“Concerning Non- Violence, it is criminal to teach a man not to defend himself when he is the constant victim of brutal attacks” -Malcolm X
The murder of George Floyd has sparked anti-racism protests all across the U.S. The protests turned violent, as people set the police station on fire, and in response, the police fired rubber bullets and sprayed tear gas at the protesters.
In the wake of these protests, a hot debate has emerged: whether or not the violence is justified? As the protest gained support from all over the world with #BlackLivesMatter trending, the liberals have taken it upon themselves to advocate non-violence. The protesters are being criticized for “violent protest”, accused of rioting, looting, and creating a nuisance. The liberals appear to be more concerned by the mode of protests more than the systematic oppression and violence of marginalized by the state against which such protests take place. The advocacy of non-violence might be acceptable elsewhere but expecting it from the oppressed is problematic.
The Philosophy of non-violence sounds evident but it’s ahistorical. The Haitian revolution, The French Revolution, The Cuban Revolution, The Stonewell Uprising; the examples are numerous but these are not the revolution that succeeded with pacifism. On listening to such statements, people often ask “So, do you condone violence?” The problem behind such a question is that the violence of the oppressed is often equated to the violence of the oppressor. But in reality, these two situations are as different as night and day. The violence of the oppressed is a way of achieving liberation. The violence of the oppressor on the other hand is a way of continued tyranny and domination of the oppressed which in no way can be justified.
Non-violence is rhetoric used to portray the violence of the oppressed as ‘irrational’ and the violence of the oppressor as ‘rational’. From a young age, we are made to believe that non-violence is virtuous while violence is a condemnable act. We are made to believe this because nonviolence benefits those in power by crippling the masses.
But what we are not taught is, there is an honor in fighting for yourself regardless of whether you win. The oppressed stand no chance of winning unless they retaliate, but the farce of “Non-Violent, peaceful, democratic protest” is merely a means of controlling the rebellions, discouraging the mass from fighting back, and keeping a check on their struggle.
Non-violence has never benefited those at the bottom of society. We all have been taught in school that Gandhi’s nonviolence brought the British empire to its knees in India. But that is a version of the story backed by those at the top of society as it encouraged colonized peoples to not overthrow their colonizers. In truth, it was the economic drain of World War II which caused Britain to give up its colonies in India, Pakistan, Myanmar, Sri-Lanka, Jordan, Palestine-Israel, etc.
Non-violence is usually celebrated by people who don’t have to fight every day for their immediate survival. The oppressed use violence as a means of self-defense and this self-defense is portrayed as “violence” because an uprising will only be legitimate to an oppressor when it is on his terms. The oppressor will always find a fault in the model of revolution as long as the revolution is against him. In short, the oppressor demands that you revolt under the rules and guidelines of the same system against which you are revolting.
Isn’t that funny?
The violence of the oppressed is a ‘necessary evil”. It may not be a political cure and must be strategically implemented so that it does not lose popular support for a struggle. It often begins by non-violent means and later evolves into a liberation struggle.
Non-violence can bring awareness to injustice but can rarely ever make enough difference to create a change. Violence is the cry of an oppressed who are so desperate they have no other practical way of achieving liberation. This is why non-violence carries favor among the privileged. Armed struggle is often portrayed as an “ineffective and hateful” mode of resistance but the armed struggle is a love of freedom. Love is sacrificial and brave, which risks imprisonment and death.
Arguing “violence is the same no matter who does it” is just a means to discredit the oppressed. Much like #AllLivesMatter, they pretend that class divisions don’t exist. Palestinians stone-pelters can in no way be compared to the Israeli military that destroys their homes. Similarly, the African Americans’ “violent protest” cannot be compared to the biased law enforcement and racially driven police brutalities against them.
Equating the violence of different social communities benefits only the privileged. Because it’s easier to preserve your power if it cannot be named. As a metaphor from the movie The Usual Suspect (1995), says “the greatest trick the devil ever played was to convince the world he didn’t exist”.
Martin Luther King Jr. had pointed out the differences between the violence of the oppressed and the oppressor. On April 4, 1967, Martin Luther King Jr. in his speech Beyond Vietnam said: “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 government.” But the irony is white people using Martin Luther King’s words against his people to pacify them, to disarm them, to quell their rage, to silence them.
This isn’t to say we should “champion violence” or something, but we would be foolish to not use it in times of necessity.
We don’t have the time to patronize pacifism. We aim to overturn all existing social conditions. Our aim is liberation. Liberation can’t wait. Seize the time.
Nadim Iqbal Khan and Sumaiya Mohammad are student activists based in Delhi. Views expressed here are personal.