BLM protesters outside the White House, May 2020. Photo: bgrocker / Shutterstock.com

Unarmed insurrection and the Hot Summer of 2020

  • August 31, 2020

Movement & Mobilization

This summer’s insurrection requires a critical investigation of the ideal of nonviolence, in order to understand and develop new popular tactics.

We are now experiencing an unprecedented mass radicalization under the combined assault of unaccountable federal and local police, economic immiseration and the omnipresent plague of the coronavirus. Faced with these adversaries, millions of people have not been cowed but rather have risen up defiantly.

We might call what has come to pass since May a “Hot Summer.” It is “hot” in its intensity of activity but it is also literally hot, as carbon emissions rise and the seasons themselves become increasingly malignant. Four years ago, Shon Meckfessel published an instructive analysis, Nonviolence Ain’t What It Used to Be: Unarmed Insurrection and the Rhetoric of Resistance. This book can help us to understand current events and their effect on our conceptions of participation, social identity and popular legitimacy.

Meckfessel’s theoretical inspirations are eclectic; he brings together academic and scholarly perspectives, from Ernesto Laclau and Chantal Mouffe to Frantz Fanon, Hannah Arendt and others, along with the collective experience of protests in the past decade, such as Occupy and the first phase of Black Lives Matter. Meckfessel argues that the theme of “nonviolence,” consistently asserted as an essential value for popular protest around the beginning of the 21st century, has been largely misunderstood and unreflectively assumed rather than explained or explored.

Meckfessel draws out how the tension of popular activity is tinged with an aspect of violence even as it is disavowed. He also points out how, occasionally, some insurrectionists fetishize violence as a deus ex machina to break with the limitations of accepted protest actions. He argues persuasively for moving beyond this dichotomy toward a more capacious description of how political change can be enacted by egalitarian communities who confront the state; he calls this “unarmed insurrection.”

This concept distinguishes between “injurious violence,” which harms human beings, and “non-injurious violence,” which damages property. He replaces the binary of violence and nonviolence with this distinction between the injurious and the non-injurious.

Meckfessel, Fanon and Noninjurious Violence

Frantz Fanon is one of Meckfessel’s most significant predecessors. A psychiatrist from Martinique, Fanon wrote a compelling work on the experience of Black identity. Subsequently, he took part in the national liberation struggle of Algeria and wrote a study of it, The Wretched of the Earth. Fanon gives the classic account of Black liberation and global decolonization and is a crucial inspiration for militant Black struggle in the United States. We can frame Meckfessel’s innovations through a measured comparison with the theses of The Wretched of the Earth.

Fanon argues that Marxism needs to be “stretched” in a colonial situation; a traditional proletariat — organized workers in an advanced economy — does not function as the revolutionary subject. Instead, the revolution is made by the oppressed — and racialized — masses, regardless of whether they are organized laborers. This idea seems to hold for the Black Lives Matter movement and its current iteration, in oppositional mourning for George Floyd. The vanguard of struggle comes from young Black people who are mainly precarious workers.

Meckfessel endorses this, in that his “unarmed insurrection” is open to mass popular participation, without reference to labor stratification. It is possible that the Movement for Black Lives will continue to trigger strikes from the more traditional, unionized working class; this has happened at the Port of Oakland in June and in the Strike for Black Lives, in July. Nonetheless, the insurrection has begun with “surplus populations” outside traditional employment, and this is in line with Fanon’s schema.

One of Fanon’s most controversial claims is that violence is necessary. In his view, killing the colonizer restores a sense of humanity to the colonized. On this point he is in sharp contradiction to the thesis of nonviolence advanced by Martin Luther King; for Fanon injurious violence is not just the midwife of history but psychologically necessary to bring a new collective national subject into existence. Meckfessel’s critical investigation of political violence adjusts the target of this thesis, helping us to bridge the gap between Fanon and King.

