by DGR News Service | May 12, 2020 | Defensive Violence, Movement Building & Support
In this excerpt from his book Endgame: The Problem of Civilization, author Derrick Jensen explores how limited the English language is when considering different aspects of “violence.”
By Derrick Jensen
I do think we need more words in English for violence.
It’s absurd that the same word is used to describe someone raping, torturing, mutilating, and killing a child; and someone stopping that perpetrator by shooting him in the head.
The same word used to describe a mountain lion killing a deer by one quick bite to the spinal column is used to describe a civilized human playing smackyface with a suspect’s child, or vaporizing a family with a daisy cutter.
The same word often used to describe breaking a window is used to describe killing a CEO and used to describe that CEO producing toxins that give people cancer the world over.
Check that: the latter isn’t called violence, it’s called production.
Sometimes people say to me they’re against all forms of violence. A few weeks ago, I got a call from a pacifist activist who said, “Violence never accomplishes anything, and besides, it’s really stupid.”
I asked, “What types of violence are you against?”
“How do you eat? And do you defecate? From the perspective of carrots and intestinal flora, respectively, those actions are very violent.”
“Don’t be absurd,” he said. “You know what I mean.”
Actually I didn’t. The definitions of violence we normally use are impossibly squishy, especially for such an emotionally laden, morally charged, existentially vital, and politically important word. This squishiness makes our discourse surrounding violence even more meaningless than it would otherwise be, which is saying a lot.
The conversation with the pacifist really got me thinking, first about definitions of violence, and second about categories. So far as the former, there are those who point out, rightly, the relationship between the words violence and violate, and say that because a mountain lion isn’t violating a deer but simply killing the deer to eat, that this would not actually be violence. Similarly a human who killed a deer would not be committing an act of violence, so long as the predator, in this case the human, did not violate the fundamental predator/prey relationship: in other words, so long as the predator then assumed responsibility for the continuation of the other’s community.
The violation, and thus violence, would come only with the breaking of that bond. I like that definition a lot.
Here’s another definition I like, for different reasons: “An act of violence would be any act that inflicts physical or psychological harm on another.”I like this one because its inclusiveness reminds us of the ubiquity of violence, and thus I think demystifies violence a bit. So, you say you oppose violence? Well, in that case you oppose life. You oppose all change. The important question becomes:
What types of violence do you oppose?
Which of course leads to the other thing I’ve been thinking about: categories of violence. If we don’t mind being a bit ad hoc, we can pretty easily break violence into different types. There is, for example, the distinction between unintentional and intentional violence: the difference between accidentally stepping on a snail and doing so on purpose. Then there would be the category of unintentional but fully expected violence: whenever I drive a car I can fully expect to smash insects on the windshield (to kill this or that particular moth is an accident, but the deaths of some moths are inevitable considering what I’m doing).
There would be the distinction between direct violence, that I do myself, and violence that I order done.
Presumably, George W. Bush hasn’t personally throttled any Iraqi children, but he has ordered their deaths by ordering an invasion of their country (the death of this or that Iraqi child may be an accident, but the deaths of some children are inevitable considering what he is ordering to be done). Another kind of violence would be systematic, and therefore often hidden: I’ve long known that the manufacture of the hard drive on my computer is an extremely toxic process, and gives cancer to women in Thailand and elsewhere who assemble them, but until today I didn’t know that the manufacture of the average computer takes about two tons of raw materials (520 pounds of fossil fuels, 48 pounds of chemicals, and 3,600 pounds of water; 4 pounds of fossil fuels and chemicals and 70 pounds of water are used to make just a single two gram memory chip). My purchase of the computer carries with it those hidden forms of violence.
There is also violence by omission:
By not following the example of Georg Elser and attempting to remove Hitler, good Germans were culpable for the effects Hitler had on the world. By not removing dams I am culpable for their effects on my landbase.
There is violence by silence.
I will tell you something I did, or rather didn’t do, that causes me more shame than almost anything I have ever done or not done in my life. I was walking one night several years ago out of a grocery store. A man who was clearly homeless and just as clearly alcoholic (and inebriated) approached me and asked for money. I told him, honestly, that I had no change. He respectfully thanked me anyway, and wished me a good evening. I walked on. I heard the man say something to whomever was behind me. Then I heard another man’s voice say, “Get the f*** away from me!” followed by the thud of fist striking flesh. Turning back, I saw a youngish man with slick-backed black hair and wearing a business suit pummeling the homeless man’s face. I took a step toward them. And then? I did nothing. I watched the businessman strike twice more, wipe the back of his hand on his pants, then walk away, shoulders squared, to his car. I took another step toward the homeless man. He turned to face me. His eyes showed he felt nothing. I didn’t say a word. I went home.
If I had to do it again, I would not have committed this violence by inaction and by silence. I would have stepped between, and I would have said to the man perpetrating the direct violence, “If you want to hit someone, at least hit someone who will hit you back.”
There is violence by lying.
A few pages ago I mentioned that journalist Julius Streicher was hanged at Nuremberg for his role in fomenting the Nazi Holocaust. Here is what one of the prosecutors said about him:
“It may be that this defendant is less directly involved in the physical commission of crimes against Jews. The submission of the prosecution is that his crime is no less the worse for that reason. No government in the world . . . could have embarked upon and put into effect a policy of mass extermination without having a people who would back them and support them. It was to the task of educating people, producing murderers, educating and poisoning them with hate, that Streicher set himself. In the early days he was preaching persecution. As persecution took place he preached extermination and annihilation. . . . [T]hese crimes . . . could never have happened had it not been for him and for those like him. Without him, the Kaltenbrunners, the Himmlers . . . would have had nobody to carry out their orders.”
The same is true of course today for the role of the corporate press in atrocities committed by governments and corporations, insofar as here is a meaningful difference.
Derrick Jensen is a long time environmental campaigner, activist, writer and founding member of Deep Green Resistance. He has published Endgame, The Culture of Make Believe, A Language Older than Words, and many other books.
Featured image: U.S.-made CS gas (“tear gas”) canister used against civilians during the 2011 uprising in Bahrain. Photo by Mohamed CJ, CC BY SA 3.0.
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by DGR News Service | Mar 16, 2020 | Building Alternatives, Culture of Resistance, Defensive Violence, Movement Building & Support, The Problem: Civilization, The Solution: Resistance
This is an edited transcript of the interview Sam Mitchell from Collapse Chronicles conducted with DGR Member Max Wilbert.
Sam Mitchell: It is an absolutely beautiful sunny winter day here in the great state of Texas, and the opening bell of the year 2020 and you have found your way to collapse chronicles.
