By Howard Green
The most important intergovernmental organisation of the last year, the World Health Organisation, defines violence as:
the intentional use of physical force or power, threatened or actual, against oneself, another person, or against a group or community, that either results in or has a high likelihood of resulting in injury, death, psychological harm, maldevelopment, or deprivation.
The media in this country have used the terms ‘violence’ and ‘violent’ to categorise the recent civil disruption surrounding the Kill The Bill protests. Norwich’s recent protests couldn’t be called ‘violent’ by any stretch of the imagination, but there have still been reactionary responses attempting to write off their importance, including from the EDP. However in the case of places like Bristol, the word ‘violence’ has been openly used against protestors by the media and influential reactionary figures.
The majority of headlines in national media the day after the initial protests in Bristol portrayed the police as the victims, focusing on reported injuries to officers which were later revealed to have been exaggerated by Avon & Somerset police. Images of a burning police van were widely used to support this categorisation of the protests as ‘violent disorder’ – although, notably, damage to property is not ‘violence’ as per the WHO definition. But when officers aggressively broke up the more peaceful protests of the following week, inflicting head wounds on a number of protestors, the same voices that had cried ‘violence’ were conspicuously quiet. Yes, violent actions were carried out by both police and protestors at the original demonstration, but there is a significant difference of scale here that the WHO definition does not account for. The untrained, disorganised actions of protestors that result in injury and property damage are one thing; the actions of a highly-armed, well-trained, state-sanctioned police force, inflicting harm with the explicit aim of curtailing dissent, are quite another.
When I was at the first Kill The Bill protest in Norwich, one thing struck me: the variety of speakers who took up the megaphone differed in their perspective on ‘violence’. Some seemed to be cautious of causing scenes like those seen in Bristol, citing mutual ideals of pacifism. Others, particularly those from and representing Gypsy, Roma and Traveller (GRT) communities, highlighted that the violence they would suffer under the PCSC bill would be far more egregious than the actions of ‘violent’ protestors. People had united under the same cause of mutual peace, but disagreed on the ways of achieving it.
A very important word that is absent from the WHO’s definition of violence is ‘rational’. Violence is often the result of irrational or spontaneous action, but the absence of the word rational implies that all violence is irrational, which is far from accurate. The structural violence of states and empires, wielded at home by the police and abroad through military intervention, is highly organised and intentional, directed towards carving out and maintaining power. Moreover, the choice by independent or collective actors to act violently in opposition to the state and the status quo can be a rational choice – it should not always be dismissed as animalistic and chaotic.
In the eyes of the government, the mainstream media and the general populace, violence that is state-sanctioned is typically more morally justified than non-sanctioned violence. The fallacy of modern discourse around violence is that these two very different kinds of violence are equally weighted against each other. In fact, the smallest acts of non-sanctioned violence are often considered more dangerous than the most egregious acts of state violence, as has been made plain by state and media responses to the repeated murders being committed by police in the US and elsewhere. The violence of a combative and calculative unit such as the police force cannot and should not be weighed against impulsive and disorganised acts of protest as if they were equivalent. In this face of increasing structural oppression against GRT communities and other groups, the small acts of ‘violence’ in Bristol and elsewhere are productive as a means of interfering with accepted norms on state influence.
This apparent confusion surrounding violent protest is reflective of the times we are living in. As well as the many ongoing protest movements that have butted up against the state monopoly on violence, these questions can be turned on the pandemic itself and responses to it. Could a non-conscious virus itself be considered violent? In what ways are government approaches to dealing with the virus violent themselves? Are capitalist forces at the root of all this violence? It is a time for us, the protestors and revolutionaries, to continue to collectively define violence, in defiance of those who kill for their right to hold a monopoly on the act and the subject.
Featured image credit: Bob Bob via Flickr
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