Interesting Links: May 2, 2015
Here are links to some interesting news articles that I came across today. These are on the apparent necessity of violence for any real changes, even if those changes are right, just or popular.
Beyond the firewall of rhetoric about the crisis in Baltimore lies a stark reality: There is no social change without coercion. Authoritarians do not step down because people are saying mean things about them on Facebook or Twitter; social elites do not relinquish their privilege simply because they saw people walking down the street, arms locked, singing kumbaya. One has to speak to power in a language it understands. It must be made clear that there are consequences for ignoring dissidents, that a return to the status quo is not an option. Shy of this, there is no change.
Mobilizing waves of the disenfranchised to assemble at seats of power underscores this threat further: right now, the angry mob at your doorstep is committed to non-violence. But should they grow disillusioned with pacifism, they may return with torches and pitchforks—and under the sway of revolutionaries who will not be placated with piecemeal reforms or patiently strive to accumulate small concessions, nor will they turn the other cheek in the face of repression. That is, it is violent movements (or other forms of coercion) that motivate elites to engage at all, even if progressives and pacifists are their preferred interlocutors.
Link 2: Why the CVS Burned
Informed by this history, when I look at the Baltimore riots of the past week, I see something more complicated than mere hooliganism. To me, the riots reflect fury not just at the police, but at the constraints of the ghetto’s retail economy, where the poor pay more. As I see it, the indignity of being roughed up by the cops is of a piece with not being able to afford to shop in your own neighborhood. Much of the violence that erupted this week took place at and around West Baltimore’s Mondawmin Mall, a retail stretch that is part of the same system of exploitation and humiliation rioters in ’68 stood up to fight.
Many poor Americans don’t cash their paychecks at banks (which typically require a minimum deposit), and are forced to use the services of cash-checking shops, which tend to take 2 percent off the top. On the 1600 block of North Avenue, where a police van held Freddie Gray on the night he was arrested, the storefront of payday lender Ace Cash Express advertises “PAY BILLS. CHECKS CASHED.” Last year, the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau denounced Ace Express’ payday lending, which “used false threats, intimidation, and harassing calls to bully payday borrowers into a cycle of debt … drain[ing] millions of dollars from cash-strapped consumers who had few options to fight back.”
These days, riots are almost universally associated with black urban communities. But before the 1960s, “race riots” meant white riots, almost universally directed against blacks. Whether it was competition for jobs (Cincinnati: 1841), resentment at black veterans (Memphis: 1866; many cities: 1919), paranoia over black sexuality (Atlanta: 1906), or resentment at blacks moving into white communities (Detroit: 1943), American whites have historically needed little excuse to conduct mob violence against African-Americans.
This violence was not random or accidental. It was part of the American system of racial domination. It was not a coincidence that when a riot got going in 1921 in Tulsa, white mobs, assisted by local authorities, proceeded to loot and torch the entire black district of Greenwood — then the richest black community in the nation — burning over 1,200 homes and killing dozens. More generally, as Hamden Rice points out, semi-random psychotic violence against black men was the keystone institution of Jim Crow. It was what kept blacks in terrified submission, lest they be lynched on the slightest (or no) pretext.
Relatedly, violence often does solve problems. The Native Americans cleansed from North America were “problems” to the settlers, and violence dealt with that problem just fine. Fascist Germany was a problem to most non-German countries, Jews, Gypsies, Socialists, Gays, and many others and violence solved that problem. Carthage was a problem to Republican Rome and violence solved that problem. And riots, rather better organized than the Baltimore ones, granted, solved the Parisian problem with the old Regime, while the Terror, terrible as it was, did make sure that there was to be no going back–even if France was to alternate between Republics and Empires for some time. Violence often solves problems and it often does so rather permanently.
I don’t know if violence is ever justified. But I do know that violence often does “solve” problems and I do know that peoples who insist on being entirely non-violent or bad at violence eventually discover that everything they have they hold at the sufferance of those who are good at violence.
What do you think? Comments?