Ordinary statecraft involves the application of violence, particularly through the police, the national security agencies and the prison system. This is considered legitimate violence when done in accordance with established law. This is the "state monopoly on violence" that is used to mark the difference between functioning national governments and "failed states." André Munro calls it "the concept that the state alone has the right to use or authorize the use of physical force. It is widely regarded as a defining characteristic of the modern state." (State monopoly on violence Britannica Online; accessed 08/23/2017)
Use of the police power is a general attribute of modern states and is usually not seen as political violence. But since political decisions involving class and other group conflicts set the legal parameters of legitimacy, there is something political even about legitimate state violence. Black activists in the United States have often argued that many if not all black prisoners were in a real sense political prisoners because of the ways in which the political system has excluded them from substantive contribution to political decision-making and because of racially biased policing. But since not only Democrats or Republicans but presumably nearly all splinter parties in the US would be in favor of banning armed robbery, police coercion in arresting an armed robber is not commonly regarded as political violence.
Political violence in the usual sense of using violence of some kind to achieve partisan or policy goals has been some part of American life since the beginning. The American Revolution was certainly an act of political violence, as were the Whiskey Rebellion, slave revolts, the localized civil war in "Bleeding Kansas, John Brown's raid on Harper's Ferry, the Confederate rebellion. The resistance to Reconstruction democracy in the South commonly involved violence as did the post-Reconstruction segregationist Jim Crow regimes. Sometimes the violence was superficially legitimate in that it enforced discriminatory laws aimed at African-American citizens. Sometimes it was law enforcement acting with de facto approval from their superiors in taking illegal action. Organized terrorist groups like the Ku Klux Klan were certainly part of the violence, as were mobs incited by public officials like the one in the Ole Miss (University of Mississippi) riot over integration in 1963.
There was also plenty of violence applied against labor organizers over the years, certainly not all of it "legitimate." (FYI, that's meant to be an obvious understatement!)
Political Violence After the Second World War
Unofficial political violence in the US - violence not undertaken by organs of the state - has been largely a monopoly of the Radical Right for decades. Not entirely, of course. Urban riots in the 1960s, political in at least a general sense, were widely perceived as acts by black people on the left. Unlike the largest urban riot in American history, the New York Draft Riot of 1863 which manifested overt pro-slavery, pro-Confederate and anti-black racist aims.
And some organized lelft groups undertook violent actions with political motivations in the 1960s and 1970s, of which the Weather Underground, the Black Guerrilla Army and the bizarre Symbionese Liberation Army are some of the best know. The Black Panthers advocated "armed struggle," though in theory and largely in practice they emphasized their right to exercise defensive violence against abusive authorities. The Black Panther Party's 10-point program of 1966 included, "We believe we can end police brutality in our Black community by organizing Black self-defense groups that are dedicated to defending our Black community from racist police oppression and brutality. The Second Amendment to the Constitution of the United States gives a right to bear arms. We therefore believe that all Black people should arm themselves for self-defense."
Given the success of the firearms lobby in loosening gun laws in recent years and in enacting "stand-your-ground" laws that make it easier for people to legally get away with murder, and the way in which gun proliferation advocates emphatically argue that people in the US in the present day need to keep firearms to defend themselves against tyrannical government, it may seem weird that during the 1940s and 1950s, people associated with the American Communist Party were arrested, prosecuted, deported and imprisoned for advocating the overthrow of the US government by "force and violence."
Actually, the US Communist Party of that period, like the German Social Democratic Party supported by Karl Marx and Frederick Engels during their lifetimes, advocated taking power via electoral means with the determination to use legitimate government police power to suppress any attempt at a violent revolution against any such duly elected left government. A series of Supreme Court decisions related to such cases drew clear distinctions between talking about the violent overthrow of the government in the abstract and advocating and preparing for immediate action toward that end, including Schneiderman v. United States (1943), Yates v. United States (1957), and Noto v. United States (1961).
