20 ways the violence of the oppressed isn’t the same as the violence of the oppressors
By Ana Hurwitz
Whenever we seek to change the world the first thing we are asked is, “Do you believe in violence?” We are asked this because the violence of the oppressed is seen as morally equivalent to the violence of the oppressors. But the two are not the same. Here’s why….
- Oppressed peoples have a fundamental right to self defense. This self defense is characterized as “violence” because revolution is only seen as legitimate when it’s on the terms of the oppressors. By their rules. Because they set the rules.
- Nonviolence is a means of controlling the most rebellious of the oppressed. Nonviolence as an ideology is most often used to portray the violence of the oppressed as ‘irrational’ and the violence of the oppressor as ‘rational.’
- When the oppressed fight back we actually stand a chance of winning. Those in power know this. So they discourage the masses from fighting back. They may even sanctify our revolutionary ideals (“justice, freedom, peace”), so long as we petition for their mercy and disarm ourselves. That’s why the FBI has a Terrorist Watch List.
- There is honor in fighting back. We’re taught from a young age that nonviolence is noble. We’re taught this because nonviolence benefits those in power by incapacitating the masses. By making it harder for us to get free.
- Armed struggle is often an act of love. However it’s portrayed by those in power as not just ineffective but also as “hateful.” But armed struggle is a love of freedom. Love of one’s people. Love which is sacrificial and brave. Love which risks imprisonment and death.
- There is nothing justifiable about domination. That’s a lie told by those in power. What is justifiable is winning freedom. And the path to freedom has always been blood soaked and hard won. This is not glamorous but it’s real.
- Nonviolence’s philosophical appeal may be understandable but it’s mostly ahistorical. The Haitian revolution of 1791 didn’t end French slavery by pacifism. The French Revolution didn’t abolish the monarchy by pacifism. The Cuban Revolution of 1959 didn’t break from US imperialism by pacifism. The ZANU movement didn’t defeat apartheid in British Zimbabwe by pacifism. The Stonewall Uprising of the 1960s didn’t fight US police brutality against the LGBT community by pacifism. And so on….
The Haitian Revolution (Wiki Commons)
- The violence of the oppressed is part of achieving liberation. The violence of the oppressor is part of achieving domination. Revolution is a process. It’s not always victorious at first. Or sometimes ever. Jewish partisans didn’t win liberation from the Nazis when the Warsaw Ghetto uprising was crushed in 1943; two years later the Soviets defeated Germany. Mozambican communists didn’t win independence from Portugal when their uprising was crushed in 1974; a year later Mozambique won independence. The Kenyan Mau-Mau uprising didn’t win independence from Britain when it was crushed in 1960; three years later Kenya won independence. After five decades the Maoists of India still have yet to win defense of their indigenous lands against mining corporations. The examples are numerous.
- The violence of the oppressed is frequently a ‘necessary evil.’ Ask the King if he’d like to leave, chances are he will choose to stay – and we will likely have to remove him by force.
Violence may not be a political cure-all, of course. Historically, violence has rarely been a first resort. Oftentimes it is regrettable and must be strategically implemented so as not to lose popular support for a revolution. It often evolves in the later stages of liberation struggles which usually begin by nonviolent means. Nonviolence is brings awareness to injustice but rarely ever topples states in order to create new societies.
- Violence is the cry of a people who are so desperate they have no other realistic way of achieving emancipation. This is why nonviolence carries favor among the privileged. Rebellion may not always be executed thoughtfully or strategically but it always justified.
- Vegans commend the violence of oppressed animals, and condemn the violence of oppressed humans. White vegans have no problem saying “kill all humans” in response to speciesism. But when women say “kill all men” in response to patriarchy, or when people of color say “kill all white people” in response to racist oppression, suddenly it’s “violence.” Hypocrisy.
- “Violence” as a designation is used to legitimize the use of force. Basically what gets called violence is decided by those in power.
Yet where did the US get its power? From pacifism? Or from the gun? If force secured their aims, then force can secure our aims too. It’s not a matter of “two wrongs, don’t make a right.” It’s a matter of what works. The question isn’t if we will use force or not. The question is what will our aims be?
- Nonviolence has rarely ever benefited those at the bottom of society. We learn in school that Gandhi’s nonviolence brought the British empire to its knees in India. But that’s a story championed by those at the top of society. Because it encouraged colonized peoples to not overthrow their colonizers. In actuality, it was the economic drain of WW2 which caused Britain to give up its colonies in India, Jordan, Pakistan, Myanmar, Israel-Palestine, and Sri Lanka. It wasn’t fasting or marches.
- Empires have never trembled before nonviolence. Empires are only concerned about nonviolence when it raises consciousness to a level that could lead to violence. The state classifies as “violence” that which threatens its power.
- Arguing “violence is the same no matter who does it” obscures who really has power. Much like #AllLivesMatter, this pretends class divisions don’t exist when they do. Think about it. Someone shackles you and you strike him to get him off your back. Are you in the wrong or is your attacker? What else were you supposed to do?
Palestinians who throw rocks aren’t comparable to the Israeli military that destroys their homes. Tamil Tigers who carry out assassinations aren’t comparable to the Sri Lankan state which sponsors pogroms against them. African Americans who break store windows aren’t comparable to the police who break Black spines. It’s all an attempt at saying, “Get off our backs! We will defend ourselves!”
Equating the violence of different social classes benefits the 1%. Because it’s easier to preserve your power if it cannot be named. As cliche as this metaphor may sound, the greatest trick the devil ever played was to convince the world he didn’t exist.
- The Black Panthers were not the same as the KKK. Sorry. Just had to say that. Since this meme is a thing:
- Acknowledging class divisions is conditional. What does this mean? Ask white people if they are racist. White people often reply ‘I don’t see color.’ Yet ask them if they’d like to trade places with a person of color. Or ask them if they’d like to live in a third world country. Suddenly they see color.
- Nonviolence actually pretends that defending ourselves against our oppressors is immoral. Would we say this in the case of CeCe McDonald?
- Even every white person’s favorite Black leader, Martin Luther King, pointed out the differences between the violence of the oppressed and the oppressor. It’s a classic racist trope: white people using MLK’s words against his own people. To pacify them. To disarm them. To quell their rage. To silence them. All to the point where even conservative politicians have embraced his legacy.
So let’s use a quote from MLK’s 1967 ‘Beyond Vietnam’ speech to silence them: “I knew that I could never again raise my voice against the violence of the oppressed in the ghettos without having first spoken clearly to the greatest purveyor of violence in the world today – my own government.”
- Nonviolence is usually championed by people who don’t have to fight everyday for their immediate survival. People who don’t identify with the deep pain of wishing they knew how it feels to be free. This isn’t to say we should “champion violence” or something. But we would be foolish to not ever use it if necessary. This is not a game. Liberation can’t wait. Seize the time.
We haven’t got time for paternalistic pacifism. Our aim is not revolutionary theater. Our aim is the overturning of all existing social conditions. Our aim is victorious liberation.