The contemporary Movement for Black Lives does not advocate killing people; not even those who are themselves guilty of murder. The parameters of direct action have not been explicitly articulated, but a certain spontaneous sense of insurrectionary ethics has taken shape.

In Dallas, 2016, Micah Xavier Johnson ambushed a group of police officers, killing five of them. In turn, the Dallas police killed him by means of an explosive device. Notably, the Movement for Black Lives did not adopt Johnson as an exemplary martyr or endorse his attack. This is in marked contrast to the Algerian National Liberation Front, which called for guerrilla attacks on French Algerian troops and authorities. Unlike in French Algeria, the US liberation movement does not call for lethal force.

Meckfessel also considers a tactic of confrontation with police as noninjurious insofar as it is without the aim of physically harming officers; its goal is to disrupt the functioning and authority of state power, not to inflict physical punishment or revenge. He also considers tactics of property destruction as examples of noninjurious violence.

While the Movement for Black Lives does not kill people or inflict bodily harm, people participating in the movement have, at times, called for the destruction of property. This is most clearly evident in the destruction of Confederate monuments and statues. Meckfessel gives a clear and compelling account of how property destruction can liberate and transform individuals and social collectives: the action demystifies the founding liberal right of property. He describes how John Locke makes property coextensive with the human body, making a crime against property equivalent to physical injury.

The deliberate and politicized attack on the “public” property of Confederate monuments demonstrates the falsehood of sanctifying these relations and maintaining a hierarchy of the propertied over the non-propertied. The spontaneous practice of the Movement for Black Lives, and Meckfessel’s analyses, displace the liberating force of violence away from the injurious characteristic emphasized by Fanon and toward a non-injurious attack on property rather than the body. The fundamentally liberating aspect of violence is maintained, but the need for physical harm to oppressors is discarded.

Meckfessel makes an intriguing maneuver toward questions of rhetorical enunciation and interpretation. While Fanon writes a description of experience and the discovery of socially unconscious and repressed racial awareness, Meckfessel displaces the agent of collective experience, revealing it through signification. This is a productive reception of the turn toward language that took place in French thought in the mid-1960s.

Meckfessel draws from King’s characterization of a riot as “the language of the unheard” and makes the sensible inference that this language can be read and that observations can be made regarding its comprehensibility. Meckfessel’s rhetorical approach helps us to diagnosis destructive acts that are broadly legible and that most people find legitimate, even though they are illicit from the juridical perspective of the state.

The vandalism of Confederate monuments is the best case of a destructive act that has a clear political meaning. The signification is clear; an object of adulation is desecrated, to show that the ideals that it represents are not laudable but despicable. We can also see that attacks on police stations  such as the burning in Minneapolis in May are provocative but also carry a clear political meaning; direct retribution to the atrocious murder of George Floyd.

Similarly, the destruction of the Department of Corrections building in Kenosha is an immediate response to the unprovoked shooting of Jacob Blake. These are “performative” actions that do something, destroy something, but also say something that the audience of the public is increasingly prepared to hear.

The term “performative” in activist contexts has come to mean “fake, for show”; but there is an earlier philosophical meaning, elaborated by J.L. Austin. In speech act theory, “performative” means than something is enacted; a change takes place, like a marriage, through an act of speech. Socially recognized events are linguistically constructed, but real. The language of property destruction can be successful if it can be recognized as just, in the face of its illegality. This is a felicitous performative act; not just the defilement of a statue but the demonstrated ignominy of the Confederacy.

This performative vandalism might not always be effective; the performative can fail even if the destruction takes place. The non-injurious violence of property destruction may not appear just if there is a loss of livelihood. If a shopkeeper loses their shop, this might not seem legitimate but senseless, because in this case the loss of property does, in fact, inflict harm. We should not simply endorse the perspective of small business, which also relies on expropriated labor; but the burning of such a shop will lack symbolic effectiveness. It will be perceived as cruel, unlike the justified rage of the destruction of the statue.

