Ghavri: Violence and Barbarity

The definition of “violence” is fraught with double standards.

by Anmol Ghavri | 10/3/17 12:45am

Ask anybody what “violence” is, and they will most likely give you a straightforward answer. A Google search returns “behavior involving physical force intended to hurt, damage, or kill someone or something.” Everybody agrees that there is no place for this definition of physical, bodily violence in public discourse and protest. Yet the ways in which perceptions of violence, barbarity and unruliness are deployed in the public sphere through protest, public engagement and policing in America do not always align with Google’s clear-cut definition.

In America, a police officer could shoot a colored person in front of his family in his own car and walk free because the officer “reasonably” feared for his life after seeing marijuana and a disclosed but legally carried firearm in the vehicle. No duty to de-escalate, extend or patiently assess the situation is placed on the State. By virtue of being colored and conspicuous, you are deemed unruly, irrational, barbaric and worthy of all the unmitigated “fear-fueled” fury Philando Castile, his girlfriend and her daughter faced. You are not even worth a second of assessment or de-escalation, just seven shots in quick succession while sitting with your loved ones in your own car.

Now imagine that same scenario, but replace Castile and his family with a 21-year old white fraternity boy. He would get away with a stern warning — or daddy could make a phone call. At worst, some regular procedure of ticketing or arrest would be followed.

The point of this scenario is to illustrate that ideas of violence, barbarity and unruliness in America are never deployed in a racially equitable manner based on their most straightforward definitions. For white people in America, the simple acts of possessing firearms or drugs, protesting or being non-compliant are assumed to be lawful and peaceful. When a white person commits an infraction or acts “unruly” and non-compliant, we give them the benefit of the doubt. We have seen this occur during the January 2016 armed occupation of the Malheur National Wildlife Refuge in Oregon by white ranchers, through the possession and use of illicit drugs by rich, white people in the Upper East Side of Manhattan (or in Greek spaces on campus) or the neo-Nazi march in Charlottesville, Virginia.

When participants in a Black Lives Matter protest chant loudly and “aggressively” in Baker-Berry Library and make students who were studying “uncomfortable,” they are labeled “violent” and worthy of all the outrage of Dartblog, which called it “An Ugly and Violent Display.” Disruptive, close, impassioned and even vulgar verbal confrontations in public areas are examples of free speech, not violence — unless it is by people of color.

Neo-Nazis can march through Charlottesville chanting “Jews will not replace us,” mow down protesters with a car and still be called “very fine people” by the president. When a black or brown man exercises his freedom of speech by chanting loudly, aggressively or disruptively at political rallies or protests — or even when he kneels during the national anthem — he is dehumanized.

Indeed, dehumanization and criminalization of colored skin through sensational or disproportionate media reportage and policing is at the heart of most of the backlash to current protest, activism and non-compliance by colored people. In America, conflation of being colored, loud, conspicuous and non-compliant with being violent, unruly and barbaric results in the repression, murder — by both the State and citizens — and imprisonment of colored people at a disproportionate rate. Being a person of color in America does not preordain you to be more criminal than a white person — it is the State’s policing, targeting, spectaclization and dehumanization of non-compliance and black and brown bodies who “don’t know their place” that makes you a criminal.

Rebuttals to my line of argument may point to the fact that American crime statistics show that people of color commit a disproportionate percentage of crime in the United States relative to their percentage of the overall population. Why then should they not be imprisoned, treated violently and barbarically and made a spectacle of at a disproportionate rate? My response would be to look at what the nature of the “crimes” being committed are, why they are being committed and who is doing the enforcing. When drug possession or poverty-induced gang violence are considered more severe crimes than drug possession or financial crimes on Wall Street, when such crimes are selectively enforced in places where people of color live and when they are prosecuted in such a way that does not allow for an appropriate defense, of course black and brown people fill the cells of private prisons at a disproportionate rate.

By looking at the symptoms without understanding the causes of crime — by assuming the State treats white and colored people with the same standard — those who make this argument assume that incivility and barbarity are “innate” to people of color when they are actually thrust upon them. These perceptions of unruliness and incivility thus share a similar strain to historical racist and colonial perceptions of the “barbarity” and savagery of black and brown people in Asia and Africa during the age of European imperialism.

The sincere and thoughtful efforts made by police departments around the United States to train and equip officers better to fight implicit biases and perceptions of “unruliness,” incivility and barbarity offer a ray of hope. Having police departments that are more representative of the populations they police and having police officers engage with communities outside of just responding to a 911 call allows for a more wholesome and sensitive form of law enforcement.

But that is not enough. In order to make any substantial progress in bridging the racial divide in America today, we need a more sophisticated and nuanced understanding of violence and of the disparities in people’s perceptions of barbarity, civility and unruliness. Loudness, aggressiveness, chants, disruption and non-compliance do not constitute “violence” — they reflect this country’s laws upholding free speech.