The Question of Violence -- A Constant Struggle

LeoCasey at LeoCasey at
Sat Feb 24 08:55:39 MST 1996

I have been meaning to pick up this thread once again. Bruce's persistence
led me to brave the Marxism List Archives once again, and after about thirty
minutes of transfering the gopher document to my screen (does everyone have
the same problem? is this AOL? is it my modem?), I finally downloaded Adam's
posting which I had missed during the period of great digestus interruptus.

In the time since I last posted on this question, a few weeks ago, one of the
students in my class witnessed the shooting murder of her brother (a former
student of ours), and was out for a week while she and her mother hid out
until they could move from the projects in which they lived. These episodes
have become depressingly normal in my school and community, and keep they
these issues and this question in my consciousness in an inescapable and
unavoidable way. Violence just is not an intellectual question in an abstract
fashion for me, even though I try to bring whatever intellectual skills of
analysis I have acquired to bear on it.

Adam poses the issue of whether it is the weapons themselves that can be seen
as causative of the widespread murder, or the underlying social condition of
poverty. If poverty is the cause, as he suggests, gun control will serve no
purpose, and only reinforce the state's monopoly on the legitimate use of
force. I am struck by the potential for a Marxist version of the old NRA
slogan -- "Guns don't kill people; poverty does."

Now if it were poverty and economic deprivation alone which led to the
massive violence, the United States should have no greater violence than
other comparable advanced capitalist nations, and considerably less violence
than an India, Brazil or Mexico, much less a Bengla Desh or a Zaire. But that
is simply not the case.

The phenomenal rates of violence in America generally, and the great
concentration of that violence in the inner city specifically, involves a
number of synergistic factors. The conditions of poverty are one factor, but
no less important is the exceptionally violent nature of American culture (a
violence with deep historical roots in the American frontier  and in the
treatment of people of color), the organization and nature of the illegal
drug industry, a widespread social racism which is prepared to abandon the
inner city because of who lives there and the weaponry itself. These factors
reinforce each other: the messages of violence which are so prevalent in the
American mass media, for example, have more power among the young people of
the inner city, who are vulnerable because of the conditions in which they
live and have been raised.

The ready availability of incredibly high power weaponry is definitely a
primary, although not exclusive, causative factor.  I don't think one really
grasps how widespread and easy to obtain such weaponry is unless one is the
middle of all of it; elementaty school children can give you detailed lessons
on the different types and virtues of the various semi-automatic and
automatic weapons. There is a domino effect here: in the war of all against
all that marks much of the inner city, the greater the chance that someone
who might be a threat to you is armed with a semi-automatic, the greater the
likelihood that you will arm yourself in the same way. Adam makes a point
that Great Britain, which has relatively effective gun control, is engaged in
a controversy about dangerous knives, and thus suggests that there will
always be some weaponry available to those who want to do violence, and that
gun control is a diversionary issue. When a similar question was posed by a
judge to one of my students in the competition, the student responded by
asking the the questioner if he knew of any innocent bystanders who had been
killed in the 'crossfire' of a knife fight, or if he was aware of "drive by
stabbings" with multiple fatalities. I have lived for extensive times in both
Toronto and New York City, and the contrast in the rates of violence between
the two cities -- and between neighborhoods with poor people of color in each
city -- could not be more stark. I do not believe that there is any way to
avoid the fact that greatest difference between the two cities is the
existence of meaningful and strict gun control in Canada; Canadian leftists I
know are generally horrified at the prospect that the gun situation south of
the border would ever work its way North.

No doubt, the genie is out of the lamp in the United States, and it would
take a great deal more than laws simply banning guns to restore some basic
sanity in this area to the American body politic. (A well known NRA bumper
sticker reads: When guns are outlawed, only outlaws will have guns. My
favorite take off on it reads: When guns are outlawed, only outlaws will
accidentally shoot their children. Why does that day seem no closer than the
New Jerusalem?) Countries like Canada and Great Britain face a far easier
task in keeping a much less dangerous and violent cultural fabric from
degenerating into an American type lunacy.

