We recently saw a meme on social media that stated the following:
“There can be no ‘unprovoked’ violence against a Nazi. The sole aim and focus of their philosophical existence is violence. If you take up that identity, you’ve already declared violent intent. Anything done in response is just varying levels on self-defense.”
We think it’s reasonable to take this a step further and include anyone who advocates for inherently racist/oppressive systems/structures. That support for inherently racist/oppressive systems/structures means people will suffer. Many have and will die as a result of that support. There can be little appeal for justice in a system that’s flawed by design, that’s inherently oppressive by design.
Violence is endemic in the United States because it is structural. We are all born into this violently oppressive society that is shaped by multiple, interconnecting systems: capitalism, patriarchy, white supremacy, imperialism, xenophobia, gender-normativity, and ableism. Some of these systems are intentional, and some are residual. For instance, capitalism creates and maintains strict class divisions in a very deliberate way, which in turn creates corollary systems of control (dictatorship of capital, militarized police, ICE) and residual systems of cultural oppression (misogyny, racism, homophobia, ableism). All of these systems interact to produce societal norms which are inherently oppressive and violent.
Structural violence is insidious because it is hidden beneath the surface, embedded in the systems that dictate our everyday lives. The violence is inherent in the forceful obstruction or dispossession of human dignity, autonomy, and self-determination. The systemic obstruction of basic needs (capitalism), such as food, clothing, shelter, healthcare, and education, is violent. The systematic targeting of Black and Brown lives (white supremacy), which manifests itself in daily extrajudicial killings of people of color by police and violent interventions and extractions carried out by ICE, is extremely violent. The dehumanization of transgendered folks (gender-normativity) is violent. The vitriol and hatred directed against women (patriarchy and misogyny) is violent. The underlying assumption that our value as human beings is based in what kind of productivity we can offer to the capitalist system (ableism) is violent. The proliferation of global wars and destruction (imperialism) is obviously violent. As an all-encompassing and all-consuming society of violence, the United States and its structures are designed to maintain hegemony and control.
In a 2017 piece, Devyn Springer and Joel Northam break down this layered process:
“As we unmask the US’s hegemonic power, we find that it is maintained not only through sheer violent exploitation, but through perpetuating powerfully constructed western-centric epistemology as well. Within this epistemology, or societal perception of truth, validity, and opinion, the concept of ‘violence’ is constructed at a young age to be something always done unto the US and never perpetuated by the US. The US would not paint itself as an aggressor in any instance, presenting subjects like slavery, colonialism, and foreign regime changes through a lens of benevolence rather than the actual violence they represent. The ways the US crafts the narratives surrounding its history of enslaving Africans, for example, shows terms like ‘worker’ and ‘laborer’ often put in place of ‘slave’ or even ‘enslaved African’ in state-funded textbooks.
Another example of this crafting of narratives is the legacy of the Black Panther Party, which has been popularly referred to as an ‘anti-white terrorist group’ (shout out to Tomi Lahren) and compared to the KKK, even though all facts show this is far from where their actual legacy should be. This is an act of crafting a specific epistemology, one that projects a sense of benevolence and lack of responsibility onto the US legacy.”
This breakdown is important because it not only exposes the complex process of legitimizing systemic violence, but also illustrates how struggles against this inherently oppressive system (like in the case of the original Black Panther Party) are so easily (and incorrectly) demonized. Under this sophisticated trickery, oppression and dominance from above is painted as the righteous state of things, while resistance from below is labeled “terroristic” or “immoral” or “illegal.”
Both conservatives and liberals, Republicans and Democrats, work in tandem to legitimize this control from above.
An interesting element that springs from this structural violence comes from within the population at-large, both organically and through indirect support from these systems. The residual systems of cultural oppression, while shaped from the top, are essentially maintained through the formation of fascistic tendencies. These tendencies develop from the bottom as means to empower those who are structurally powerless.
In the United States, this development is most noticeable among white men. While white-male terroristic hate has been a staple of American society since its beginning, it has become especially apparent as both a reaction to the political ascendency of Barack Obama and a component of the political rise of Donald Trump.
It’s 2018. The socio-political landscape is evolving. This month, the Southern Poverty Law Center (SPLC) referenced a recent report by South Asian Americans Leading Together detailing a rise in hate-inspired violence tied to the 2016 elections. The SPLC recently reported that the number of hate groups in the US has grown by 20 percent since 2014, and “more than 950 hate groups operated in the country last year, with the majority focused on white supremacy.” Basic observations confirm this, with torch-bearing neo-Nazis making their presence known, so-called “alt-right” groups forming throughout the country, white-supremacist groups coming out of the woodwork, and numerous instances of white-male terrorism, including public shootings, knife attacks, and even a recent string of mail bombs seemingly directed at Black residents in Austin, Texas.
Responding to both the structural violence stemming from systems and the internal violence stemming from fascism and white-male terrorism is crucial. While they both operate on separate fronts, they indirectly support one another in many ways. The overlap between police agencies and white supremacists is indicative of this on a cultural level, and the hesitation of our legal systems and media to address white-male terrorism is indicative on a systemic level.
Social justice work is multi-pronged and must be carried out by the Left. Fighting violent and oppressive systems through defensive-violence is not only a basic human right, it is often imperative for survival. Those who are backed into a corner cannot merely sit down and hope for the best, especially when those who have backed them into the corner have exhibited such vile levels of hate and disregard for human life. Instead, survival dictates that we start swinging. Or, at the very least, develop the means and propensity to respond with equal or greater force. We don’t see what we are suggesting as advocacy for violence. We see this as a rational response to grand-scale violence. A response that may be necessary to preserve life while working to establish peace and justice.
Colin Jenkins is founder and Social Economics Department chair at the Hampton Institute, a working-class think tank. He is also a member of the Socialist Party USA, Industrial Workers of the World, and General Defense Committee.
Mimi Soltysik is a member of the Socialist Party Los Angeles Local, the Stop LAPD Spying Coalition, the Coalition for Peace, Revolution, and Social Justice, and is the educator at the Maggie Phair Institute. He was the Socialist Party USA’s 2016 presidential nominee and ran for California State Assembly in 2014.