Violence in the American Tradition

As I watch the protests and riots over George Floyd’s death enter into its second week, I cannot help but feel sympathy for the protesters and the rioters. A few months back, I was having a conversation with my sister. She predicted–and I agreed–that there would be widespread discontent over the coronavirus lockdowns and the economy slumping and thought there would be riots once the American public was finally fed up with the current state of affairs. We were half right: there are riots, but not catalyzed by the coronavirus. Another shocking death of an unarmed black man at the hands of police officers, while nothing new in this country, proved to be the match to the tinderbox. Video footage of a black man crying out that he cannot breathe as he is slowly choked to death by an unempathetic white police officer angered a country already on edge. And people have a right to be angry: there is a lot to be angry about nowadays and a lot of that has been channeled into protests and, sometimes, devolved into violence. 

Violence is in our genes. It forges and defines us as Americans. Many Americans grow up in abusive households, and many more will grow up to witness or experience sexual violence, shootouts, domestic violence, suicide, violent car accidents, robbery, or being sent abroad to fight in an overseas war (of which there has been no shortage in American history). 

Looking at American history, it seems that nothing important ever happens without something violent occurring before, after, or alongside it. This country’s founding was born from a revolution against the most powerful empire in human history. The Southern economy was built on enslaved labor, propped up by vicious slave masters, a rigid social hierarchy, and a political and legal system designed to protect it. And that ended only after the bloodiest conflict in American history, where hundreds of thousands of American soldiers and civilians died and entire states left in ruin. Massive technological, cultural, economic, demographic, and political changes followed the two World Wars. Vietnam and subsequent wars in the Middle East hammered in the American psyche a permanent distrust of the idea that democracy and freedom could be spread through wars and conquest.

And of course, violence seems to be the only thing that catalyzes political change and discussion in this country. Trump’s family separation policy galvanized public opposition. Discussions about gun control spike after a mass shooting. 9/11 forced a mass reordering of federal law enforcement agencies and forever changed airport security. And every time an unarmed black person is killed by the police, protests usually follow in their wake. Sometimes, they become violent or spread nationwide, or both. 

Now, the protests over Floyd’s death are a combination of multiple factors. Many states are just now lifting lockdowns that have lasted for months, and only partially. The unemployment rate is skyrocketing amidst a sputtering economy where wages have flatlined and inequality has worsened. Not to mention that we are still in the middle of a global pandemic that has claimed the lives of over 100,000 Americans and is showing few signs of dissipating in this country, all overseen by a president whom a conservative pundit once remarked: “couldn’t collude with his own left foot.” And given that police brutality has been a serious issue that we have not given proper attention, it is understandable that people are angry and want to express that anger in forms of violence. 

There is something within me, a combination of anger and boredom from quarantine, that wants these riots to continue, to see buildings set aflame and protesters get heckled by police. The thought sickens me, but it is not without precedent. Rome entertained its citizens with its gladiator arenas, enticing free men to fight for glory and social status and forcing slaves to fight for their freedom. Romans cheered as gladiators hacked each other and wild animals to pieces in an all or nothing fight to the death. Gladiators who survived achieved all that they fought for and then some. Similarly, the American media casts protests and violent riots as a spectacle to behold, with the protester entering the American mind as a faceless person with almost godlike status as they fearlessly face down the omnipotent agents of the state, satiating our never-ending appetite for action and violence. The protesters, like the gladiators, have a myriad of reasons to do what they are doing. Some want to see genuine change, but others want glory and honor, to be able to proudly look their children in the eye and say “I was there. I braved rubber bullets and tear gas in the name of racial justice.” And still, others do so out of boredom, desperation, shame, or out of a want of adventure. In a way, these riots are a source of cheap entertainment. We are all watching the arena right now, with the protesters facing off against other civilians or the police. 

But we should never forget the consequences of turning to violence. Innocent civilians have died, businesses have been destroyed, and the state is giving multiple indications that it wants to escalate the violence with serious displays and uses of force (as if it has not already). We should always ask ourselves if violence is worth it if its costs outweigh the costs of the issue we are turning to violence to solve, and then decide whether to pursue that course or not. If history gives any clues, we already know the answer, though I should add that the American public tends to view protests more negatively when they happen but more positively in hindsight after they occur. But as some commentators have noted, protests and riots can sometimes be the only way the downtrodden can make a statement and be heard. In the end, perhaps we should ask ourselves not if violence is justified or not, but why it is so ingrained in the American tradition and why we turn to it so often to solve our problems and normalize it. If violence was a language, Americans would speak it fluently.

Photo credit:  Lucas Jackson/Reuters

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