My name is Sam Mitchell and what we do here obviously, as we chronicle the collapse of global industrial civilization and the planet. And guys, before I get into this I just want to give a little bit of a warning and a disclaimer. I have mentioned many times, because I bring a guest on to the show, it does not necessarily mean that I am advocating everything my guests are getting ready to say. I just want to make that clear to Homeland Security. Anyone else listening to this? I am not necessarily advocating what we’re getting ready to hear, but I do think it is a voice we need to hear. And who we’re going to be hearing is a recommendation I received from none other than Derrick Jensen. And this is this fellow named Max Wilbert, who is a buddy of Derrick’s.
And so for those of you not aware of Max, I have read out some of his stuff in the past here. From his Website:
Max Wilbert is a third-generation dissident who grew up in Seattle’s post-WTO anti-globalization and undoing racism movement. He has been an organizer for more than 15 years. Max is a longtime member of Deep Green Resistance and serves on the board of a small, grassroots non-profit. He holds a Bachelor’s Degree in Environmental Communication and Advocacy from Huxley College. His first book, a collection of pro-feminist and environmental essays written over a six-year period, was released in 2018. He is co-author of the forthcoming book “Bright Green Lies,” which looks at the problems with mainstream so-called “solutions” to the climate crisis.
And here on his Website, Max says of himself, “I am part of a revolutionary movement rooted in ecology, anti-racism, feminism and human and nonhuman rights that aims to dismantle the global culture of empire — read industrial civilization — by any means necessary.“
Max Wilbert, come on and say hi to the folks, and we’re going to dive right into this rollicking conversation.
Max Wilbert: All right, Sam, thanks for having me on the show. It’s good to be here. And thanks for that intro.
Sam Mitchell: OK. So, guys, anyway, my first thought was I was going to build up to this quote I’m getting ready to read from Max, but I’ve said, what the hell? Let’s just dive right into it. We’re not going to read this. It’s the laundry list of everything that is wrong with the global industrial civilization and the ongoing collapse of a planet. We’re going to dive right into what we need to do about it. And this is what Max Wilbert wrote a while back, and we’re just going to pick up from here. So to kick off this conversation, here’s what Max had to say:
“We need to build legitimate movements to dismantle global capitalism. All work is useful towards this end. However, I see no way this goal will be achieved without force. The best methods I have come across for achieving this rely on a dedicated cadre forming small, highly mobile and trained strike forces. These forces should target key nodes of global industrial infrastructure, such as shipping, communication, finance, energy, etc. and destroy them with the goal of inciting cascading systems failure. The interconnected global economy is vulnerable to this type of attack because of how interdependent it is. If the right targets are chosen and effectively attacked, the entire thing could come crashing down.”
Max Wilbert, that was a mouthful. Amplify and clarify, which you have defined as Decisive Ecological Warfare.
Max Wilbert: Absolutely. Thanks for reading that quote out. That was from an interview I did with a French friend of mine a while ago. I tried to lay it out as straightforwardly as I could in that article. And, you know, it sounds pretty extreme to a lot of people. And it sounds like, I think, what the government would call ecoterrorism, and a lot of people would be very terrified by hearing what you just read. And I’m sure a lot of listeners are sitting back in their seats and thinking, what is this all about? This guy’s a nut job, you know. I guess I want to push back on that a little bit. You know, I don’t feel like an extremist. I don’t think that I am somebody who’s crazy. I think that I’m somebody who’s looking at the political realities and the ecological realities of the situation we find ourselves in as a species, and trying to come up with a reasonable response to that. And to me, that reasonable response, it’s not going to rely on the government. I think a lot of your readers probably are on the same pages as me with this. And I think you probably are as well. But look at the incompetence of governments around the world to address the climate crisis and all kinds of different issues. The idea that they’re going to solve these converging problems that we’re facing in an ecological sense is a pipe dream. It’s just not happening. There’s no evidence that it’s happening.
Everything is getting worse day after day after day. And, you know, emissions continue to rise, year after year. So, if government isn’t going to solve it, then people will need to solve it, right? And what does that look like, given the constraints that we have on our time, given the situation that we find ourselves in? I’ve had sort of some revolutionary leanings in my politics for a long time. You talked in my intro about how I grew up in Seattle in the post WTO, and there was this understanding in the communities that I came of age, and politically looking at, for example, the Zapatistas and all kinds of different revolutionary and people’s movements around the world. Sometimes the movements have to be forceful, sometimes they have to use violence, or what people would term as violence. I don’t consider economic sabotage to necessarily be violence, although, of course, look at economic sanctions against Iraq, for example, which killed a million civilians, that’s more devastating than than any war can be. But I think that we need to be clear eyed about these things.
I say this as somebody whose grandfather was a conscientious objector who refused to fight in World War II. So many people look at World War II and talk about it as being that just war, and the Americans fighting the Nazis and the Italian fascists and the Japanese fascist state. The reality, I think as a lot of people know, anyone who’s read, for example, “A People’s History of the United States” knows that the US government didn’t go into the Second World War with altruistic motivations. The motivations were imperialist, they were economic. And many people in the government and prominent members of our society supported the Nazi regime from the very beginning. One of the biggest examples being Henry Ford. IBM, of course, worked closely with the Nazis. We all know that. This is sort of beside the point. But I say this as somebody, again, whose grandfather was a conscientious objector. I came of age politically in the anti-war movement, trying to stop the invasions of Afghanistan and then Iraq. So I’m not somebody who loves violence. I’m not somebody who wants to go out and cause destruction and impose my will on other people. That’s not my ideology. I’m somebody who values peace and basically wants to just have a good quiet life, live it in a good way and have good relationships with the people around me. And I would be very content if I could just go live in the woods for the rest of my life with my loved ones and not have very much happen. That sounds great to me. But unfortunately, we’re living in this global crisis and we need to come up with some sort of response to it. And all of the things that I look at, the government’s solutions, the corporate solutions, the greenwashing, all this stuff around alternative energy and green technology, the Green New Deal, all of these things. I look at them and they seem vastly disproportionate to the scale of the problems that we face. We need fundamental economic and political change across the whole planet. I don’t think that that is going to happen simply or easily. And frankly, I don’t think that’s going to happen willingly. I don’t think people are willingly going to give up this life.
You know, my nephew, who’s two and a half years old, and I’m hanging out with him recently and reading books and so on, and like most kids, he’s really into trucks, he’s really into the garbage trucks and the cranes and construction sites. It’s fascinating to him. It was fascinating to me when I was his age. And I was writing last night about the sadness, the tragedy that this kid, growing up in an urban area, is not going to be exposed to grizzly bears, to orca whales, to wolf packs. You know, the megafauna of the past have been replaced by what I’m calling in this article I’m working on a mechafauna. Large machines have replaced large animals. And instead of navigating through a landscape of raging rivers and towering mountains and glaciers, we’re navigating through a landscape of towering skyscrapers and freeways and businesses. So, most people are profoundly disconnected from the natural world. And I think because of that, we have all been inculcated into this ideology that looks at civilization and this way of life as… It’s even beyond a good thing, it’s something that’s so fundamental that it cannot be questioned.