Meckfessel recalls how Chris Hedges characterizes profane insults to the police as violent. The verbal degradation of a person enacts social violence against him or her. The protests of the Hot Summer have been marked by vulgarity; the repeated graffiti of “Fuck 12” and “ACAB.” At the end of May, New York protestors pronounced “NYPD suck my dick.” The violently sexual language here is problematic; naturally, the characterization of fellatio as degrading is tied to misogyny and homophobia. But here I would say that meaning is contextual; the verbal abuse is applied in its extreme form in order to taunt and enrage the adversary, and the language of sexual invitation is effectively insulting because of its incongruity, its removal from any context of intimacy.

Some element of physical combat might remain significant. Most famously we might consider the punching of the neo-Nazi Richard Spencer in 2017. While this involved an injurious component, the violence was largely symbolic. Meckfessel discusses a pie to the face received by Anita Bryant, a homophobic activist, in 1977, describing how there is an aspect of humiliation, refusal of dialogue and physical discomfort in this attack, but how the pie-ing lacks severe or permanent injury. This example helps us to think about how physical force can be effectively applied against Spencer and those like him.

We might also consider the question of self-defense in the commitment to non-injury. While Fanon’s emphasis on the positive value of injury is incorrect for our Hot Summer, we might need to consider whether injury might become necessary in the course of self-defense or in defending others. In this regard, the examples of Malcolm X and Nelson Mandela are significant. They maintained that defensive combat might be necessary, but only in relative terms insofar as it might prevent further harm. I think that this is helpful for thinking about newfound militancy of displays of defense, even armament, such as in the march on Stone Mountain in July by the Not Fucking Around Coalition.

The Changing Role of Violence

We might consider how contemporary circumstances in the United States are different from those described by Fanon in Algeria in the 1960s, to determine why the role of violence has changed. I suggest that this is because the colonial circumstances of Black Americans are different from those of colonized Algerians. Fanon emphasizes the “Manichaean” nature of classical, apartheid colonization; ethnic Algerians live an entirely different social space that is subordinated to French Algerians. This dichotomous social space produces an inferiority that requires injurious violence in order to overcome it.

In the United States, in contrast, the social environment of Black Americans is more permeable. While de facto segregation is pervasive, a shared social space exists for Black people alongside other people of color and with white people. For this reason, physical assault on white-supremacist representatives is not crucial; instead, attacks on symbols, monuments, goods and gear are effective.

Fanon calls for the destruction of the colonizer, but he also believes that anyone can take part in the revolution if they adopt the standpoint of the colonized. He himself chooses to fight in Algeria and to become Algerian, although he is from Martinique. Revolutionary national identity is not a function of skin color, ethnic background or ancestry; it is chosen. This identity is earned practically, by risking one’s safety for the new national community.

Meckfessel’s analysis agrees with this; he talks about how the uprising is transformative, how individuals take on a new relation to themselves and to others through their hazardous rejection of enforced social norms regarding property and legitimacy. In this regard Fanon and Meckfessel are in accord; their theoretical elaboration would suggest that anyone can take part in the Movement for Black Lives, regardless of skin color, if they are sufficiently committed and willing to assume the risks of their beliefs and actions.

However, I think that Fanon and Meckfessel take different paths toward this universalist conclusion. For Fanon, revolutionary subjectivity depends in part on adherence to Leninist principles. The revolution is partly spontaneous, giving shape to the natural desires of the colonized and the oppressed, but it is also directed by the National Liberation Front and guided by the international experience of the decolonizing socialist nations.

Fanon’s prospects are derived from the global experience of decolonization and socialist solidarity; this is why his analysis proved influential for revolutionaries as far apart as the Nicaraguans and the Palestinians. In the 1960s, decolonization was understood as a process that would produce a brotherhood of socialist nations. In the absence of this brotherhood, it is more difficult to determine the grounds for transnational and interracial solidarity. The blueprints of China, Cuba and Algeria now seem flawed, so it is harder to determine the correct strategy of revolutionary risk, self-sacrifice and victory.

