[content warning: discussion of violence]
During nationwide protests against the killing of George Floyd, there has been a great deal of violence. For instance, police have blinded a woman in one eye, driven an SUV into a crowd of people, beaten unarmed protesters with batons, shot pepper bullets and tear gas at a car with a pregnant woman in it, thrown journalists to the ground before pepper spraying in them in the face, and attacked John Cusack. (Among other aggressive acts.) But with images of burning police cars and even burning police stations, protesters too are being seen as “violent,” and media accounts have described the protests as “turning violent.” If protesters can be classified as violent, it’s easier to justify police violence as proportionate or defensive. This is why it is very important to be clear about what constitutes “violence” and which harms are more objectionable. If protesters destroy a police car, and police destroy a protester’s eye, both will be called “violence,” and it won’t be made clear that what the police did caused far more human harm and is more brutal and inexcusable. Police cars are replaceable. A journalist’s sight is not. Destroying property is not in and of itself a violent act. The word “violence” should be reserved for harm done to people. Otherwise, we risk making the term conceptually incoherent and—much more importantly—conflating acts that do very serious physical harm to people with acts that have not physically harmed anyone.
Many times, the “violence” of a riot or protest is taken for granted. We see store windows being smashed, cars being turned over, etc., and it seems as if there is nothing to discuss: This is a “violent” protest. But if the car or store is empty, it may be that nobody is actually hurt. This is actually very important, because when we weigh up the morality of actions on each “side” (say, what the police do versus what protesters do), if the protesters have not actually injured anyone, they have done less violent harm. If, on the other hand, we conflate damage to people with damage to property, then we might think that the “side” that has physically harmed no one (but has damaged a lot of property) has been more violent than a side that has physically harmed many people.
One reason it’s important to maintain a clear concept of what violence is and isn’t, is because true violence is such a deeply terrible human experience. Actual violence leaves people with brain damage, nightmares, disability, and trauma. The destruction of human bodies is a moral horror that simply cannot exist in the same category as the breaking of objects. Using the word “violence” to describe the smashing of a window (which is, it should not need saying, incapable of feeling pain) diminishes the term. Seeing harm to inanimate objects as violent also creates all kinds of definitional contradictions. What kind of harm to an object comprises violence? Is it a violent act to recreationally shoot a glass bottle with a BB gun? To take apart an air conditioner? The ethics of property destruction can certainly be debated, but to label it violence is to expand the use of the term in a way that dangerously blurs the distinction between the moral value of people and that of objects.
So when Donald Trump tweets “when the looting starts, the shooting starts,” we need to understand that “the shooting” and “the looting” are two very different kinds of acts. Taking a television from a big box store is an act of theft, shooting at someone is an act of attempted murder. Trump’s tweet amounts to advocating extrajudicial execution as a penalty for property crimes, but when “looting” is understood as inherently violent, “shooting” will be defended as a proportionate response, when it’s actually a psychopathic response. One of these acts is not violent, and one of them is incredibly violent.
The immediate objection one encounters to this point is that property destruction is harmful. It causes financial harm. It can cause emotional harm. It destroys economically valuable items, and thus makes humanity materially worse off (at least, the portion of humanity that owns property). But many things cause financial and emotional harm without being violent, such as firing someone. There is a tendency, often on the left, to reason that anything producing some of the same negative effects as violence (e.g., gentrification) therefore is violence. And I think we should be careful about that kind of reasoning, because it can lead us to overlook some of the unique features of injuries that are done to the human body.
People on the right often conflate property and personhood, suggesting that one’s assets are an extension of one’s self, and that therefore attacks on property are morally equivalent to attacks on a person. But they’re not, for an obvious reason: They don’t produce the same kind of trauma and injury. The wealthy, who live comfortable lives largely free of violence, often pity themselves by comparing taxation to slavery and such, and ignoring the vast differences between what it is actually like to be a slave and what it is like to be a person with millions of dollars who has to pay some portion of it to the government. When they make those sorts of arguments—when wealthy investors like Tom Perkins and Steven Schwarzman compared Obama to Hitler for proposing a tiny hike in the marginal tax rate, for example—conservatives trivialize the pain of every single victim of violence in recorded human history. Nothing that occurs to a rich business owner on a spreadsheet can ever approach the seriousness of even a minor bodily wound. But when we adopt a definition of violence that includes the destruction of objects, these kinds of arguments become less nonsensical than they rightfully ought to be.