Most people literally cannot imagine living a different way of life than the modern industrial, high energy way of life. Most people, at least in the United States where I live, can’t imagine that. Some can, some people obviously have more experience living off the land or living in communities and in more intentional ways and can really imagine a much lower energy, a smaller scale, more localized way of life, which is the only sustainable path for the future. But politically, if we think that that way of life, moving everyone on the planet away from high energy ways of life and dismantling those high energy systems, that’s the only path towards survival we have as a species. And that’s the only way to stop the mass destruction that the dominant culture is perpetuating. And I don’t see that happening willingly. There’s just no signs that that’s going to happen, at least on a large enough scale, on a fast enough timeline.
Sam Mitchell: What was your phrase you mentioned five minutes ago? The disproportionate scale of the response to the level of the crisis. The problem, the predicament. And again, I’m just going to play devil’s advocate here. So, assuming that I agree with everything you say, that what we need to do is target key nodes of global industrial infrastructure, such as shipping, communication, finance, energy, and destroy them with a goal of inciting cascading systems failure. The problem that I would have with that, on the assumption that I agree that was a noble goal, and I’m not saying whether I do or not, my problem, Max, would be the same problem I have with all of the other responses you mentioned, that there is no way in hell that we’re going to marshal the forces necessary. It’s not it’s not even David versus Goliath at this point. Rather, it’s a goldfish vs. a blue whale. What would you say to get me on your team? Assuming as that I agree I’m going to join your team, but this is the reason I’m reluctant to. What would be your response to me?
Max Wilbert: Well, the first thing I would say is if we don’t try, then we’ll never know whether it was possible. I mean, people have achieved plenty of incredible things throughout the history of the world, both for good and bad, that seemed incredibly unlikely in the beginning. And there’s one quote that I like to spread around, it was from Michael McFaul I believe, who is on the National Security Council. And he said “every revolution seems impossible beforehand and inevitable afterwards”. So I don’t think what you just said is a unique feeling. I think, millions of people have felt that way throughout history in all kinds of different difficult and dangerous political situations. And yet people still choose to fight. People still choose to organize. And of course, not everyone does. I don’t expect everyone to join a movement like what I’m talking about. But, we need to find those people who are willing to join, are willing to fight. And, that not only means people doing that work, fighting for that cascading system’s failure, going underground and taking serious action. I think it also means people who are just willing to speak up and talk about this openly, because I don’t think this is anything to be ashamed of, or anything that needs to be discussed in the shadows. You know, I’m willing to go on national television and talk about this. I don’t care because we’re in a desperate situation. And this to me is not any less mainstream. I mean, look at the politicians that you see on TV and these debates around the U.S. presidential election and so on. The stuff they’re talking about is completely out of touch, in most cases, with the realities of what we’re facing. And I look at those people as the extremists. I look at those people as the the people who are insane and out of touch with what’s actually happening in the world. So, I think we need people involved in all kinds of different levels.
And people hear what I’m saying and get scared. You know, this is serious stuff. Obviously I’m talking about revolutionary politics really in a sense, and that is a dangerous thing. It’s dangerous now and it has always been dangerous. And I think one thing that people neglect is the fact that revolutionary movements involve people at all kinds of different levels. I mean, there are people who are part of deep green resistance, the group that I’m in, who are parents of young children, who don’t have any time, who don’t have the ability to be a public face for the movement. People find ways to contribute. You know, people volunteer in all kinds of different ways. People translate articles. People donate. People do all kinds of different things to build a culture of resistance to support these ideas and build them up into a political force, a political movement that can actually influence the course of events. So that’s what we’re trying to do.
And I understand people’s feelings of disempowerment. You look at mass media, you look at the culture that we live in, and that’s one of the main goals of this system, to keep everyone in a position of feeling disempowered, of feeling a sense of total alienation, of feeling disconnection. And one of my experiences in political organizing and doing this work is that not only do I feel like I’m doing the right thing, but, I find this work to be incredibly fulfilling, personally. I find myself with a sense of purpose that didn’t exist before I found these ideas. When I was younger, I felt very swept along in global events. And now I feel like I’m part of an organized force that’s working to change things. And the fact that we are outnumbered and outgunned and have no money and so on, all of these things are realities that many other people throughout history have faced. So, I look at myself and other people in this movement as part of a multi generational struggle, that has frankly been going on for thousands of years against the culture of empire. We need to step up and step into that role. And I think it takes a lot of wisdom and it takes a lot of commitment and it takes a lot of self work to confront those fears, to have real conversations with yourself and your loved ones about what this could mean. And it takes courage. I would rather do this work than sit on a couch and watch Netflix for the rest of my life. So it does that make me crazy? Maybe in the minds of some people in this culture, but I would rather be crazy than working 40 hours a week, slaving away at some job I hate, getting ready to retire into a climate nightmare and leaving nothing, leaving nothing for future generations.
Sam Mitchell: OK, well, there are so many things I was trying to grab hold of out of that response. One word stands out to me and that response, it was outgunned. Max has a fine YouTube channel himself. You can find Max’s YouTube channel, and I’ve noticed that the other YouTube bots have not shut you down. I’m a little bit surprised that you are openly advocating on your YouTube channel to start picking up guns. Talk about that, where literally does arming ourselves fit into your program? I mean, guns have bullets. Where are you talking about those bullets ending up?
Max Wilbert: Well, to be clear: The strategy that you talked about, the Decisive Ecological Warfare strategy, is explicitly designed to minimize civilian casualties. That’s something that has been a part of our ethic from the beginning. We’re not talking about waging open warfare on governments or the industrial system. We’re talking about sabotage. We’re talking about coordinated economic sabotage. Now, I’m not naive enough to say that that may not involve some violence against people, but that’s not a call for me to make because I’m not directly involved in that process.
We talk very clearly about the need for a firewall between people who are above ground and advocating these things, like myself, and people who go underground to actually take those type of actions.
So I can’t actually tell those people what to do, and I don’t know what they will do or what they are doing if they exist. So, in some ways the point is moot. You talked about my YouTube channel and I’ve made some videos, like you said, talking about weapons. And I see two main reasons for this.