Do I even need to mention that the evidence against the defendants in those cases was far less serious than what the Bundy Ranch crowd did in 2014? (Julie Turkenwitz, No Guilty Verdicts in Bundy Ranch Standoff Trial New York Times 08/22/2017)
The question of political violence and "armed struggle" was heavily influenced in the 1960s by the dispute between the Soviet Union and China over the national liberation movements of the time. The Second World War was followed not only by the victory of Mao Zedong's Communists in China but massive decolonization in Asia and Africa. The independence movement in India and the successful violent revolt in Algeria against French control made a huge impression on European publics. The USSR and China had a major division in the late 1950s over various issues, not the least of them Mao's seeming indifference to the idea of a nuclear third world war. The two powers vied for influence among the emerging independent nations and among insurgent movements, with Vietnam being the most significant because of the US military intervention there.
One upshot of this was that Mao and his partisans insisted that "armed struggle" was always necessary to establish the goal of socialism, while the Soviets stressed that a "peaceful transition to socialism" was possible and desirable in many places. In Latin America, the example of Cuba and the advocacy by Che Guevara for "one, two, many Vietnams" had a great deal of influence. Juan Perón encouraged a broad-based political resistance in Argentina, which included but was by no means limited to sabotage and guerrilla resistance. On the radical left in Western countries, that larger world environment heavily influenced the way in which political conflict was discussed. So a lot of elaborate arguments over the role of violence in politics were elaborated on the left. And while Western conservatives tried to use law-and-order rhetoric and policies in response to domestic unrest and guerrilla violence in other countries, the center-left walked a line between supporting reform and decolonization, on the one hand, and opposing social violence, on the other. In the United States, the Democratic Party was particularly split over the American Cold War policy of active counterrevolution in Vietnam and elsewhere (Brazil, Chile, Argentina, the Dominican Republic, Indonesia, etc.)
The violent Radical Right in the US in Recent Decades
The Patriot Militia movement of the 1990s was a significant development on the violent right. The Oklahoma City bombing of 1995 dramatically demonstrated how deadly the Radical Right could be in the United States. Bill Clinton's speech commemorating the dead in that attack is widely considered one of his finest moments as President. He delivered a message that aimed at comforting the victims and their families but also sought to deligitimize the far right cause as destructive and godless and something that should be taken seriously (Remarks at a Memorial Service for the Bombing Victims in Oklahoma City, Oklahoma 04/23/1995):
To all my fellow Americans beyond this hall, I say, one thing we owe those who have sacrificed is the duty to purge ourselves of the dark forces which gave rise to this evil. They are forces that threaten our common peace, our freedom, our way of life. Let us teach our children that the God of comfort is also the God of righteousness: Those who trouble their own house will inherit the wind. Justice will prevail.Deborah Lauter and Mark Pitcavage recall the federal response in the following years in a 2015 retrospective (Homegrown extremist threat remains 20 years after Oklahoma City bombing CNN 04/19/2015):
Let us let our own children know that we will stand against the forces of fear. When there is talk of hatred, let us stand up and talk against it. When there is talk of violence, let us stand up and talk against it. In the face of death, let us honor life. As St. Paul admonished us, Let us "not be overcome by evil, but overcome evil with good."
Yesterday, Hillary and I had the privilege of speaking with some children of other federal employees -- children like those who were lost here. And one little girl said something we will never forget. She said, "We should all plant a tree in memory of the children." So this morning before we got on the plane to come here, at the White House, we planted that tree in honor of the children of Oklahoma. It was a dogwood with its wonderful spring flower and its deep, enduring roots. It embodies the lesson of the Psalms -- that the life of a good person is like a tree whose leaf does not wither.
The attack's aftermath saw a storm of media coverage with themes such as "attack on the heartland" and America's "lost innocence." In fact, the bombing took the country by surprise. It wasn't simply the scale of the tragedy that drew attention, but the fact that the bombing exposed something new: American citizens targeting their own government with a deadliness hitherto unseen.When it comes to domestic terrorism, federal officials have too often been blind in the right eye.
The public became aware of the true danger of the extreme right. Reports connected McVeigh and his accomplice Terry Nichols to anti-government ideology movements, such as the militia movement, as well as to white supremacist causes.
Law enforcement also played catchup. The Federal Bureau of Investigation's 1994 annual report on terrorism had given short shrift to the extreme right. Its coverage of domestic terrorism focused on the activities of Puerto Rican radicals and animal rights and environmental extremists.
