The Utility of Violence: Does the End Justify the Means?

Violence has a long history of getting shit done; of getting oppressed people heard. Slavery and colonialism were their own special brand of violence and people who were subjected to the vileness that came with these oppressive systems could not be passive and expect Massa to treat them fairly and with dignity. Riots, uprisings and revolutions were therefore common place, for the simple fact that the oppressor only responded to the language of violence.

Imagine my dismay then, at seeing (black) Jamaicans chastise the people of Baltimore who resorted to rioting to air their frustration about the wanton ways in which the lives of black men and women are taken by agents of the state, after peaceful protests about the killing of Freddie Gray went largely unnoticed. These comments largely pander to respectability politics which says black people just have to follow the law and be upstanding citizens and the white supremacist state will honour their lives. Except…

Telling people who have been oppressed and suppressed by violence in the first place, that responding with violence makes them barbaric is the epitome of hypocrisy. If violence didn’t work why did Massa find it necessary to use violence to keep us in our place?

See, this idea that if we follow the law and act right then we will get justice has been disproved time and time again when we see how often unharmed black men and women who pose no threat to law enforcement officers are killed.

The truth is, PROPERTY MATTERS to the oppressor. That is precisely why there is now attention being drawn to the situation in Baltimore. When we stop focusing on the life that was lost and put all our attention and energy on the property that was damaged we are telling those people that their lives do not matter. Broken windows and damaged property can be replaced, that life is gone forever.

We are so vehement about the wrongness of violence that we are missing the point of why all of this is happening. I don’t know what it is like to live under the constant pressure of my life being in danger every single day of my life and so I will not propose to demonise the people who do because of their response to same.

I would love to hear from the people who are criticizing the use of violence. What do you propose? #HashtagPolitics? While there is a place for online activism, the truth is, the powers that be will not respond adequately to such a benign strategy. Every time I see the #BlackLivesMatter hashtag I can’t help but rhetorically quip “to whom?” in my head. I mean, we wouldn’t be peddling #BlackLivesMatter so much if it truly did. Black lives absolutely don’t matter in the grand scheme of things. That is why black lives are being taken at the drop of a hat by agents of the state who are tasked to serve and protect all.

We cannot pretend that all people have access to power and to the formal systems that can effect change. Some people can perhaps make a call and have the ears of an individual, organisation or the state that can address their issues. Some of us however, must confront power in order to have our plights dealt with. Justice and freedom cannot be taken for granted when many of us are obviously still fighting for those rights to be respected.

It is absolutely mind boggling to me that we expect people to remain silent, passive and peaceful in the face of these human rights abuses.

Let us consider a case closer to home. In August of 2014, Mario Deane was arrested and taken to a lock-up in Montego Bay for having a small amount of ganja in his possession. He was later killed while in the custody of the police. From the very beginning people were incensed at the injustice they felt occurred with the killing of Deane and started online petitions as well as organised peaceful protests several times. These protests were arguably ineffective when we consider that justice has still not been served.

Over and over again young men in Jamaica, usually from poor backgrounds, are abused by agents of the state. Like with race in the United States, men from poor backgrounds are systematically targeted. These men do not have access to many of the privileges that their more economically resourced counterparts have. This includes access to justice.

While I am not arguing that riots, or violence in general, is the only way to solve these problems, I think we have to be honest about the difference in response from the state and wider society to this as opposed to other methods. When we have a system that is unresponsive to the injustices meted out to a section of the population then things will escalate. Additionally, people know that at the very least there will be some attention and interests will be piqued when they use these methods to get justice.

In her work “Disciplining the Nation: Considering the Privileging of Order over Freedom in Postcolonial Jamaica and Barbados”, Maziki Thame (2014) argues that the privileging of order “[is] problematic given the historical place of order as a means to disciplining Africans on the totalitarian slave plantation and under colonialism in the Caribbean.” I would argue that this can be extended to violent protest, in the context that our insistence that order should prevail is at the expense of freedom and justice for people who have been wronged and have no other recourse.

I hold the view that violence is indeed a legitimate political strategy. Insofar as we continue to marginalise some members of our communities, we will have to contend with the fact that justice and freedom are not the reality for many and they have a right to use whatever strategy gets them to that goal.

What say you? Do you believe the end justifies the means?

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5 thoughts on “The Utility of Violence: Does the End Justify the Means?

  1. Really great read. As an American, I can say you are spot on. We have become a divided nation, somthing I fear will only get worse. In the wake of Fergurson and Baltimore, the only thing I think is “What did you expect?”. I have to stay away from social media, its just to depressing. You either get it, or you dont. When Fox news is no longer the #1 news outlet, I will begin to feel hope. People will never see what they dont want to.

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    1. Thank you for your thoughtful response. My thoughts and heart are with the people of Baltimore who have to live with this tragedy and eventually will have to move on from it with the same fears they’ve always had. Truly sad.

      Liked by 1 person

  2. If i said that i was disappointed or saddened by the respectability politics by so many young Jamaicans, I’d be lying. We’ve become such a jaded and “unbothered” bunch. How quickly we forget our very own historical events that were not so long ago that eventually lead to the independence of our country. How quickly we forget how our very own ancestors happened upon their own freedom or right to live and exist as a human being under a systematically oppressive nation. If you continuously inflict pain on a wound that never got the chance to heal, does it not suppurate and get worse? Do you not expect them to howl in pain? Black Americans are tired. They have been tired. They have rolled over many a times and have decided they’ll no longer give in to Backra Massa. They. Are. Tired.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Thank you for your thoughts. As Jamaicans we have become very complacent. This “a just so di ting set” mentality has rendered us impotent in holding the state accountable. We’re just trying to get by.

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  3. Great writing. We see the issue as black and white – you either on one side or the other. Here’s a question – Where do you draw the line between a reasonable physical act of ‘lashing out’ and an unreasonable one? At what point does the punishment outweigh the crime? It’s never a good idea to blindly follow anything, and I think this is what a lot of people are doing. That very same thing is what leads to extremism – the inability to say ‘hold on, hold up lets consider our actions’. The inability to have an honest discussion, or to identify what is acceptable in the name of the cause and what is unacceptable.

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