The first is self-defense. I think that we’re entering a world that’s getting increasingly chaotic. And people like myself, who advocate for what is seen as radical politics in this culture are at risk, compared to a lot of other people. I receive death threats regularly, I receive all kinds of hateful messages from all kinds of different people. I’ve been doing this for a while, and that has been happening consistently. And it’s only speeding up. We’re seeing increased polarization all around the world. We’re seeing the increased rise of of right wing, ultra nationalist and proto-fascist movement.
And that’s something to be concerned about. That’s a real concern. And I don’t think the police or the state are ever going to protect people like me, or even people who aren’t revolutionaries. Just look at the black community in the United States and all the violence that they have been facing for so long, at the hands of the police and racist vigilantes. I think we need to learn to defend ourselves, and that doesn’t mean we love guns or we build a stupid gun worshiping culture like the NRA.
I think that means that we be adults, and we make reasonable decisions to preserve the safety of ourselves and our communities. And I think as climate crisis intensifies, we’re going to see more and more instability and the potential for violence.
So I want to see communities of resistance, and especially communities that are engaging in on the ground work, defending the land, and building alternative communities, building alternative economies and ways to survive. I want to see those communities making serious decisions about what they’re gonna do, because if you have a great, wonderful, groovy eco village, and some sort of climate disaster knocks out the local government, then you may have to be prepared for a bad situation.
One of my friends is from Pakistan, and she talks about that we should look towards Pakistan as an example of what the U.S. and other more “wealthy” first world nations are moving towards in the future. You’re seeing a lot of conflict, you’re seeing a lot of sectarianism, violence, blackouts and rolling brownouts. Power is only available for certain periods of the day. A lot of desertification, a lot of extreme poverty contrasted with extreme wealth. And I think that’s the future we’re in for. Rebecca Solnit wrote a book about natural disasters, and about how people have this idea that when disaster strikes, everyone becomes rapists and looters and things get really nasty and really bad really quickly. And she writes that’s actually not what happens. That’s much more the exception than the rule. In general, when disaster strikes, people tend to come together and work together and cooperate and help one another. I’m not somebody who looks at human beings as inherently evil and nasty, and it’s gonna get really bad and brutish. But for political organizers, for people who are specifically resisting civilization, capitalism, white supremacy and so on, I think it makes sense to reasonably know how to use and own firearms legally.
The second reason that I talk about is almost, in a sense, more philosophical. In the Second Amendment of the US Constitution was written specifically: In a situation where people rose up to fight against a government, and they use the weapons that they own to do that. And then they wrote into the Constitution protections for people owning weapons. Obviously, the American Revolution was a bourgeois revolution. It was a high class revolution, a ruling class revolution. It was not a grassroots people’s movement, it was not a movement for freedom or progressive ideals. But nonetheless, I think it’s true that preserving independence from the state is incredibly important. And I find it very hypocritical that many people on the left, for example, will critique the administration for building concentration camps and for police brutality and violence, and then will turn around and the same time advocate for taking away people’s weapons, taking away weapons of the public. And of course, mass shootings and all these different issues, there are very serious issues and they are real issues. And at the same time, I think that preserving a population that is armed is a bulwark against tyranny in some ways.
The other part of it is, you look at the United States and there are a huge number of guns in private hands in this country, and the vast, vast majority of them are owned by conservative and far right people. Not many are owned by people with progressive values, who really value ecology and really value feminism and really value anti-racistm. I’m not saying that all conservatives are racist or whatever. That’s an oversimplification. But I think the fact is true, that all the weapons concentrated in the hands of the right is not good. And I think, as we see increasing instability, it makes sense to know how to use weapons. And again, that doesn’t mean you glamorize them. That doesn’t mean you worship them. And that doesn’t mean that you plan some sort of armed attack against whatever. That’s not what I’m talking about. But I do think that thinking about weapons and knowing how to use them can help move people on the left towards a greater sense of seriousness and a greater sense of power. I didn’t grow up in a gun culture at all, I didn’t shoot a gun until I was 21 years old, something like that. I wouldn’t consider myself a gun nut or anything along those lines. I don’t really enjoy shooting guns at all, although I do practice it occasionally and I do hunt, because I like to connect with the land and get my own food and get the best quality possible meat that’s local and organic and has no chemicals in it and was grown on the mountainside, not in some factory farm.
But I think when you critique the power of empire, when you critique U.S. imperialism, when you critique police brutality and you have never touched or fired a weapon, then I think that you perhaps have a skewed understanding or an incomplete understanding of what you’re talking about. And I think this can lead to some dangerous ideas. Many progressive people, leftists and people in the hippie community talk about things like violence doesn’t work, violence never works, which I think is just a stupid idea, frankly, I think the reality is that unfortunately, violence works really well. That’s why the US military uses it. That’s why the police use it. That’s why abusers and wife beaters use it, because it is very effective. And that’s not a good thing. But again, I think we need to be adults and face these realities.
Sam Mitchell: Yeah, well, I know that you of all people are keeping up with the trends, the skyrocketing number of environmental defenders being just flat out murdered by these guys. When I was reading something in the past few months, about one of these tribes in Brazil, these warriors, you know, and actually they need to be defending their land base. I am 100 percent in support of an Amazon indigenous person using violence to defend their land base and their culture. But at the same time, Max, I’m thinking in the back of my head, there is nothing that this Bozo Nero guy, as I call him, there is nothing that Bozo Nero would love more than an Amazon Indian to put an arrow through the throat of a soy farmer or a or a gold miner or someone building a hydro power dam. Are you following me? Then you would see what violence would look like. It would be a bloodbath. And they would say, well, they threw the first punch. That this guy with his bow and arrow killed some guy building a riot rod, driving a bulldozer or building a hydroelectric dam. Do you see where I’m going with this? And I would be cheering the guy with a bow and arrow, but I know what it would turn into, brother. What do you think about that?