In contrast, the report spent only a paragraph describing the threat from right-wing extremists. It ignored the rapidly growing militia and sovereign citizen movements ...
After Oklahoma City, everything changed. The FBI shifted its priorities, hiring new agents and reassigning staff to work on domestic terrorism cases. It significantly expanded the number of Joint Terrorism Task Forces and went to Congress with a lengthy "want" list.Since the 9/11 attacks in 2001 and with the wars in Afghanistan, Iraq, Libya, Syria, and Yemen, Muslim terrorism has become a bigger concern compared more secular ideological ones. But in the US, domestic far-right terrorists have been more responsible for more terror attacks than Muslim extremists since 2001. We should be careful about the distinctions we're making, though. Muslim extremist terrorist are generally hard right theocrats in their politics. And many American far-right groups are heavily influenced by radical right Christian ideas, often stemming in some way from the Christian Identity movement.
The effort actually paid off. Increased scrutiny of right-wing extremists resulted in a flurry of arrests for everything from terrorist plots to hate crimes. Though it had paid a high price to do so, it seemed that the United States had recognized the dangers that right-wing extremists posed.
Daryl Johnson was with the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives (ATF) when Obama became President. He was warning then about the growing danger of far-right terrorism, as he describes in I warned of right-wing violence in 2009. Republicans objected. I was right. Washington Post 08/21/2017:
Eight years ago, I warned of a singular threat — the resurgence of right-wing extremist activity and associated violence in the United States as a result of the 2008 presidential election, the financial crisis and the stock market crash. My intelligence report, meant only for law enforcement, was leaked by conservative media.Johnson also appeared in a Netroots Nation panel earlier this month which Dave Neiwert organized: The White Face of Domestic Terrorism: How Islamophobia Distorts the Reality of Terrorist Violence in America 08/12/2017 (scroll down to locate at the link). He expands on the subject and recent developments in that talk. As it happened, this panel started a few minutes after the news broke about the fatal attack that killed Heather Heyer in Charlottesville.
A political backlash ensued because of an objection to the label “right-wing extremism.” The report also rightly pointed out that returning military veterans may be targeted for recruitment by extremists. Republican lawmakers demanded then-Homeland Security Secretary Janet Napolitano rescind my report. The American Legion formally requested an apology to veterans. Some in Congress called for me to be fired. Amid the turmoil, my warning went unheeded by Republicans and Democrats. Unfortunately, the Department of Homeland Security caved to the political pressure: Work related to violent right-wing extremism was halted. Law enforcement training also stopped. My unit was disbanded. And, one-by-one, my team of analysts left for other employment. By 2010, there were no intelligence analysts at DHS working domestic terrorism threats. [internal links from original not included]
Both Sides Do It?
With Trump and his loyal followers now holding up the "antifa" protesters as justification for far right violence, it was inevitable that we would start to see more media coverage of them. "Antifa" is a word taken from German, a short form of "anti-fascist." German and Austrian protesters against the far right have been known by that name for years. The name is used as a generic term. It's not a reference to any party or any particular political program or ideology other than activist opposition to the far right. Though Trump in his Phoenix campaign speech Tuesday used it in a way that may soon become another Republican cuss word for Mean Libruls. Cenk Uygur notes just after 3:20 that Trump used "An-TI-fa" as a carnival barker type call (Trumpamania Running Wild In Phoenix, Brotherrr! The Young Turks 08/23/2017):
Michael Shure and Nomiki Konst in that segment also note that Trump's supporters listening to the speech were probably not familiar with the term "antifa" yet. Which is why it could now morph into another Republican version of Mean Libruls.
