Excerpt from “Nonviolence Ain’t What It Used to Be”
We know many of you have been waiting for Shon Meckfessel’s new book Nonviolence Ain’t What It Used to Be: Unarmed Insurrection and the Rhetoric of Resistance. Well, it’s back from the printer and ready to confront the world—and upset some of our preconceived notions about “violence” and “nonviolence.”
Here’s a little taste from the Introduction:
In its 2016 report, Global Riot Control System Market, 2016–2020, the market research firm Infiniti Research Ltd. has some great news for investors who are thinking about putting their money in riot-control technologies: by 2020, the overall riot control market in the United States “is expected to exceed USD 2 billion,” with the markets in Europe, the Middle East, and Africa growing at an even higher rate.  “Protests, riots, and demonstrations are major issues faced by the law enforcement agencies across the world,” and current conditions are unambiguously predicted to further “generate demand for riot control systems.” “Growing economic transformations” in the Asia–Pacific region are predicted to produce changes that will “boost demand for riot control systems” there as well. Another recent report by the esteemed Lloyd’s of London similarly predicts that “instances of political violence contagion are becoming more frequent and the contagion effect ever more rapid and powerful.” The Lloyd’s report presents three “pandemic” categories, what they term “super-strain pandemic types: “a) anti-imperialist, independence movements, removing occupying force; b) mass pro-reform protests against national government, and c) armed insurrection, insurgency, secessionist, may involve ideology (e.g. Marxism, Islamism).” The report presents the distinctions among these categories as hazy, as unrest of one sort is liable to bleed into that of another. Clearly, the differences matter less than the similar threat various forms of unrest pose and responses they demand.
Ours is a time of riots, without a doubt. Still, not so long ago, protests in much of the world, and particularly in the US and Europe, were generally thought of as “nonviolent” affairs. After the intensity of 1968 and the subsequent repression of armed revolutionary groups in the US, Europe, and Latin America, nonviolence seemed to have become a cornerstone of social movement common sense. Curious exceptions—the Zapatistas with their generally silent guns, Black Blocs of the antiglobalization movement, and the occasional urban riots in Miami, LA, and Cincinnati—seemed to be exceptions that confirmed the rule. Yet, the time when nonviolence could be taken for granted has clearly come to an end. What happened? What is it that people say through rioting that went unsaid for so long?
One of the first things that struck me as I set out to answer these questions was that advocates both of nonviolence and of riot often speak of their preferred approach as if it works by magic. Insurrectionist and nonviolence advocates alike speak in mystical terms about the ineffable power of their activities, often without giving a hint about what actual effects, in what specific conditions, these approaches might have. Rather than being able to lay out the effective mechanisms of these approaches—what purposes such actions serve, what audiences they appeal to, and how exactly they go about making their claims and appeals—most bristle at having their faith so questioned. Indeed, in looking at how people discuss these issues, I often wondered if I was speaking to religious adherents rather than people seeking to bring about social change through worldly action. It is no secret that the Left (including the “post-Left”) has suffered dearly from a traumatic break in generational knowledge, for which we should likely thank the FBI as much as any of our own dysfunctions. In tracing the influence of these generational breaks to discussions of non/violence, I became increasingly interested in this traumatic history, which I see as the root of the dehistoricized, magical thinking evident in these discourses. This book seeks to redress that amnesia and to explore how it is we’ve gotten to a point where various core approaches in the repertoire of social movements have come to seem opposed, even complete opposites—while in a longer historical perspective, they seem more like points on a spectrum, or tools in a box. If neither “nonviolence” nor “violent” riots work by magic, how, then, do they work?
