Protective Use of Force: Self-Defence and Counter-Violence, Part One

Featured image: RCMP in riot gear during raid on anti-fracking blockade, Mi’qmak territory, Oct 17, 2013.  From Warrior Publications.

This is the twenty-first installment in a multi-part series. Browse the Protective Use of Force index to read more.

via Deep Green Resistance UK

The destruction of our world isn’t an “environmental crisis,” nor a “climate crisis.” It’s a war waged by industrial civilisaton and capitalism against life on earth–all life–and we need a resistance movement with that analysis to respond.

I spent years as a liberal environmentalist, believing the propaganda from the state and the mainstream environmental movement that change will come about through top down solutions and technology fixes. Well, look where that’s got us – increasing destruction of the biosphere, accelerating species extinction and repeated failures of climate negotiations that are sold as successes.

When I finally understood that this approach wasn’t going to work, I got involved with the UK climate movement, but was unconvinced of their strategy and tactics. I respected the work being done but it looked hopeless considering the scale of the problems and the system causing them. In 2012, I read the Deep Green Resistance book. The book proposed a resistance movement forcing a crash of industrial civilisation and ending ecocide that made far more sense to me than anything else being offered. A strategy that is appropriate to the scale of the problem.

I see this response as self defence, or counter-violence. What is counter-violence? Frantz Fanon in The Wretched of the Earth coined the term to mean the violent, proportional response by colonised people to the coloniser’s violent repression. It has since been used more generally to refer to by any group’s use of force in response to state violence. [1]

Other terms for this response might be ”protective use of force,” “holistic self-defence” [2] or “defensive violence.” I find these ideas a relevant and useful way to frame how to respond to the destruction being inflicted on our world by industrial civilisation.

Self-defence actually discourages aggression and is a much better principle to use as a starting point than nonviolence. The definition of self-defence, agreed after thousands of years of experimentation, is that you can use the necessary amount of force to end an attack. Self-defence is a right and duty; a community that does not defend itself against aggression encourages further aggression. If aggressors are willing to kill or hurt anyone who gets in their way when taking what they want, there is little that those that practice nonviolence can do.

Most resistance movements in history have resorted to the use of force in response to the violence directed against them. They are simply defending themselves against violence by governments or the state. Mike Ryan articulates this well: “We accept the necessity of armed struggle in the Third World because the level of oppression leaves people with no other reasonable option. We recognize that the actions of Third World revolutionaries are not aggressive acts of violence, but a last line of defense and the only option for liberation in a situation of totally violent oppression.” [3]

So if freedom fighters in less industrialised countries are considered justified by many in using force against oppression, then why not in the industrialised world? Why not sabotage industrial infrastructure, if it amounts to self-defence? Perhaps because our conditioning to not act is too strong–we are too comfortable and have too much to lose. And therefore our collective inaction admits our participation in the oppression of other people.

When thinking about self-defence, we first need to be clear on what we mean by violence: Is fracking, deforestation, the damming of rivers, factory farming and the trawling of oceans violence? We also need to ask if non-humans who use force to protect their habitat, pack or family are violent? Your answers to this questions will affect if you think humans acting in self defence of their home or people are justified. [4]

Self-defence is a right we must reserve for ourselves. It we do not, then we invite violence attacks on ourselves, our families and our communities. Self-defence is the only thing that keeps violent institutions in check. It must also be combined with genuine solidarity with all non-human and humans under attack.

Assata Shakur, founding member of the Black Liberation Army and former Black Panther, clearly understood the need to fight back against the FBI and police who were killing black liberation leaders and activists. [5] Following the shooting of two New York police officers she said: “I felt sorry for their families, sorry for their children, but I was relieved to see that somebody else besides black folks and Puerto Ricans and Chicanos were being shot at.” [6]

The US communist Angela Davis describes how any revolutionary movement focuses on the principles and goals it is aiming to achieve, not the way they are reached. She described how society’s systemic or structural violence is on the surface everywhere, so is going to lead to violent events.

The former Black Panther Kathleen Neal Cleaver describes how the systematic violence against people of colour in the form of bad housing, unemployment, rotten education, unfair treatment in the courts–as well as direct violence from the police–led to the Black Panther Party forming to defend themselves.