Before we get into Republican and liberal-concern-troll versions, it's worth taking a look at Dahlia Lithwick's column in which she quotes participants in the pro-democracy counter-protests in Charlottesville describing how some protesters defended others from attacks by the white supremacist/KKK/Nazi goons, Yes, What About the “Alt-Left”? Slate 08/16/2017. One Charlottesville resident relates:
I stood with a group of interfaith clergy and other people of faith in a nonviolent direct action meant to keep the white nationalists from entering the park to their hate rally. We had far fewer people holding the line than we had hoped for, and frankly, it wasn’t enough. No police officers in sight (that I could see from where I stood), and we were prepared to be beaten to a bloody pulp to show that while the state permitted white nationalists to rally in hate, in the many names of God, we did not. But we didn’t have to because the anarchists and anti-fascists got to them before they could get to us. I’ve never felt more grateful and more ashamed at the same time. The antifa were like angels to me in that moment.A minister gives this description:
Out of my faith calling, I feel led to pursue disciplined, nonviolent direct action and witness. I helped lead a group of clergy who were trained and committed to the same work: to hold space on the frontline of the park where the rally was to be held. And then some of us tried to take the steps to one of the entrances. God is not OK with white supremacy, and God is on the side of all those it tries to dehumanize. We feel a responsibility to visibly, bodily show our solidarity with the oppressed and marginalized.It's helpful to look at accounts like these of the particulars in the protest events. They involve specific decisions about risks and assessments of danger in a given moment. Organizers have a responsibility to be clear with participants about known risks, especially in cases like those the minister describes in which violence against the participants is anticipated. The same is true of "antifa" groups who plan to defend other protesters against violence from armed militants. That risks includes the reality that police and prosecutors often are "blind in the right eye" in such situations and may accuse them of crimes for even purely defensive actions.
A phalanx of neo-Nazis shoved right through our human wall with 3-foot-wide wooden shields, screaming and spitting homophobic slurs and obscenities at us. It was then that antifa stepped in to thwart them. They have their tools to achieve their purposes, and they are not ones I will personally use, but let me stress that our purposes were the same: block this violent tide and do not let it take the pedestal.
The white supremacists did not blink at violently plowing right through clergy, all of us dressed in full clerical garb. White supremacy is violence. I didn’t see any racial justice protesters with weapons; as for antifa, anything they brought I would only categorize as community defense tools and nothing more. Pretty much everyone I talk to agrees—including most clergy. My strong stance is that the weapon is and was white supremacy, and the white supremacists intentionally brought weapons to instigate violence.
It's important to remember that there's nothing wrong with protecting someone against acts of violence. And there's nothing wrong with defending oneself from a violent attack. The kind of Ghandian militant pacifist resistance described by the minister is a particular kind of strategy in given situations. Taking such an approach may not involve a purely pacifist outlook. And even the few people who are genuine pacifists would generally not consider personal self-defense in the face of a violent attack to be wrong in all circumstances.
It's also a well-established tradition on the center-left to take any and all opportunities to distinguish themselves from the dirty hippies who actually organize and demonstrate for progressive causes and against reactionary ones. Good liberals are supposed to be polite and not ruffle too many feathers. It was such liberals that Martin Luther King, Jr. addressed in his Letter From Birmingham Jail.
Which brings us to Peter Beinart's The Rise of the Violent Left The Atlantic Sept 2017; accessed 08/23/2017:
Those responses sometimes spill blood. Since antifa is heavily composed of anarchists, its activists place little faith in the state, which they consider complicit in fascism and racism. They prefer direct action: They pressure venues to deny white supremacists space to meet. They pressure employers to fire them and landlords to evict them. And when people they deem racists and fascists manage to assemble, antifa’s partisans try to break up their gatherings, including by force.Yes, even-the-liberal Peter Beinart agrees with Trump that "antifa" is a danger to good Christian white folks!
Such tactics have elicited substantial support from the mainstream left. When the masked antifa activist was filmed assaulting Spencer on Inauguration Day, another piece in The Nation described his punch as an act of “kinetic beauty.” Slate ran an approving article about a humorous piano ballad that glorified the assault. Twitter was inundated with viral versions of the video set to different songs, prompting the former Obama speechwriter Jon Favreau to tweet, “I don’t care how many different songs you set Richard Spencer being punched to, I’ll laugh at every one.”
The violence is not directed only at avowed racists like Spencer: In June of last year, demonstrators—at least some of whom were associated with antifa—punched and threw eggs at people exiting a Trump rally in San Jose, California. An article in It’s Going Down celebrated the “righteous beatings.”