In answering these questions, I have drawn heavily on post-structuralist theories of discourse, rhetoric, and affect. Far from head-in-the-clouds academic jargon, I see these fields as concrete tools for understanding how meanings are negotiated and contested, and how such struggles are always at the same time a matter of contesting power. Indeed, for those who think of Foucault and his ilk as steering radical critique too heavily toward a fussy preoccupation with language, I hope this work can provide an example of how that doesn’t have to be the case. Many assume that “nonviolence” has a monopoly on the reasoned appeal to its audiences, and that political violence—not only the violence of riots, but even less sympathetic forms of political violence of massacre or torture, for example—relies only on coercion and force, rather than possessing a persuasive eloquence in its own right. I think this distinction is fundamentally wrong and not at all helpful. Consequently, throughout this work, I keep coming back to the tension between, on the one hand, the “rhetorical” or “discursive”—that place where meanings happen, within culture and, generally but not always, language—and, on the other, “materiality,” that world of necessity, coercion, objects, and force. Like many rhetoricians, I am interested in the way that material reality can work to create meaning, and how certain meanings can only be made through material realities—that is, not only in words. However, “action not words” doesn’t really describe the process, because meanings that happen materially don’t “stick” unless we remember and represent those meanings—unless these material changes get us to talk to each other and ourselves in a different way. Reality is not merely “material” (as some vulgar Marxists would have it) or entirely “discursive” (as some vulgar post-structuralists might say), but happens in the friction between the two. More than a minor aside, the study of how social movements change meaning—which is to say, change the world, since meanings are the way we decide how to act—is a way to better understand this friction. Scrappy protests, especially in their most intense forms as riots, are a perfect site to study this, precisely because they have been so long assumed to be “the voice of the voiceless,” a mute symptom of lack of political power, rather than an articulate way of constituting it.
When I look at political violence in this book, I primarily focus on violence in public protest, those public acts that seek to contest and cast doubts on the way that power works under current arrangements, and especially on those aspects of it directed at calling capitalist property relations into question. I do not look at the striking increase in right-wing violence, or at the proud tradition of “armed self-defense,” or specifically at anticolonial violence, except to briefly discuss its differences from the subject at hand. Although capitalism and modern settler colonialism have been historically co-constituted and interdependent, they present somewhat different challenges to those trying to contest them. I hope understanding these relatively discrete systems of rule can help us better respond in those complex realities (like the contemporary US) where, in practice, aspects of both nearly always appear tangled together. I do look briefly at those times in the history of social movements when guns have come out into the open, in order to try to figure out why they aren’t doing so now.
Much of this book began as my PhD dissertation, researched and written in 2012–2013. During this time, I interviewed approximately thirty participants from Occupy Oakland and Occupy Seattle in order to help me work through these ideas. I was very active in these movements as well, as what academics euphemistically term a “participant observer.” While I was conducting my research, the FBI was also conducting its own investigation into these same movements and into some of the same episodes I was interested in—such as the 2012 May Day riot in Seattle, which did some $200,000 of damage to the downtown business core. Because of this, I was obliged to carefully avoid asking any specific questions about people’s involvement and also to make all my interviewees completely anonymous. Although some narrative coherence might be lost as a result, I hope the wider personal dramas, struggles, and victories come through the words of the people I spoke with. These things are never experienced individually anyway; therefore, somehow this jumbling strikes me as more faithful to the experience. Given the limited pool of participants in these movements, I was also reluctant to give away much demographic data, regardless of how obviously important intersectionalities of race, gender, sexuality, region, etc. are. I have refrained from mentioning very many identity markers, and only when it seems absolutely necessary to the meaning of the comments. In general, I can attest that those I interviewed were diverse in terms of race, gender, and sexuality, although perhaps less so in terms of class (I am thinking in particular of the large contingent of street kids who were difficult to track down once the Occupy camps were dispersed).
While turning my original research into a book, I was also a very active participant in a number of other movements, such as the Block the Boat actions against Israeli shipping companies and the Black Lives Matter movement in Seattle. Even though I was not conducting “research” as a participant in these movements, I could see that the tendencies I was writing about had only become more pronounced. Examples and extrapolations from these more contemporary struggles found their way into my manuscript in what I think are productive ways, despite the less formal nature of the research.
My goal in this book is not to advocate violence or to prescribe nonviolence; it is, in fact, to move beyond the politically obstructive dichotomy of such prescriptions. If I am successful, we will learn to hesitate when we use these words, to pause until we actually have some idea what we’re talking about—or perhaps until we’ve managed to come up with more helpful terminology. If, as Randall Amster says, “the sum total of people killed or physically injured by anarchists throughout all of recorded history amounts to little more than a good weekend for the empire,” then why are arguments about violence and nonviolence within our movements so acute?  Why do the stakes seem so high? More often than not, we are not even sure what we’re talking about when we debate nonviolence and rioting. This book, in its small way, hopes to add a bit more clarity to the discussion by helping us understand, when our rioting bodies enter the streets, what they are saying and how successful they are at articulating it.