I feel a deep sadness for what is happening to living beings and the natural world. I have been so well trained and conditioned by this culture that I struggle to really feel angry about what is happening. I think feeling angry is the appropriate response. We need to stop being so polite and positive, and connect with our anger about the destruction that is taking place. People alive now will be measured by those that come after by the health of what’s left of their landbases. [7] What matters is being effective, not moral purity about using only nonviolent tactics. We need a new Three R’s; instead of Reduce, Reuse, Recycle, they should be Resist, Revolt, Rewild. [8]

The two main arguments against using force or violence are that it is morally wrong and ineffective. The moral question needs to be reframed. Instead of judging if an act of force in an isolated situation is justified, we need to ask what actions are necessary to ensure the least amount of suffering to living beings overall. This means seeing ourselves as connected and as part of nature, and then acting in defence of life. To quote Mark Boyle: “We need to defend the Earth with the same ferocity we would evoke if it were our home, because it is. We need to defend its inhabitants with the same passion as if they were our family members, because they are. We need to defend our lands, communities and cultures as if our lives depended on it, because they do.” [9]

There isn’t any one strategy or tactic that is necessarily more effective than another. It depends on the circumstances. Those that advocate the use of force certainly don’t argue that it’s a more effective tactic and that nonviolence should never be practiced. [10] To think that violence is not effective is deluded.  Clearly violence is effective because that is what the state uses. Of course, the ends achieved through undesirable means may not themselves be desirable. Also most revolutionary and decolonisation struggles have involved nonviolent and counter-violence movements working in tandem. [11]

Bowser writes:

There is a very simple activity you can do to examine your own relationship with nihilism and resistance. Picture somebody you love deeply…Next, picture that person being viciously beaten to death by a gang of heavily armed policemen and soldiers…who are virtually undefeatable. What would you do?

The voice of nihilism, the cry of fears says, “It’s hopeless, you could never stop the beating, they all have guns and weapons and you only have your fists. Besides stopping the beating is illegal, and you don’t want to break the law, do you? Just stand there, try not to look, and be grateful that it isn’t you.”

The voice of resistance, the cry of love, says “I don’t care what the odds are or who says what is illegal, I have to do everything in my power to fight to defend what I love. I must spend all my energy and effort attempting to stop this horrible thing, even if it’s the last thing I do. I must fight to resist this atrocity, or I am not worthy of this person’s love.” [12]

I think that most would fight to defend their love ones, although some may be too damaged by this culture to do this. Ultimately we need to ask “What do you love and what are you willing to fight for?” 

This exercise also brings up an important point about legitimate and illegitimate use of force or violence. The state likes to pretend that its use of violence is legitimate against foreign states, “terrorists,” or its own citizens. But in fact there are no legitimate governments in existence in the world. They all exist because they or their predecessors conquered an area and now dominate it with the use of, or threat of the use of, violence.  “Government” by its very nature isn’t legitimate. It exists to concentrate wealth for the few at the expense of the many. We need to look to indigenous people to see how people can be organised in a legitimate way–small human-scale groups (about 100 people), where they choose their own leaders, have a council or elders and are committed to living in balance with their landbase.

Indigenous societies would not understand the modern legalistic view of “violence” or the state’s exclusive claim on violence. Violence (or the use of force) is something that has been taken from us and it is something we need to take back. [13]

Sakej Ward is Mi’kmaw (Mi’kmaq Nation) from the community of Esgenoopetitj (Burnt Church First Nation, New Brunswick). He speaks regularly on the resurgence of Indigenous Warrior Societies which act in defence of the land. On the topic of violence he explains that when you have an empire, you need a monopoly on the legitimate use of violence. If citizens act in self defence, the state will classify this as illegal violence. The state will use violence and consider this a legitimate idea of the rule of law. He believes it’s very important to reject the imperialist notions of this monopoly on violence, that we should all be able to say “I can defend myself.”

This is the twenty-first installment in a multi-part series. Browse the Protective Use of Force index to read more.

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  1. See Chris Hedges’ recent article
  2. Drinking Molotov Cocktails with Gandhi, Mark Boyle, 2015, page 6
  3. Pacifism as Pathology, Ward Churchill, page 1998, page 147
  4. Drinking Molotov Cocktails with Gandhi, page 31-2
  5. Assata: An Autobiography, Assata Shakur, 1987, page 349
  6. Assata: An Autobiography, page 339
  7. Endgame Volume 2: Resistance, Derrick Jensen, 2006, page 731
  8. Drinking Molotov Cocktails with Gandhi, page 23
  9. Drinking Molotov Cocktails with Gandhi, page 127
  10. How Nonviolence Protects the State, Peter Gelderloos, 2007, page 6, read online
  11. Pacifism as Pathology, page 89-91 and The Wretched of the Earth, Frantz Fanon, 1961, page 27-29
  12. Elements of Resistance: Violence, Nonviolence, and the State, Jeriah Bowser, 2015, page 33, read online
  13. Introduction to Civil War in journal Tiqqun, pages 34 and 46, read online

To repost this or other DGR original writings, please contact

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