Sunday, May 10, 2015

The Role of Violence in Addressing Injustice

Previously published in the Terre Haute Tribune Star, Mother's Day 2015

Americans do not suffer injustice well.  The latest example is the protests and violence in Baltimore in response to the match thrown into the tinder box named Freddie Gray.  Those who focus on the rioters and property damage instead of the underlying issues fail to see the role of violence throughout American history in addressing injustice.

 There is a difference between explaining and understanding violence and making excuses for it.  Those individuals who engage in protest violence, whether property damage or bodily injury, will be prosecuted and considerable public resources spent on bringing them to criminal justice.  Those who cause the spark, such as police who kill people for things they should not be killed for, are not very likely to be so pursued.  Nevertheless, the history of using violence to bring attention to injustice has a long and fruitful history in the United States. Already the violence in Baltimore is sprouting fruit because the Baltimore officer(s) are charged with homicide.  Time will tell whether the officer(s) are ever actually tried and convicted.  If not it might be another spark.

The Boston Tea Party is an early American example of violence toward property to protest injustice.  Bostonians, some disguised as native Americans, illegally boarded ships sitting in Boston Harbor and threw the shipments of tea overboard, ruining it.  The tea was the property of the East India Company, perhaps one of the first notorious multi-national corporations.  The British government retaliated, no doubt using many of the same kinds of statements we hear today by those deploring the violence in Ferguson and Baltimore while diminishing the underlying issues.  This is an iconic story in American history, perhaps a spark for the American Revolution, inspired by the injustice of “no taxation without representation.” 

 Slavery, arguably the most sinister institutionalized injustice in US history, was violently protested by members of the abolitionist movement.  John Brown argued for armed insurrection to overthrow the institution of slavery.  Some go as far as to suggest that Brown’s attack on Harper’s Ferry was a spark that ignited the Civil War, which remains the most deadly conflict in American history and whose underlying tensions around race continue today.  John Brown was captured at Harper’s Ferry, tried, convicted and executed. His violent actions as an individual were punished but his cause, turned out to be, on the right side of history. 

 A bomb thrown at police in Chicago, in Haymarket Square, during a labor protest against police killing protesters the day before (a nationwide labor protest in favor of the eight hour day (“eight hour a day with no cut in pay”)) is viewed as a watershed moment in international labor relations.  The resulting trial of the bomb throwers resulted in convictions and death for two of the protesters.  The eight hour day is a reality today, thanks in part to those willing to resort to violence for the cause.

The Weather Underground, protesting the injustice of the Vietnam war and what they viewed as the ineffectiveness of the peaceful protests against it, escalated to a bombing campaign of federal buildings, including the Pentagon, robberies, and a call for armed revolution.  The Weather Underground morphed its call to action to include anti-racism and other social justice movements as well.  The government response to the Weather Underground was largely deemed illegal and whatever efforts to bring the individuals to criminal justice were largely undermined by the lawlessness by which the authorities pursued them. 

 The US has the worst anti-abortion violence of any country.  There is no question that it has been effective in reducing access to abortion and creating an increasingly hostile environment for its practice. Anti-abortion violence has included murder, attempted murder, bombings, harassment, and kidnapping.  Harassment and threats are almost a daily occurrence with mixed responses from government authorities.  Here, too, individuals have been prosecuted and held responsible in the criminal justice system for their violence but the overall movement has strong supporters in government. 

 The point is that violence as a political response when conventional politics fails has a long and effective history in the United States.  Before condemning the violence in Baltimore do we consider the role of the Boston Tea Party property violence, the insurrectionist abolitionists, the bomb throwing anarchists, radical left Vietnam anti-war bombers, and anti-abortion assassins in the struggle against injustice as well?  Or do we white wash history in order to change the subject from one of police brutality and injustice to one of petty criminals and threats to law and order? 

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