Max Wilbert: Well, I think you’re absolutely right. And that’s why I think we can’t get caught up in dogma. I’m not a dogmatic pacifist. I’m also not a dogmatic advocate of violence. I think you need to be situational in the methods that you choose to use to achieve a certain goal. And if you are trying to defend your land, then in many contexts the best way to do that is going to be completely nonviolently. And that’s not a problem for me at all. I’ve participated in countless nonviolent actions and direct action blockades and protests and media events and all kinds of stuff on that spectrum. So, I don’t think that’s a contradiction at all. I think we need to be flexible in the way that we approach these things. But I also think that we need to avoid blaming the victim. And I think we need to recognize that of course what you’re saying is true, that the state will use violence as an excuse whenever it can. The reality is the states can be violent no matter what. The corporations are going to be violent no matter what. Their violence may take different forms depending on the situation, but their modus operandi is violent and whether they are sending in the military or whether they are using international trade agreements and unfair loaning practices. From organizations like the WTO and the World Bank, that force massive infrastructure projects on poor indigenous people and rural people all over the world, or whether we’re talking about banks here in this country and how they function and how they keep the poor poor and exploit people. They are using violence every single day. That is their main tool. And so our choice should not be some moral abstraction – not that morality is abstract – but I think that we need to be looking at what methods are going to be effective to stop them, and not artificially constraining ourselves based on morality. Morality that frankly I think we’ve been taught often. I think there’s a reality that we’re taught, Martin Luther King in schools and we’re not really taught about Malcolm X, and we’re not really taught about the Black Panthers, and we’re not really taught about revolutionary movements around the world, except for, again, the bourgeois American Revolution. And we have all internalized that training. Again, I think there’s a reason that we’re taught so heavily about figures like MLK and Gandhi, and even a figure like Nelson Mandela, who is lionized in the United States and looked at as this amazing figure. Well, very, very few people recognize that he was the leader of an underground military organization that was attacking and assassinating people in the apartheid government, in the apartheid state, and was coordinating sabotage, attacks against the electrical grid, against diamond mines, against power stations. And that side of the apartheid resistance has been completely whitewashed. And instead, we’re talking about Desmond Tutu and nonviolent protest and truth and reconciliation. The reality is that social change and revolutionary change throughout history has always been a messy process with a lot of different pieces and a lot of different people working in different ways. I don’t think that that means that you have to be opposed just because you’re using different tactics. And I think that ideally, the strongest movements do use all kinds of different methods and all kinds of different tactics across the spectrum, and they’re coordinated and they support one another. They’re not going to condemn one another for for using different methods. They’re going to just work in the most effective way that they can.
Sam Mitchell: I would add that they’re very savvy. We’re still on the first paragraph, and I made it exactly one paragraph into this whole list of quotes of yours. I wanted you to expand. So I’m just going to leave my notes behind then.
OK. You mentioned somewhere in the past 10 minutes and you’ve written about this, about whether humans are inherently … you know, I just interviewed this ecologist named William Reas. He should probably go listen to that interview, it was a last one of twenty nineteen. He is based from an ecological perspective, if not from a moral one, saying that humans are a plague on this planet.
I want to draw and find out where your line is. I don’t know whether you’re speaking for Deep Green Resistance, I just want to hear your own line.
I want to make clear that I understand that you draw a big line between global industrial capitalism, civilization, that whole messy thing, and humanity as a species. That you put those in kind of two separate camps. Well, I think a lot of people listening to this podcast probably agree with you 100 percent on that the global industrial civilization is the worst reflection of humanity, and we can all agree it needs to go, at least the people down in this rabbit hole.
But some people would say that even that’s not going far enough, that humans just need to go. What is your comment to the people saying that ending global capitalism still is not enough to save the planet, and we just need to have humans say bye bye and disappear?
Max Wilbert: Well, I think that’s a profoundly civilized thing to say. I think that’s only something that you can say if you grew up in a culture that is destroying the planet, which not every culture has done. You know, I grew up in a culture that’s destroying the planet. I grew up in a city, and grew up with cars and everything. So I can certainly understand the impulse and why people feel that way. But the thing is, people who are saying that are looking at history and interpreting it in a certain way. And the reality is, you can look at the same history and interpret it in a different way, or you can talk to people and look at situations where people are actually living in land based communities and see what’s happening ecologically, see what’s happening to the people. So, there are thousands of examples of cultures that have lived more or less in a balance, over the long term, with the natural world. And I think that this is actually an adaptive trait for human beings, to live in sustainable ways. And I think, for that reason, we are sort of born naturalists.
If humans are just given a little bit of training and a little bit of education and encouragement to learn about the local ecology, and immerse themselves, and exist within a living ecology, then I think that we can do it extremely well. That’s not to say that human beings don’t influence what’s happening around them in ways that could be called destructive. Quite obviously, humans are an apex predator. And apex predators always disrupt and change the world around them and always influence things, especially when they come into a new habitat for the first time. They’re going to upend things. They’re going to make a lot of changes. But that’s no different than if you don’t have wolves in an area, and then they’ll show up. They’re going to cause very similar changes to the ecology on a large scale. Nobody is saying that wolves are inherently destructive, right? I think humans are no different. For example, people look at the wave of extinctions that has followed with some species when indigenous peoples first showed up in certain areas, for example some of the Polynesian cultures, when people first showed up in North America… There is debate about these issues and they’re not well understood, because obviously we’re talking about ancient history. We’re talking about very limited records from archeology here. So we’re just interpreting the past, right? And that’s very limited. But what it appears like happened in these situations is that humans – again, an apex predator – showed up in an area, they caused a lot of change, they may have caused a few extinctions, and then things settled down. People figured out how to live in that area in a way that was balanced, and things more or less stayed the same for thousands of years after that. That is sustainability, and that’s an adaptive trait for human beings. And I think that, again, if you have not lived in that way, then it’s hard to perceive how that can happen. When you have grown up in a completely growth based culture, in a Judeo-Christian, Abrahamic religion, a world view of growth and patriarchy and as many children as possible and no relationship to the local ecology, then you’re going to look at that with skepticism. But the reality is that our natural state is an animistic state, where we are in real everyday relationship with the natural world around us, and we develop individual personalized relationships with certain places, a certain creek, a certain river, a certain forest, a certain herd of deer, a certain population of salmon, a certain family of grizzly bears, and we learned their habits and their ways, and we watched them not just for days or hours, but for years and generations. And we tell stories about them and we communicate about them with each other. We pass information down over time, and we develop ways to live, while not destroying these beings who are around us, who we love. That is so alien to most people in this culture today. Most people literally cannot comprehend that, because of the human supremacism that we’re inculcated with from birth. It seems completely unthinkable. So I would disagree that humans are inherently destructive. I think that is completely wrong. We can be incredibly destructive, but I think that essentially, when it comes to the nature versus nurture argument on this, it’s all about nurture. Humans are a very flexible species, and when we are raised in a destructive civilization that has no respect for the natural world and has this growth imperative, then things are going to go downhill fast. And that’s not just modern culture. That’s the story of the last 10,000 years, that’s civilization as a whole.
Going back to the Fertile Crescent, the so-called Fertile Crescent, that’s no longer fertile anymore because – I think Derrick said this on your show – the first written story of civilization is about Gilgamesh cutting down the forest, to build a city and to build an empire, an army and to become wealthy and powerful. That is the first written story of civilization. That’s the first written story. Civilization had existed for quite a while before this. This story was written from what we understand. And archeology tells us that indigenous peoples, people living outside of civilization, people living outside of mass mono crop agriculture, lived in balance for hundreds of thousands of years around the world, before civilization came. And when that transition to civilization happened, then you start seeing massive destruction. So, for example, global warming. A lot of people think it began with the industrial revolution and with the burning of coal and steam engines and so on.