Solidarity has fallen into disrepair and mistrust is endemic to leftist politics. Frank Wilderson III has re-read Fanon in a deeply pessimistic and particularist vein; for him the solidarity with Algeria was illusory and Black people are utterly alone, excluded from the world to a greater degree than any other oppressed identity. Without the prospect of global egalitarian transformation, this inability to imagine solidarity is rational.

On the flipside, Robin DiAngelo has posited unredeemable white identity; white people can only develop continuing and deepening awareness of their own historical complicity and violent presence in the lives of others they will inevitably insult. This framing erases the experience of mixed-race people and it reifies human experience by historically-contingent functions of racialization. But these claims resonate with people; they describe our feelings of hopelessness.

However, it seems that without explicit theoretical foundation, new communities that insist on solidarity even at great risk of bodily harm are forming. With some spontaneity, with some forethought, we have seen one of the greatest mass movements in history, in which Indigenous people, Latinx people and white people have insisted on the value of Black lives and marched, broken laws, smashed idols and even gotten themselves killed in order to test and to prove their own recognition of those lives. In the absence of an international movement of emancipation from exploitation, what can account for these ferocious and vulnerable displays of solidarity?

New forms of contestation and resistance

In the process of the political reinvention and social rediscovery, we must develop new instruments and institutions that can defend and advance a new society. In the absence of a revolutionary party, how can this be accomplished? Meckfessel sometimes refers to the ideas of Ernesto Laclau and Chantal Mouffe. It is evident how aspects of their famous work of 1985, Hegemony and Socialist Strategy, prove useful for Meckfessel’s investigation.

For him, they avoid fixing social possibility according to the mode of production or strict class position; they draw from post-structuralism in order to view social events as enunciated, structured according to the complex and overdetermined production of meaning. Moreover, they draw together a variety of heterogenous social struggles, showing how feminist, anti-racist, LGBT struggles and the workers’ movement can be brought into coalitions without totalizing their goals and producing a closed polity.

However, Laclau and Mouffe’s neo-Gramscian viewpoint tends to prescribe political mediation and state representation. This approach has proven greatly influential, most clearly in the practice of Podemos in Spain. Their analysis would seem to prescribe the current strategies of Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, Ilhan Omar and others who have endorsed the call to defund police. To the extent that they support and extend this struggle, they are to be commended. However, as Charlie Ebert recently argued, left electoralism has experienced resounding defeats and presently seems incapable of overturning the neoliberal consensus.

Meckfessel suggests a critical reception and partial escape from Laclau and Mouffe. For example, his emphasis on transformation in the revolutionary experience is in tension with Laclau and Mouffe’s analysis, which tends to think more in terms of relatively stable identity groups that cooperate but do not dissolve.

In addition, Meckfessel reads Hannah Arendt against the grain, recalling her advocacy for workers’ councils. While Arendt was sharply critical of Fanon’s strategies and generally invested in a division between the political and the social, at one point she championed the direct organs of workers’ power as founding a new type of political participation. Meckfessel draws from this tradition more than the neo-Gramscian approach to winning hegemony within the state.

In this regard, Meckfessel subscribes to the alternative to the Leninist party in revolutionary thought: the council-communist tradition. This provides the hope of an egalitarian and organic form of popular power, without the strictures that tend to appear in vanguard-party leadership. The difficulty here is that such councils have never established durability and they have not appeared in our new course of struggle.

We have not seen the occupation of the point of production, but an attempt at an “autonomous zone,” the Capitol Hill Organized Protest that appeared in Seattle in June. This is not the seizure of the means of production, but a recodification of public space. This may have been the seeds of a general assembly, a popular convocation in which political action could be directed by vote. This attempt has proven fragile and incapable of overcoming distrust.

It remains unclear what we are building. But there is now an opportunity for new forms of contestation to take shape and to develop new methods of resistance.

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Andrew Ryder

Andrew Ryder has written numerous articles on decolonization, Marxist philosophy and critical race theory. He currently lives in Texas.

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