-violence and our fear of their violence to keep us in line.
Alan Moore wrote in V for Vendetta, “People should not be afraid of their government; government should be afraid of their people.” The truth is, they already are, otherwise they wouldn’t be militarizing the police. Perhaps, then, it’s time to reclaim our own aesthetic of fear.
This is what Antifa and Black Bloc groups have already been doing. By engaging in active, aggressive resistance against police, they are breaking the spell of police invulnerability. Likewise, in each action they win, they are proving to the rest of us that more resistance is possible.
Such actions might never convince the liberal middle classes to join any resistance against the government. Thing is, though, there are many more of us than there are of them.
The government we are fighting knows it cannot win by violence alone. It also knows that they lost the aura of legitimacy long ago. They will not be able to govern us by fear as long as we show we can fight back. They cannot convince us we are powerless when we seize our power back from them. So all that is left to them will be the support of the insecure middle-classes.
It makes no sense for us to try to win them over. What good are allies too worried about what their neighbors might think if they risked arrest to change the world?
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