That’s not actually true. Global warming actually began with civilization and the beginnings of widespread agriculture. For example, if you look in the ice core data, I think about thirty eight hundred years ago – something in that range, don’t quote me on that number – you see a big spike in methane emissions, and that corresponds with the beginning of rice paddy agriculture in Southeast Asia. There is a climate scientist named William Ruddiman, who argues and demonstrates from the data that the amount of greenhouse gases released by agriculture, and the destruction of habitat through the rise of civilization, the amount of carbon released is roughly equivalent to everything that has been released during the entire industrial period. It just happened over 10,000 years instead of over two hundred and fifty years. So these problems are not new. And for that reason, I think it’s easy for people to look back at ten thousand years of history and say, look at how destructive we’ve been. But the point is, you have to go outside history. You have to go into pre-history, because these indigenous communities, before civilization, did not have written records. And indigenous cultures, today and during the last 10,000 years, that have existed and have remained intact, have lived in profoundly different ways.
This isn’t to lionize or sort of falsely idolize indigenous peoples, because I think a lot of indigenous communities can be critiqued on all kinds of different issues. We all have disagreements about the best way to live, and not all communities that people call indigenous live sustainably or have lived sustainably at all times. I think that’s, of course, a vast oversimplification. We’re talking about thousands of cultures over thousands of years of history. We we can make some broad generalizations, but it’s dangerous to say that it’s always this way. You know what I mean?
Sam Mitchell: One of the things that I found missing in your work, you do not seem to talk about the issue of overpopulation very much. And I just want to say, sure, I know that you understand, if global industrial civilization comes down, that is going to mean the population of this planet is going to come down with it. Is that a good thing? A bad thing? Have you ever thought about what a sustainable human population living in balance with nature looks like on planet Earth?
Max Wilbert: Of course, that’s a huge issue, and I thought about it a lot. In terms of your last question, don’t have a number and I don’t think I could. That’s not something that I can dictate, it’s something that obviously will change, depending on the ecological circumstances that people find themselves in. I think the leading writer on this topic was William Catton, whose book “Overshoot” is one of the most important books that’s ever been written.
Sam Mitchell: Derrick Jensen’s “Endgame” and William Catton’s “Overshoot”, those are the ones I put at the top of my list.
This house of cards is coming down, you and I both know that, Max, whether we bring it down or it comes down itself. Do you believe that we’re going to be living on a planet of 10 billion people in 40, 50 years from now, or is that number going to be a whole hell of a lot less?
Max Wilbert: Well, that’s actually an interesting question. I think I may actually differ from a lot of the collapse people on this, because I don’t actually think that collapse of this culture is a given in the short term, and that sort of timeframe. I don’t think that’s a given. I think it could happen, but it does not seem faded at all to me. And I say that as somebody who traveled to the Arctic in a climate science expedition and has walked on thawing permafrost. I’m very familiar with all the feedback loops and the methane burp potential, and all these different issues. We don’t know what’s happening. We don’t know how fast these changes are gonna happen. But I think, this culture continuing to sail along and grow and grow and grow is the worst possible outcome.
And I think that even if nothing changes and nothing gets worse, we are already have enough reason to resist now. I don’t know what the future is going to look like. And I think that you are right, that the human population is not sustainable and it’s going to be lower at some point in the future. And there are a lot of ways that that could play out. It could be really bad, and just a ton of people all die very violent, horrible deaths. Or it could be achieved in a sort of more planned, humane way, by simply reducing the birth rate and letting natural deaths reduce population. Maybe the reality or how it will play out will be somewhere in the middle. I don’t know. But this issue is one of the reasons why I think feminism is such an important topic, because I think that the whole issue of overpopulation is incredibly tied up with agriculture and with patriarchy. And I would say the most important writer on this topic is Lierre Keith with her book “The Vegetarian Myth”. It’s sort of focused around the idea of diet, but it’s really about patriarchy and agriculture and civilization.
She points out rightly that within agriculture, within civilization, maximizing the number of births is the best way to increase growth. That’s the best way to make workers available for the workforce, to work in the fields, in the factories and to serve in the army. And the coordinated culture of control and domination, male domination, that is patriarchy, is something that has existed for a long time at this point.
All around the world, when you have examples of women actually gaining some level of political control and autonomy and pushing back the powers of the Abrahamic religions and pushing back the powers of patriarchal society, you see birthrates just plummet. The human population is unsustainable and it’s going to be lower, and I would prefer that to happen in a way as humane as possible.
Sam Mitchell: And I really hate to break in here, brother, but I am glad to say I’m going to be interviewing Lierre in a few weeks. I guess I’ll pick up with her on the book Bright Green Lies, since we did not have time to get to, we’re going to collapse here in a few minutes.
So Max Wilbert, if you’ve ever heard one of my interviews, you know how I always end them:
If you where not speaking with Sam Mitchell at Collapse Chronicles, where you had free reign for an hour, but you actually have the mainstream media with a microphone in your face saying “Max Wilbert, give us your 60 second sound bite to humanity and the opening bell of 2020”, what would those 60 seconds sound like?
Max Wilbert: Well, the problems that we’re facing are massive, and the political systems incapable of addressing them. So many of the solutions that we’re seeing, such as green energy, are turning out to be false solutions. We’re seeing a huge explosion in green technology and yet at the same time, emissions continue to climb and pollution continues to climb. So what do you do with that? I think we need fundamental change. We need broad economic change. And I think that looks like a complete restructuring of the global economy. How this could happen?
There are many different ways, and I want to support people who are working for these type of goals, working for deep growth, working for relocalization, working for permaculture. I want to support people who are working in all kinds of different ways. For myself, I have chosen a revolutionary path because I think that not only do we need to build up those alternatives, but I think we need to be prepared to dismantle the dominant systems of power that are destroying the planet. I don’t think they’re going to stop willingly. So, I would invite people who are interested in learning more about that or getting involved in that to reach out to me. Let’s get connected, so you can become part of this culture of resistance, because it’s our only chance. And I think that we are the inheritors of a beautiful tradition and we are living in perhaps the most important moment in the history of the human species. And what happens in the future is completely dependent on what we do now.
Sam Mitchell: Okay. And with that, Max Wilbert, we’re gonna have to wrap it up. Max Wilbert, thank you very much for taking an hour out of your schedule to come talk to us on collapsible chronicles, but more importantly, thank you for your work and keep up the good fight.
by DGR News Service | Feb 17, 2020 | Defensive Violence, People of Color & Anti-racism
Long before the Civil War, black abolitionists shared the consensus that violence would be necessary to end slavery. Unlike their white peers, their arguments were about when and how to use political violence, not if.