Part of what I find troubling about Adam's suggestion that poverty is _the_
causal factor of violence is what I see as the lurking presence of that old
maximalist program: capitalism causes all problems, so nothing short of a
revolution overthrowing capitalism will solve these problems, and nothing
short of that revolution is worth working for. Given the immediate and urgent
nature of the problem of violence we face in the inner city, I find this
classically ultra-leftist position to be a luxury that only the radicalized
middle class, for whom this is not a constant life-and-death issue, can

The romaticization of violence which pervades American society -- and all too
much of the American left -- is a major problem here. Our school works with a
group of doctors from a nearby hospital who grew so horrified at what their
daily jobs had become -- one explains emergency room duty as equivalent to
the triage work he had done in Vietnam -- that they organized themselves and
various crippled victims of shootings to do de-mythologizing presentations on
violence to young people. Raised on American television and movies, some of
these young people don't even think it hurts when you are shoot. In these
sessions, they receive some pretty graphic information on the reality.

The recent history of the American left involves potentially mass
organizations, such as the Black Panthers and SDS, which self-destructed in
no small part because of a descent into mindless thuggery which their
glorification and romanticization of violence produced. When I read the
simple-minded palaver about violence and an "armed working class" put forward
by someone like Jeff "I am a Harvard worker" Booth from the safety of Harvard
Square, I see that absolutely nothing has been learned from that experience
in some quarters.

Adam and I have some fundamental differences of analysis concerning the riots
that followed in the wake of the Rodney King trial verdicts, and I think that
his misunderstandings leads him effectively into a politics of nihilism, for
by romaticiization of violence it becomes an end in itself. Let me take his
points in turn.

"The LA riots showed the potential for mass poor on rich violence to stop
individual poor on poor violence."

Where, exactly, was this "mass poor on rich" violence? Since when did
African- American, Latino, Asian and white working and poor people living,
working or driving through South-Central LA -- and these folks were the only
victims of the violence -- become the rich?  Since when did the blanket
looting and burning down of the housing and retail businesses of South
Central, in which poor folks lived and worked and on which poor folks relied
for basic life necessities constitute "mass poor on rich" violence?

The poverty and racism suffered by people in LA, Black, White + Hispanic,
lead to the rebellion. The political upshot of this was that the gangs, for a
few years at least, realised
they had more to gain fighting alongside each other than with each other.

I believe that a more nuanced analysis is necessary here. If poverty and
racism were all that were required for riots, the inner cities would never
stop burning. In fact, the issue that set off the riots was the fact that the
Rodney King verdicts highlighted in an inescapeable way the ways in which the
issue racist police could place themselves above the law, and get away with
it as long as the victims were people of color. The criminal justice system
was the gut issue here. I discussed some of this in my posting on 'popular
justice' and the rule of law.

These gangs are absolute predators, young people who have been so deformed by
the social psychology and political economy of American racism that they now
fulfill its worst stereotypes. Only those whose contact with them is limited
to television shows and books view them benignly.

Now suppose gun control laws had been brought in. What effect would it have
had ? First, it would be very difficult to enforce ( people who want access
to guns in the UK can get them ).

It seem to you in the UK that these laws are not very effective, and, no
doubt, there are major limits in what they can do. But you live in a country
where one still debates about whether or not street police should be armed;
we live in a country, where the debate is over the fire power street police
will have -- they argue that they need assault weapons to match the
criminals. The difference is real.

Second, to the extent that it had an effect, the police would have been more
confident to crush the riot than they actually were, since they would have
been more sure of their monopoly of violence. So the unity which Black, White
+ Hispanic discovered in the course of the rebellion would have been less
likely, and the ensuing truce.

What makes you think that the police were eager to crush the riots? There is
serious need here for a realistic, up close analysis of what happened in the
LA riots. The evidence that shows that the proto-fascist LA police chief
Gates thought that riots would strengthen the hand of the police (after they
took a serious beating over the Rodney King video), and he let the riot run
full course. As long as it was the inner city community which was being
burned down, and inner city poor and working people dying, why would the
police feel any more concern for those lives and property than it did in
normal times. Note that in subsequent potentially violent situations (the
second Rodney King trial, the OJ trial), when it had been made clear that a
repetition of the riots would not be politically acceptable, police were
easily mobilized in a way that prevented a repetition of the riots.

This trans-racial, class unity you speak of is a complete chimera. The riots
brought out incredible racial antagonisms among people of color in LA, most
notably between Asian- Americans and African-Americans, but also between
those two groups and Latino/as. This is complete pie-in-the-sky thinking.