Anarchists are know for being an unruly bunch, though stereotyping them as particularly inclined to violence would be unrealistic and unfair. And the press is known for carelessly labeling people "anarchists" who may not identify themselves that way at all. That said, I've never had a particularly high regard for the group (or groups) of anarchists who show up in the San Francisco Bay Area to protests wearing black masks and displaying a penchant for fighting, throwing rocks through windows and minor arson. As I recall, I first noticed them in Oakland during some protest during the oughts. They didn't seem to have any distinct or coherent message. And one of my first thoughts was, masked people who show up out of nowhere to commit vandalism during protests: a perfect vehicle for official and unofficial provocateurs. A group like that strikes me an extremely likely target for police or homeland security agents seeking to entrap people in "terrorist" plots.
But nothing is safer for pundits and liberal concern-trolls than "both sides do it!" And Beinart happily goes there:
A similar cycle has played out at UC Berkeley. In February, masked antifascists broke store windows and hurled Molotov cocktails and rocks at police during a rally against the planned speech by Yiannopoulos. After the university canceled the speech out of what it called “concern for public safety,” white nationalists announced a “March on Berkeley” in support of “free speech.” At that rally, a 41-year-old man named Kyle Chapman, who was wearing a baseball helmet, ski goggles, shin guards, and a mask, smashed an antifa activist over the head with a wooden post. Suddenly, Trump supporters had a viral video of their own. A far-right crowdfunding site soon raised more than $80,000 for Chapman’s legal defense. (In January, the same site had offered a substantial reward for the identity of the antifascist who had punched Spencer.) A politicized fight culture is emerging, fueled by cheerleaders on both sides. [my emphasis]Yes, who can argue with that? On one side, we have white supremacist militants being actively encouraged and incited by the President of the United States. On the other, there are some masked anarchists with zero actual political influence. Both Sides Do It!
I won't try to fact-check all the claims in Beinart's piece. I'll just note here that he doesn't always make it clear just who is doing the violence in incidents for which he blames antifa.
I don't want to encourage people to break windows just for the heck of it. But it's probably time to recall the discussion in "the Sixties" in the US and Germany and presumably other places as well about the difference between "violence against things" and "violence against people." Yes, it's very rude, against the law and probably unnecessary in nearly all cases to toss a rock through the window of a Walgreens. But neither the law nor any sane system of values considers breaking a store window as morally or practically equivalent to deliberately ramming a group of people with a car. The latter, we should note, being a practice that Republicans in several state legislatures are attempting to decriminalize.
The editorial board of the Wall Street Journal got into the act earlier in August with A Berkeley ‘Escape Hatch’ 08/09/2017 with a snotty editorial about UC-Berkeley not taking a more law-and-order approach toward protesters. That was one of St. Reagan's favorite themes in his successful first campaign for California Governor in 1966.
Michelle Goldberg takes a more sober approach to reporting on what the antifa movement is all about The Public Face of Antifa Slate 08/22/2017:
After the riot in Charlottesville ... antifa is suddenly making headlines. The term antifa refers to a loose network of militant left-wing activists who physically square off against the far right, and often try to prevent those they deem fascists from speaking publicly. Antifa is sometimes used as a synonym for black bloc anarchists — the scruffy kids in black bandanas or balaclavas known for smashing Starbucks windows — but while the movements overlap, they’re not identical. ... The movement appears to be growing rapidly under Trump, though it’s impossible to put hard numbers to it; there are no membership rolls.Michelle's article is a good overview that tries to deal seriously with the practical situation presented by aggressive white supremacist demonstrations. I'm impressed that she avoids any kind of simplistic "both sides do it" false equivalence. She's not doing the kind of liberal concern-troll criticism that Peter Beinart presents.
Speaking of which, Adam Johnson has a report on how Centrist Pundits Paved Way for Trump’s ‘Alt-Left’ False Equivalence FAIR 08/16/2017
In a pre-Charlottesville piece, Cecilia Saixue Watt reports on a small armed left group without getting mired in both-sides-do-it cliches, The Redneck Revolt: the armed leftwing group that wants to stamp out fascism Guardian 07/11/2017.