By Randal Maurice Jelks / Boston Review
Reviewing “Force and Freedom: Black Abolitionists and the Politics of Violence,” by Kellie Carter Jackson. University of Pennsylvania Press. Featured image: Mabel and Robert Williams, advocates and practitioners of armed self-defense, a longtime tradition in the Black community, during the civil rights movement.
Although Thomas Jefferson opined to James Madison in 1787 “that a little rebellion now and then is a good thing, and as necessary in the political world as storms in the physical,” he did not have in mind a rebellion by his own forced laborers at Monticello. In fact, when the Second Amendment was drafted two years later, it was intentionally Janus-faced: it aimed to preserve the fruit of U.S. rebellion by arming citizens against an English invasion, even as it also empowered local militias to squash Native and slave rebellions.
The planter class understood that enslavement required complete dominance, including a monopoly on violence. South Carolina’s 1739 Stono Rebellion still loomed large in their memories: enslaved Kongolese warriors had raided guns and ammunition from a local store and killed more than two dozen whites before being defeated. And in 1791, the ink barely dry on the Constitution, Haiti erupted like Mount Vesuvius and challenged the dominion of slavocracy throughout the Americas. The brutally shrewd U.S. leaders realized that slave rebellions were always possible and that firearms had to be kept out of the hands of the enslaved.
Blacks understood this too: slavery was done through violence and would only be ended through violence. Enslaved men and women on the German Coast of Louisiana (today the East Bank of greater New Orleans), for example, inspired by The Declaration of the Universal Rights of Man, sought to emancipate themselves in 1811 by marching toward New Orleans with agricultural tools repurposed as military weapons. Though unsuccessful, they knew that the only certain way to destroy the institution of slavery was to destroy the people who owned their bodies. In a different sort of way, it is a view that was also held by black revolutionaries, in the United States and abroad, in the twentieth century.
Kellie Carter Jackson’s brilliant new Force and Freedom constructs a bridge between these two moments—between the slave rebellions of the early Republic and the armed self-defense and revolutionary violence of twentieth-century black radicals—by filling in the less familiar history of how nineteenth-century abolitionists articulated their support for black armed self-defense and political violence. Her book stands well alongside other recent histories, such as Richard Blackett’s The Captive’s Quest for Freedom: Fugitive Slaves: Fugitive Slaves, the 1850 Fugitive Slave Law, and the Politics of Slavery (2017); Martha Jones’s Birthright Citizens: A History of Race and Rights in Antebellum America (2018); and, Manisha Sinha’s The Slave’s Cause: A History of Abolition (2016). Like these, Carter Jackson places African Americans centrally as agentive in shaping the United States in the mid-nineteenth century. Moreover, her book serves as a kind of prequel to histories of armed resistance during the civil rights era, including Charles Cobb, Jr.’s This Nonviolence Stuff Will Get You Killed: How Guns Made the Civil Rights Movement Possible (2014), Lance Hill’s The Deacons of the Defense: Armed Resistance and the Civil Rights Movement (1964), and Akinyele Omowale Umoja’s We Will Shoot Back: Armed Resistance in the Mississippi Freedom Movement (2013). These works vividly describe how armed self-defense was used in discrete locales in Alabama, Louisiana, and Mississippi to advance democratic freedoms, in a militaristic forerunning of Oakland’s Black Panther Party.
What sets Carter Jackson’s book apart as both unique and challenging is her focus on how nineteenth-century black women and men specifically used and thought about political violence as a tool in defense of themselves. In this way, Carter Jackson shows how they—with varying degrees of fretfulness—muddled distinctions between small acts of private armed self-defense and more expressly political forms of violence. Her book therefore helps us to also better understand historical continuities between black perspectives on revolutionary violence in the early Republic and the era of civil rights.
Long before the National Rifle Association (NRA) came in to being, Americans of African descent understood the need for arms to protect themselves. They lived in a slaveholding society where escapees and free people were daily jeopardized by slavery’s federal statutory enforcements. The original Fugitive Slave Clause of the Constitution (Art. IV, § 2) stated:
No person held to service or labour in one state, under the laws thereof, escaping into another, shall, in consequence of any law or regulation therein, be discharged from such service or labor, but shall be delivered up on claim of the party to whom such service or labour may be due.
This clause in practice deprived alleged runaways of anything like due process. It placed bounties on the heads of fugitives and was frequently a justification for the kidnapping of the freeborn and manumitted. Thus, while the Constitution ostensibly protected individual liberties, it also codified the coercive force necessary to keep enslavement intact. This is why abolitionist William Lloyd Garrison vehemently charged that the Constitution was “the source and parent of all the other atrocities—‘a covenant with death, and an agreement with hell.’”
It would of course eventually take violence to terminate this “covenant with death”—indeed, the deaths of over half a million Americans. All subsequent generations have sought to better understand the precise course that led to the Civil War, and for much of that time, the perspectives of whites on both sides, including white abolitionists such as Garrison, have dominated historical inquiry. Until quite recently, very little had been written about how black communities, enslaved, manumitted, and freeborn, thought about the politics of violence. Just what did autonomy and political freedoms mean to them? How precious was it to protect? How did their communities actively defy the laws that protected slavery?
Force and Freedom dives into the debates among disparate communities of free and enslaved people about when and how to use political violence. Contrary to Kanye West’s bizarre notion that slavery was “a choice,” blacks frequently fought their enslavement by whatever means available to them, including arms, and theorized openly about the salutary nature of political violence. Carter Jackson begins with freeborn abolitionist David Walker’s 1829 publication of his Appeal. The Appeal was a riotous Molotov cocktail. It radically called for slavery’s destruction. Walker’s flammable prose set planters on edge:
The whites want slaves, and want us for their slaves, but some of them will curse the day they ever saw us. As true as the sun ever shone in its meridian splendor, my colour will root some of them out of the very face of the earth. They shall have enough of making slaves of, and butchering, and murdering us in the manner which they have.
Two year after Walker published his clarion call for violent self-manumission, a version of it was attempted by the men and women who organized alongside Nat Turner in South Hampton County, Virginia. Turner’s band attempted to annihilate slaveowners and with them enslavement itself. Turner and Walker were both inspired by Haiti’s success with the violent and complete eradication of enslavement.
