Mask Off: Thoughts on The Language of Violence in the US

Imagine a world where non-violent unarmed protest in the streets is met with stoic and calm police the way that non-violent armed protest was met at the Michigan state capitol.

Here are my problems with the complaints about rioting. And if I ever become publicly relevant, I’m sure some of this will be taken out of context, so hear me know when I say I’m not advocating for riots, and don’t be disingenuous, future diggers. We are also not going to spend energy focusing on the bad apples, the ne’er-do-wells and others who take advantage of a vulnerable situation for their own benefit. Take your #NotAll and apply it to the people in the streets for once instead of the people who already have power.

The USA has never been about peace and nonviolence as a nation. From the riot that colonists staged where they looted a ship full of tea and dumped the tea in a harbor to the war they waged, to Shay’s and the Whiskey riots which are listed politely as rebellions in our history books that crumbled the weak Confederation and formed the current federal union, to the conquering and erasure of Native nations, to the imperial expansion, militarily and economically, across the globe, the United States has always, always made its desires known by force.

Violence is the language that the United States speaks fluently and understands. We speak non-violence to the United States again and again and it is met with the United States cocking its head to the side, then speaking its native language louder. Ask the Minneapolis rebellion. Ask Standing Rock. Ask the Baltimore and Ferguson uprisings. Ask a hundred places before.

Ask Reverend Dr Martin Luther King, Jr.

The people that speak the United States’s language, even with gestures and body language, get heard. That’s the Michigan protestors. That’s the Malheur takeover in Oregon. That’s Cliven Bundy. That’s also MOVE in Philadelphia and the Black Panthers in the California State Capitol, though the United States didn’t expect that language coming from those mouths, so they shut them decisively, with aerial bombing in the first case and arrests and law changes in the second.

The focus is often on looting. Why are they looting and burning their own community, people ask. The answer is simple, because they don’t feel it’s theirs! In many cases, they don’t own the property, and significant portions of that are due to racist housing policy that is well documented that prevented the acquisition of generational wealth. The police contain and control rather than protect and serve, so they may be stopped on the street at any time as if they’re in an open air prison. People get injured by police and can say nothing. People occasionally get “disappeared” like in an authoritarian nightmare. People from outside the community establish wealth beachheads for themselves in the form of local and corporate businesses and siphon resources out of the community. Even the civic institutions get in on the act; one of the findings of the DOJ when investigating Ferguson was an exploitative moving violations scheme where people were ticketed excessively and court fees and sometimes jail time was piled on.

One side note about the Target in general in the Minneapolis rebellion: the Lake Street Target is apparently where Target corporate tests new loss prevention and security technology. It was apparently a bad and criminalized shopping experience as a result, and locals hated it. That’s why it was such a big, er, target.

Looting is a radical act in a hyper-capitalist society. It’s a symbolic redistribution by force of goods that in many cases have been unjustly distributed, and typically only appears after all other means have been exhausted. It is an assault on a society that cares more about property than human lives.

However, when we see rioting, we typically run looting through the lens that keeps our cognitive dissonance at bay. We see people without resources, and we run our circular logic program that says “our society is inherently fair, so they must have not because they worked not”. We then ascribe bad traits on to them to blame them entirely for their plight. They’re lazy. They don’t follow the rules. They didn’t do things the right way.

So when in desperation they destroy and loot, we mock them for foolishly destroying their own neighborhood. We don’t ask why someone would feel no ownership over their neighborhood or why a few items out of a store might bring some hollow, brief sense of justice. We assume they always wanted to steal and they’re just exploiting their chance. We can’t understand their accent, but they’re fluently speaking the US’s language.

The US can understand non-violence some, when a white face presents it. This is why the protestors in Michigan were not greeted with tear gas, SWAT teams, and run out of the capitol. However, the right to peaceful assembly comes in the Constitution before the right to bear arms and has equal weight. No matter what you are being told by Stormfront or Fox News, the rebellion in Minneapolis started peacefully, with mourners in the streets demanding justice unarmed. The US’s local expression cocked its head and yelled in its own language louder. So the people switched languages and spoke back to it.

If you are white and want the violence to stop, put your own bodies on the line while the protests are non-violent. There was a beautiful example of this in Sacramento. Stephon Clark’s brother began to rant in rage and grief for his unarmed brother’s murder while he was minding his own business in his own yard, as well as his own mistreatment by police, at a City Council meeting. The police came forward to detain him, and white people put their bodies between him and the police to stop it.

The United States does not want to harm you. It might anyway, if it wants to harm non-white people badly enough. That’s what we’re seeing now with the pandemic. Once the consensus was that people already made vulnerable by racist health and wealth policies would take the lion’s share of the pain and suffering, reopening calls began in earnest, and they didn’t care if a few white people, or more than a few, got killed along the way. After all, like the White House economic advisor Kevin Hassett said, we’re all “human capital stock” anyway.

So if you want non-violence, find out where to show up and get between the police and black bodies and other bodies of color. If you want to speak the US’s language more fluently, partner with non-white gun clubs and stage a multi-racial, peaceful gun protest outside the Capitol (don’t go inside, that’s a bit much). If you dare, you’ll see what many of us have seen all along.

The United States’s mask is off.

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