Of course, we may ask the question: Well, what about incidents in which nobody is physically harmed, and the damage is to property, but people are nevertheless traumatized? What about a domestic violence case in which a partner punches through a wall? What about the police destroying a shopkeeper’s stock in front of them? Are these not violent acts, simply because objects were the victims rather than people? But I think in these cases, we can see that the reason our instinct is to call the acts violent is that there were people present who were being threatened, terrified, and traumatized. This is precisely what we should focus on: What is happening to people? A person doesn’t have to actually be injured. If someone points a gun at you, and chases you threatening to kill you, they are being violent even if ultimately you escape “unharmed.” If, on the other hand, they are chasing a drone or a ball threatening to destroy it, they are performing a very different kind of act, one that should not be put in the same category.
This is not to say that riots and looting are always “nonviolent.” There have been acts of violence in the current protests. If someone throws objects at a police officer, that is violent, and then we get into a different set of questions about when violence can be justified as “self-defense.” If the police in one’s community act as a roving gang, roughing up people without accountability, is violence justified? Is violence against occupying armies justified? Is the only legitimate use of force that which is necessary to defend oneself against an actual attack? Is it equally violent to attack a person who is well protected—e.g., is a stone thrown at someone in full armor the same as a rubber bullet shot at a person in a t-shirt? Does a person’s vulnerability change how violent an act against them should be considered? Personally I am inclined toward a strictly nonviolent approach, for reasons of both principle and pragmatism, and on occasions when left-wing protesters have hurt people I have criticized it. But I also recognize that the questions involved are complicated, and I share Martin Luther King’s reluctance to condemn the violence of those who have no obvious means of having their political grievances dealt with through the democratic system. What I do think is clear, though, is that when we read a sentence like “protesters blocked buses, broke an arm off a statue of King Louis XVI outside City Hall and threw fireworks at police officers,” we should make sure to keep in mind that it is different to break the arm off a statue than to break the arm off a person, and that “blocking buses” does no damage beyond making people late. (Blocking ambulances, on the other hand, might do substantial damage, and if it ever happens should be evaluated differently.)
There is an instinct, in times of angry protests in major cities, to explain or excuse “the violence.” When protests broke out in Baltimore in 2015 in response to the death of Freddie Gray, there were those sympathetic to the protesters who defended violence as an occasional necessity in the pursuit of civil rights gains or pointed out that it is unfair and hypocritical to ask for the disaffected of Baltimore to remain peaceful, given that they have been violently besieged by the police for many years. This is correct, but it also concedes that violence is being done, and we should be careful about that. The police committed an act of violence when they murdered George Floyd and Freddie Gray; those who loot a building technically commit a crime, but not a violent one. It might be a Bad Thing, for something does not have to be violence in order to be unjustified and wrong. (Personally, when it comes to big businesses I do not condemn it, because I find the distribution of wealth in this country so grotesquely unjust, so impossible to defend by any rational principle, that the violation of corporations’ property rights does not strike me as a wrong. The moral calculus changes somewhat if the property in question belongs to an uninsured small business, because there people’s livelihoods are actually hurt. Attacking a small newspaper office with someone inside it is not defensible.) But unless we keep the distinction clear we minimize the fact that what happened to Freddie Gray—who had his spinal cord destroyed by being tossed against the metal walls of a police van—was infinitely worse than anything a shop window has ever experienced.
It is worth emphasizing, too, that property destruction is not a universal feature of anti-police protests. Many engage in none of it at all, and nothing even remotely resembling violence. In many of these protests, it is the police who are fully the aggressors by whatever rational standard we apply. As Ali Velshi of MSNBC reported of one Minneapolis protest, it “was a 100% peaceful march and the police opened fire into it. There was no reason to do so, there was zero provocation.” Protesters as a whole will be blamed for any act done by a single person who can even tangentially be tied to the group; if someone attacks police officers in the name of Black Lives Matter, it will be “Black Lives Matter attacks police officers.” Regardless of where one comes down on the justice of burning and looting, it almost always forms the minor part of these actions and is focused on to the exclusion of everything else.
More than simply being a definitional quibble about a particular term, defining violence carefully is about making sure “what happens to people” is placed at the center of our analysis. What happened to George Floyd is not the same as what happens to a looted Target, and while there are those who will want to say the protesters are “as bad as” the thing they are protesting against, that will only be the case when the protesters start pinning innocent, peaceful people to the ground and squeezing the life out of them. We need to keep the moral differences clear.