Of course, the extreme right wants to keep their guns in order to use them
against us in defence of their property. But what actual effect would gun
controls have ? They would be implemented by racist, anti working class cops
+ judges. They would be used not against the right, but against workers of
whatever race. It would make the cops more likely to inflict Rodney King
style beatings, without fear of resistance. Meanwhile, criminals would still
get and use guns - after all, did prohibition stop people drinking ? - and if
they couldn't, they'd use knives or whatever.

Maybe your extreme right wants to use guns to protect their property; I am
afraid that our extreme right wants to have guns so that at a propritious
moment for them, they can kill blacks and other people of color, Jews, gays,
and leftists. We live in a country where extreme rightists from the militias
who so vigilantly defend the right to bear arms blew up a federal building
with hundreds of ordinary citizens and a day care center with pre-school
children in it. However, right now, it is not the extreme right which is
wreaking havoc and devastation on the inner city; it is people who live there
and are armed to the teeth. If one listens to voices in the inner city,
voices that say there is no need for a Klan to kill black folks when the
current internecine carnage goes on, you will have a much different
estimation of the relative dangers here.

I am not sanguine about the ease of placing the genie back in the bottle, but
I know that there is ultimately no choice but to find ways to do it.

LA Chief Gates and the racist police under his command (as well as those
across the country) were/are not, for a moment, intimidated out of their
racism by the epidemic of guns and violence in the inner city; if anything,
they use it as a justification for acting as an occupying army in the inner
city. You simply completely misunderstand the function of guns in the
American inner city, if you think for a moment that they do anything but
terrorize ordinary, decent working and poor people.

Cornel West and Jerry Watts made the following assessments of the LA riots,
which, in my view, got it exactly right (in _Reading Rodney King, Reading
Urban Uprising_):

What happened in Los Angeles this past April was neither a race riot nor a
class rebellion. Rather, this monumental upheaval was a multiracial,
trans-class, and largely male display of justified social rage. For all of
its ungly, xenophobic resentment, its air of adolescent carnival and its
downright barbaric behavior, it signified the sense of powerlessness in
American society. Glib attempts to reduce its meaning to the pathologies of
the black underclass, the criminal actions of hoodlums, or the political
revolt of the urban masses misses the mark. Of those arrested only 36 percent
were black, more than a third had full time jobs and most claimed to shun
political affiliation. What we witnessed in Los Angeles was the consequence
of a lethal linkage of economic decline, cultural decay and political
lethargy in American life, Race was the visible catalyst, not the underlying
cause. (West, "Learning to Talk of Race")

One can easily imagine that the residents of an inner city neighborhood
harbor a great deal of aggression toward their living environment, since
those neighborhoods are rat-infested, poor, dilapidated, filthy and
ultimately remindful of their devalued status in America. Through arson,
aggression and rage are released. A momentary feeling of empowerment takes
root. But, even these moments of supposed empowerment are but swindles.
Though highly cathartic, arson and looting are false empowerments. The highs
that they give last only as long as the building burns. The fact is, the poor
obtain no benefit from a burned-out structure or an empty lot. Such urban
spaces in poor, inner city neighborhoods eventually lead to further decay and
social disintegration. Resentment reigns. Through destruction, one obtains
empowerment. Yet destruction is an incomplete form of human agency and
appears to reinvigorate nihilism, for it may make the socially marginal think
that they are capable only of destroying what others have built...

Rioters must be held accountable for rioting and not primarily before the
law. Rioters must be held accountable to their own communities. Rioting is
not a democratic act. The arsonists and rioters did not take the pulse of
their local communities before setting fire to stores. They acted on their
own. Everyone else is forced to accept the consequences of their actions...

As traditional intellectuals, it behooves us not to weave hyperpoliticized
counter- narratives around any and all actions taken by poor people living in
poor neighborhoods. In the face of poverty, many South Central residents did
not have numerous options for effective political engagement. Yet, rioting
itself is not efficacious. The problem is that white and black progressives
had done little to open up possibilities for new politics among the urban

The task before us as progressive intellectuals requires a brutal honesty
that many of us are not up to emotionally. It means, on the one hand,
discarding romantic notions of the black poor. It also means being on the
lookout for the seepage of American ideological naivete into our formulations
and practices. In effect, it means that we can no longer do intellectual
business as normal, for if we authentically commit ourselves to the struggles
of our most marginalized citizens, we, too, will becomes increasingly
marginalized within the academy...(Watts, "Reflection on the King Verdict")

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