Concerns about violence have been circulating around campus lately. Over the past week, the Etchemendy email thread and the Baltimore rebellion have only further raised their visibility. Like many of my peers, I have also been concerned. I hate violence.
I hate the state violence committed against black and brown bodies by our racist police system. I hate the colonial violence committed by the Israeli Defense Forces against a defenseless refugee population. I hate the sexual violence committed against our fellow students and the diplomas our school awards to their rapists.
Unfortunately, it is not the reality of structural violence that has been concerning many on campus. Instead, it is the mere possibility of violence as a form of resistance that has kept most people preoccupied. Such a position is morally inconsistent because it shifts responsibility from the aggressor to the victim. In an interpersonal context, violent resistance is not considered a matter of moral scrutiny – we call it self-defense. If someone is gunning down your entire family, few would condemn you for fighting back in order to protect your remaining loved ones. So if the state is killing your community – your extended family, everyone who looks like you – why should anyone condemn you for trying to protect them? Why should an institutional context require you to stand back and watch them die? Why does structural violence not merit the same urgency?
If anything, the urgency is only greater. As opposed to a single punch or gunshot, structural violence is unwavering; it is the unceasing violence of living as a person of color under white supremacy, the working class under capitalism or a Palestinian under occupation. You can disagree with the strategic efficacy of their actions, but when people defy — even violently — this endless structural violence, the only consistent position is to label their defiance self-defense. To condemn their actions implicitly endorses violence against the marginalized by circumscribing the means by which they can defend themselves.
When people center their concerns on the means of resistance, they reveal their true priorities. They reveal that they care more about Baltimore’s broken windows than Freddie Gray’s broken neck. They care more about property damage than black death, more about campus climate than Palestinian suffering, more about graduation rates than campus rape. Over Admit Weekend, many students were more upset about activists exposing discrimination than the fact that there is discrimination to expose. There even seemed to be more outrage over the criticisms written with white chalk than the hate crime committed with gold paint, because students were more worried about the market value of their Stanford degrees than the discrimination faced by their peers. No surprise that they were also more concerned by a student rejecting dialogue with Etchemendy than his inability to deny giving a serial rapist a degree.
Those who advocate for dialogue and express concern over violent resistance will argue that they do so to preserve life. But this argument obscures the reality: in these conflicts, an enormous power imbalance allows the oppressing force to inflict violence relentlessly, so every second wasted in ‘civil discourse,’ fruitless peace talks or any other type of diversionary dialogue is yet another moment that precious life is lost. Resorting to violence means that the oppressed have come to the difficult conclusion that if they do not engage in self-defense there will only be greater loss of life. People do not violently resist because they enjoy violence or are inherently criminal – they do so because they hold life sacred. It is then those who condemn this form of resistance that hold life in contempt.
Manny Thompson ’15
Contact Manny Thompson at mannyt ‘at’ stanford.edu.