What Violence is ‘Violence’

In the past few months we have been told again and again what counts as violence. When a boy is shot and his body left in the street, that is not violence. When a woman is shot while trying to ask for help, that is not violence. When a man in police custody somehow suffers a fatal spine injury, that is not violence. But when windows are broken and stores are ‘looted’, that is violence. That is dangerous. That needs to be stopped.
It’s getting harder and harder to ignore the one-sidedness of this definition, the way that our perception of violence is based so much on who it is perpetrated by and against (though many are still doing their best to ignore it). There’s a willful narrowness to it that is rooted in racist, classist notions of who White America (and White, Western society generally) consider to be threats, who it calls intruders, who it, despite any language of ‘colorblindness’, still does not truly think of as a part of its society. We know it can forgive a lot when it’s done by those who it claims as in-group members (we see evidence of this after almost every large sports event), because those actions reflect in some way on itself and its image of itself: when it’s the perceived Other that commits anything resembling ‘violence’, however, it becomes further evidence of their dysfunction, their extremity, all the ways they are different and by being different, dangerous.
There is a second blindness in the limits of this definition, and that is in how it centers any perception of violence on individual acts of physical harm. Before I go further, I want to say to there is very good reason to focus on these acts, because even they are being ignored and distorted and left unaddressed. The point of this discussion is not at all to remove focus from those particular acts and the need for justice for those particular crimes, but to try to link those acts of violence to other acts of violence that are being perpetrated continually in Baltimore and communities across the US, acts of violence that are rarely given that name.
At it’s broadest, violence can be understood as something that brings harm to someone, perpetrated intentionally by another actor. Stabbing, punching, shooting, kicking, these are all acts of violence. Verbal and emotional harassment, destruction of property, we also define these as violence (though again, whether or not we choose to is highly linked to who is affected and who is perpetrating). But if violence is just anything that brings harm to someone, there is no reason for it to be restricted to acts commited by one person or a group of people against another. Violence can be just as easily – and often to far greater effect – committed by institutions, by systems. Johan Galtung and other liberation theologists in the 1960s named the concept of structural violence, which he defines as the “avoidable impairment of fundamental human needs or…the impairment of human life, which lowers the actual degree to which someone is able to meet their needs below that which would otherwise be possible” (Galtung 1993). This violence is structural when it is commited by social, economic, cultural forces, reinforced by institutions and social norms, and embedded in, and indeed accepted by, society.
Violence is the killing of a young man by the very people that are charged with protecting him. But is it not also violence that the median income among Black Americans in Baltimore is about half that of White Americans? Is it not violence that Baltimore residents have historically faced housing discrimination, and that economic development is centred on the wealthier, Whiter neighbourhoods of the city? Is it not violence that a Black baby born in Baltimore between 2006 and 2008 had a projected life expectancy of 70.2 years, compared to 76.2 years for a White baby? The perpetrator of this violence may be at first harder to identify. But when you consider how these inequalities in income, housing, health have built up historically out of systems meant to oppress Black people, have come about because policies are implemented and resources distributed in a way to perpetuate these inequalities, there is no denying that they are an intentional ‘impairment of fundamental human needs… or human life’. They are, in a word, violence.
One of the main reasons I bring this up is because it is this sort of violence that I think we as non-black people of color should remember any time we think that this struggle is not our struggle. I’ve heard Asian Americans talk about how there won’t ever be ‘an Asian Mike Brown’, and so its harder for us to mobilize and engage in this sort of political action. Leaving aside the fact that we shouldn’t have to feel like this affects us personally to want to engage in the struggle as allies, and leaving aside the fact that individual acts of violence do get perpetrated against Asian folks, though for sure to a lesser degree and in less institutionalized forms than the violence perpetrated against Black Americans, leaving all that aside, we are still facing the fact that this is our struggle because it is linked to the violence that directly impacts us. The violence might not look the same, but it’s enacted by the same system, simialr crimes with difference weapons. The violence that leaves Black bodies in the streets is linked to the violence that clears out ethnic enclaves to make way for luxury apartments. It’s linked to the violence that cuts funding for ‘community’ language classes, and the violence that prevents you from speaking for fear of showing your accent. The systems in place that allow police officers to kill young Black people without fear of recourse are the same systems that can threaten to deport a young mother trying to flee an abusive partner. They may look different, they need to be addressed in different ways, but our violences – both individual and structural – are linked, and it is only in fighting against all of it together can we overcome any of it.
Addendum: Below is a comprehensive list of useful readings about Baltimore:
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