Violence, structural and interpersonal

by Eric Ginsburg

As anyone who follows the news regularly knows, the world is inundated with violence, so much so that my mother avoids the news; it’s too depressing. But the violence runs deeper than the continuing upheavals in Syria, Yemen and Egypt, or at UC Davis. where students were pepper-sprayed by police. It’s systematic as well.

Of course violence is systematic. After all, our nation is at war and has an enormous military industrial complex. But the violence runs far deeper. It is also systemic.

Often when we think of violence we focus on direct or interpersonal violence, but far more prevalent and concerning are structures of violence — institutionalized coercion and oppression.

When people are prevented from realizing their full potential and can’t meet their basic needs, peace scholar Johan Galtung writes, structural violence is at work. Broadening our understanding of violence in such a way is essential to truly comprehend how our society functions.

Violence is a quarter of all North Carolinians experiencing food insecurity, it’s jails being built while mental-health programs are cut, it’s double-digit electric-bill increases, the glass ceiling, widespread foreclosure, heterosexist laws, unattainable healthcare and racist lending, sentencing and policing practices.

I could go on, but you get the point: Violence is systemically woven into our political, economic and social systems.

Once we have a structural analysis, we stop seeing things as isolated incidents and start to recognize a pattern and redefining our problems.

I remember my macroeconomics professor drawing a graph on the board, explaining to us how our economic system requires that there always be a surplus population. In that moment it hit me — full employment is unattainable under a capitalist structure.

When we watch videos of police pepper-spraying students at UC Davis or a grandmother in Seattle, we have to remember Gil Barber, Amadou Diallo, Carlo Giuliani and thousands of others whose names we don’t know.

When our hospital bills are unaffordable, when we’re paying off mortgages that are more than the value of our homes, when we have to drop out of school because the tuition skyrocketed or are laid off without justifiable reasons, we must remember we are not alone, and that these issues are systemic.

Our political, economic and social systems are not functioning to meet our basic needs and provide justice, but to accumulate and maintain power. Once we identify the problem, the question turns to how it can be addressed.

People have chosen many different ways to challenge these systems of violence, the most celebrated probably being the nonviolent Civil Rights Movement and the Indian independence movement connected with Gandhi. Often times a false dichotomy is created between allegedly nonviolent actions and so-called violent ones, but where do we draw the line, and who draws it?

Attempts have been made to characterize Occupy Wall Street participants as violent because police officers have allegedly been injured. Participants debate even amongst themselves what tactics are acceptable, especially after some instances of property destruction in Oakland and occupations of vacant buildings in at least four cities. Many argue the movement should be nonviolent, but what does that mean?

Sometimes it is all about context. The Obama administration has voiced strong support for the popular struggle in Egypt and the armed uprising in Libya but would never tolerate the same actions here.

To some people, a Molotov cocktail thrown at Egyptian security forces is a world away from one used in Greek anti-austerity protests. For others, violence is a perfectly acceptable tool for the United States military to use overseas, but armed self-defense employed by Robert F. Williams in Monroe was misguided at best.

These debates and tactics are nothing new. Long before Occupy Wall Street, the American Indian Movement took over Alcatraz Island and Wounded Knee. Before the Black Panthers there was the miners’ insurrection at the Battle of Blair Mountain, before the Earth Liberation Front, the Weather Underground.

Oftentimes, “acceptable” resistance is not referred to as violence at all. A popular movement in Oaxaca, Mexico that employed barricades and fought street battles with police in 2006 was regularly referred to as nonviolent, while the same tactics used by Palestinians — throwing rocks, in particular — is almost always viewed more critically.

Structural violence is usually not viewed as violence at all, but rather as the way things are or business as usual. As one slogan of the Occupy movement says, “They only call it class warfare when we fight back,” while the constant, structural class war on the poor is considered normalcy.

Gandhi has been quoted as saying, “Poverty is the worst form of violence,” and I find it hard to argue with him. Regardless of where we stand on more or less violent tactics for resistance, it is important to note that they are attempts to challenge both systematic and systemic violence.

One may not agree with the actions taken by peace activists who break onto military bases and hammer on — thereby destroying — missiles. Whether or not we view their actions as violent property destruction, however, is of less consequence than the need to focus on the violence inherent in the system they are opposing.

Violence is such a part of everyday life that we forget to acknowledge who or what is perpetrating it on a mass scale, instead focusing on much smaller — yet still significant — examples of interpersonal violence.

The appropriateness and effectiveness of certain tactics to oppose coercion and oppression will continue to vary based on context and what means are available. While we should not embrace every tactic under the sun, it behooves us to practice recognizing structural violence and to be a little less quick to judge those who are taking action if we aren’t offering up another solution.