The United States's culture of violence is tightly tied to the marginalization of some social groups, but the progressive movement is already doing social justice work that is anti-violence, and could do even more.
If these past several weeks have taught us anything, it’s that we live within a culture of violence.
Two weeks ago, a shooting rampage through the Washington, DC Navy Yard led to the death of more than ten people. In that time, we also learned of the death of 24-year old Jonathan Ferrell. Seeking assistance after a car crash, Ferrell knocked on the door of a nearby home. A startled resident called the police who, suspecting malicious intent, ended up shooting Ferrell ten times. In the same week, President Obama’s credible threats of military intervention and intercontinental ballistic missile strikes were argued as the only way for our nation’s diplomats to engage in ‘constructive conversations’ about Syrian President Bashir al-Assad’s use of chemical weapons against opposition groups in his country’s on-going civil war.
No one can deny that the past several days have led to heart ache, distrust of others, and true fear. As we see endless media clips of armed responders, grieving family and friends, and panicked on-lookers, we feel destabilized and shaken.
At the same time, these traumatic episodes are but scenes in an ever-unfolding saga of American structural violence within which we are all embedded. This institutional violence is committed against marginalized social groups rendered ‘unworthy’ of the public’s concerns. Yet these groups are systematically harassed, over-policed, and beaten each day. I speak here of the thousands of undocumented immigrants incarcerated in privately-owned detention centers and subjected to dehumanization of the worst kind. I speak of the black and brown youth stopped, interrogated, and over-incarcerated arbitrarily by racially biased police forces. I speak of queer people trapped in the prisons of their closets, whose gender is policed on the street, and whose desires defy identity politics’ categorizations.
You see, the American style of violence is complicated. Over a lifetime or in the blink of an eye, these actions, policies, and institutions function to deprive individuals and social groups of their self-determination. Exercised through criminal justice policies and war, the use of violence as a display of authority and power is bent up in larger questions around American inclusion, exclusion, and exceptionalism.
It was therefore a breath of fresh air to see the President reflect an understanding of these interconnected systems of violence in his processing of the DC Navy Yard shootings. In his remarks last Sunday, President Obama observed, “Alongside the anguish of these American families, alongside the accumulated outrage so many of us feel, sometimes I fear there’s a creeping resignation. That these tragedies are just somehow the way it is. That this is somehow the new normal.” While it’s not clear whether President Obama will put these values to work through a robust policy agenda, it is heartening to see our chief executive strike out against widespread disengagement from nuanced efforts to understand and combat violence in American life.
This is not to say that many individuals, communities, and organizations are not already working on combating violence in all of its forms. However, the progressive movement’s conceptualization of violence, the ways it manifests in communities, and its effects or results leaves much to be desired.
What the progressive movement must do is unite these issue-based voices under the umbrella of true anti-violence and peace building work. If we could unify these voices within one narrative of healthy, strong, and safe communities, we could leverage our collective voice more effectively at the national level, creating a groundswell of progressive energy. If we were to take, for instance, the dedication of the Immigrant Youth Movement to stopping deportations, GetEqual’s militancy on behalf of queer employment and housing nondiscrimination, and the Dream Defenders’ holistic critique of structural racialization in our criminal justice system, we would see that a variety of social justice efforts are, in fact, ‘anti-violence’ movements.
We need to acknowledge that violence rears its head every time discrimination manifests itself, every time someone fails to treat their fellow human being with dignity. Injecting an expansive understanding of violence into the debates on healing, safety, and security emerging after these crises is the only way we can hope to combat other targeted attacks in the future. In some cases, this poses the most immediate challenge: to process our own emotional duress in episodes of earth-shattering violence through the lens of our communities’ long-term vitality and connectedness.
From birth many of us have been taught that violence or coercion is the most efficient way of shoring up power and achieving our goals. From the playground bully to the patriarchal employer to the strategies of geopolitics, the primacy accorded to violence (or frequently, the threat of violence) has enormous caché.
As we watch our progressive family struggle to respond to instances of trauma, I empathize with those who wish to isolate these events as individual tears in the moral fabric of communities, states, and the nation. Yet it’s important to view any act of violence within its social, historical, and political context. By digging deep and organizing across interest groups, we have a chance to re-frame the conversation on American violence today.
Erik Lampmann is the Senior Fellow for Equal Justice within the Roosevelt Institute Campus Network. He studies political theory and French at the University of Richmond.