Following in the footsteps of Eugene Genovese’s influential Roll, Jordan, Roll: The World the Slaves Made (1974), Carter Jackson offers further evidence that there was never such a thing as a negotiated acquiescence among U.S. slaves to the condition of their enslavement. But whereas Genovese argued that the numerical size of the enslaved population in the United States limited mass rebellions, Carter Jackson demonstrates that the U.S. freeborn population continuously fostered armed rebellion and that political violence was always a widespread topic of conversation among both enslaved and free blacks. And she connects armed actions, debates, and public conversations together to demonstrate a growing collective radicalism among black abolitionists.
Between 1830 and the start of the Civil War, freeborn blacks and former slaves collectively asserted their political freedoms in increasingly direct and forceful ways. By then, black abolitionist had arrived at a loose consensus that slavery’s systemic violence would require systemic retaliatory violence if it were to be destroyed. In other words, Carter Jackson shows that when and how to use political violence—rather than if—was the persistent topic of debate, and the answer was always a moving target, with varied opinions among abolitionists. Abolitionists of all stripes faced dangers, but black abolitionists faced more dangers. So they debated questions such as: What were the relative political advantages of various ways of deploying violence? When was the time to skirt an escapee across the Canadian border, when to raid a jail to rescue a fugitive, and when to have a shootout with slavecatchers?
A missing component in Force and Freedom is the religious context for abolitionists’ discussion of both moral suasion and armed violence. Many of the black abolitionists discussed by Carter Jackson based their ideas upon their black Protestantism. We must take seriously, for example, Frederick Douglass’s foray into becoming Methodist clergy, as well as Frances Ellen Watkins Harper’s and Harriet Tubman’s spiritual motivations for freedom. Though she writes of Henry Highland Garnet’s “Call to Rebellion” speech at the 1843 Negro Convention, Carter Jackson does not mention his “unflinching Calvinist ethics” that framed his understanding of human liberty. My point, borrowing from an unpublished paper by historian James Bratt on Garnet’s ethic of self-defense, is that there were many ways that political violence was understood by abolitionists, and religion influenced them all. My criticism here is aimed less at Carter Jackson than at U.S. cultural studies in general, which tends to insufficiently explore how religion illuminates African American history. In this case, religion motivated some people to armed insurrection—included Nat Turner—even as it informed broader conversations about whether political violence was justifiable, and, if so, when. Radical white abolitionist John Brown’s last words during his 1859 sentencing for trying to capture the federal Armory at Harpers Ferry, Virginia, testifies to the religiosity that prevailed:
This court acknowledges, as I suppose, the validity of the law of God. I see a book kissed here which I suppose to be the Bible, or at least the New Testament. That teaches me that all things whatsoever I would that men should do to me, I should do even so to them. It teaches me, further, to ‘remember them that are in bonds, as bound with them.’ I endeavored to act up to that instruction. I say, I am yet too young to understand that God is any respecter of persons. I believe that to have interfered as I have done as I have always freely admitted I have done in behalf of His despised poor, was not wrong, but right. Now, if it is deemed necessary that I should forfeit my life for the furtherance of the ends of justice, and mingle my blood further with the blood of my children and with the blood of millions in this slave country whose rights are disregarded by wicked, cruel, and unjust enactments, I submit; so let it be done!
Force and Freedom would have also been enriched by a sustained engagement with Cedric J. Robinson’s argument, in Black Movements in America (1997), that freedom meant slightly different things among those who were enslaved and those who had been born free. For Robinson, this meant that views about the aims of force could be sorted into class tiers: a privileged one—mainly what is covered in Carter Jackson’s history—which aimed for a use of violence that would perfect rather than abolish the existing order; and one held among the masses, who saw little worth preserving and hoped for the violence of a cleansing flood. Whether or not Robinson was absolutely right in his assessment is a matter of debate, but he was correct that the sometimes-uneasy dialogue between the freeborn and the enslaved shaped the terrain upon which the black politics of the Civil War and post-Emancipation eras have played out.
Nonetheless, Carter Jackson’s rich history stands as evidence that, whatever differences of opinion existed between freeborn and enslaved blacks, their views were more similar to each other’s than they were to those of even many abolitionist whites. John Brown notwithstanding, as W. E. B. DuBois noted in Black Reconstruction in America (1935), most whites—including abolitionists—were terrified of the idea of armed African Americans:
Arms in the hands of the Negro aroused fear both North and South. . . . But, it was the silent verdict of all America that Negroes must not be allowed to fight for themselves. They were, therefore, dissuaded from every attempt at self-protection or aggression by their friends as well as their enemies.
And that has largely remained the case, as Robert F. Williams noted in 1962 in Negroes with Guns:
When people say that they are opposed to Negroes ‘resorting to violence’ what they really mean is that they are opposed to Negroes defending themselves and challenging the exclusive monopoly of violence practiced by white racists.
This is perhaps most dramatically embodied by the NRA’s persistent silence on the issue of black gun ownership. Williams directly challenged the Southern Christian Leadership Conference (SCLC) and Congress on Racial Equality’s reliance on nonviolent protest as, in effect, a form of false consciousness. And set within this genealogy, it becomes clear that Malcolm X’s speeches on armed self-defense were not an aberration, but in keeping with a long tradition.
In James McBride’s 2013 National Book Award–winning novel The Good Lord Bird, Onion, the chief protagonist, offers this observation of John Brown:
He knowed what he wanted to do. But as to the exactness of it—and I knowed many has studied it and declared this and that and the other on the subject—Old John Brown didn’t know exactly what he was gonna do from sunup to sundown on the slavery question.
I draw this quote in to return to the point that there is a fundamental difference between acts of armed self-defense and revolutionary violence to overthrow a state. Here a distinction must be made—and although black radical abolitionists were not always fully transparent about the distinction in their public writing and speaking, they were certainly attentive to it in private. John Brown’s plan to capture the arsenal at Harpers Ferry would have come nowhere close to hobbling the U.S. government; he would have needed to control the mass manufacturing of weapons. This is why black abolitionists he attempted to recruit, including Frederick Douglass, were so cautious about his plan. They feared, with varying degrees of consternation, that attacking the state might bring even more hell into their lives. Small acts of armed resistance in the cause of freedom were one thing, full-scale war was another.
Brown’s raid, however, anticipated—and likely sped—the nation’s unraveling over enslavement. The dam, which black abolitionists had steadily tried to crack, finally broke. And when it burst, 600,000 people lay dead. Carter Jackson’s book does not consider this question of scale and cost, but it is one that we as democratic denizens must always keep in mind as we critically think through the levels of armed resistance we are willing to engage in freedom’s name.
Randal Maurice Jelks is an awarding winning Professor of American Studies and African and African American Studies at the University of Kansas. His most recent book is Faith and Struggle in the Lives of Four African Americans: Ethel Waters, Mary Lou Williams, Eldridge Cleaver, and Muhammad Ali. This piece has been republished here with permission.