Wednesday, March 03, 2010

Violence in pursuit of political and social causes

After my earlier posts on rightwing violence, I found myself thinking more about this whole issue of social/political violence in today's context.

In the United States right now, we don't have much of what might be called leftwing violence. There was a recent incident in Berkeley that qualified as a "riot", albeit a very minor one. I've included several links about it at the end of this post. [Full disclosure: I currently have a business relationship with the University of California; these comments are strictly my own.]

The students at Berkeley and other UC campuses have been protesting the very large fee increases that have resulted from California's chronic budget problems. They and their families are understandably upset by them. There were a number of protests last year and continuing now into 2010 over the fees. Unions have also protested over job cuts.

The minor riot of last week, as I understand it from the news reports, came after students occupied a campus building under renovation for around an hour and a half. Afterwards, they left and there was an impromptu dance party held at the edge of the campus. At some point, someone lit the contents of a dumpster on fire and pushed it out into a city street. Afterward some people, presumably some of them at least beings protesters, broke some windows on the street and had a standoff and some pushing and shoving with city and campus cops for an hour or so, this in the early morning.


So far as I'm aware, small incidents like this on the campuses haven't yet become some rightwing obsession nationally. But I've been thinking about how I frame such occurrences myself in trying to understand them. Because given the fixation of our "cultural warriors" on the Sixties and the decadent homewrecking hippies, I'm sure Rush or FOX or Mad Annie Coulter will start fixating on it eventually if they keep happening.

In this case, I certainly support the notion that the State of California should provide enough funding for the universities that students and their families aren't hit with drastic fee increases. Whether a particular type of protest or civil disobedience is appropriate always comes down to a particular judgment about a particular political situation. In the case of the Berkeley riot, it seems entirely pointless to me in any kind of political terms to break windows and get into clashes with police in the way that occurred in that case. It just angers and irritates authorities and the public. Plus it gets participants into legal trouble for no good reason and can wind up with people getting physically injured, also with no good reason.

And anyone who has had experience or otherwise knows the history of the domestic espionage programs in the 1960s and 1970s in the US will recognize that provocateurs will try to promote dumb or useless or self-destructive violence in order to discredit a group or movement.

But should an incident like this discredit the very legitimate concern about fee increases? Not at all. Even the most senior university officials are complaining publicly about the funding crunch, even though they defend the fee increases in the particular circumstances.

I don't see that as implying any kind of double standard with my attitude toward rightwing political violence. I don't assume that the convicted Christian terrorist murderer Scott Roeder represents all anti-abortion activists. But I can certainly distinguish someone straightforwardly condemning what he did from someone making a ritual statement that they oppose what Roeder did and then in the next breath talking about all the "innocent babies" that Roeder's victim supposedly killed by performing abortions.

And maybe this is to obvious to say, but a few drunk young guys getting high on adrenalin and alcohol and whatever and then committing some stupid vandalism is a radically different level of violence than walking up to a doctor in his church on Sunday morning and shooting him in the head the way Scott Roeder did.

There has been genuine leftwing violence in the past in the US in pursuit of some political or social goal. I'm sure there will be at some point again, though there's not much sign of it now.

Militants in "the Sixties" in the US and Germany and presumably plenty other places used to point out that violence against property is not the same as violence against people. True. More-or-less. But vandalism can escalate over time into stiffer stuff. Scott Roeder's first act of protest was not his murder of Dr. George Tiller in 2009.

In another twist on the topic, I saw a PBS documentary not long ago about the general strike in San Francisco in 1934, in which the longshore workers finally won a union, the International Longshoremen's and Warehouse Workers Union (ILWU). They were facing violence, largely by the police who weren't exactly following all the niceties of the law in dealing with strikers, and they organized squads of their own goons to fight back. The got former boxers and football players, people with some experience in fighting, and they were well organized. Were they wrong to fight back? I'm not going to say they were.

Could they have achieved their aims without their defensive squads? No one can say. But the use of not only cops and National Guard but hired goons, often real gangland mobster types, to attack workers in the open and in private was common as dirt for employers in the 1920s and 1930s. Even most people on the union side involved with those actions probably wouldn't want to spin any great principles out of it. They fought - physically fought, fought with weapons - when they had to. And no doubt at times when they didn't have to. But their unions couldn't have succeeded in many of those conflicts without doing so.

Today, companies rarely use gun thugs for such work. Instead they get union-busting consultants and attorneys to do it.

I'm not trying to make any kind of broad moral or philosophical point here. What I am saying is that we need to be plain realistic in looking at instances of violence in connection with political or social causes. In the present and in past history. Both individual motivations and the context in which individuals operate are relevant to understanding those acts. Pretending that it's all a matter of innate evil (as Bush always said about The Terrorists) or "bad choices" or the "lone wolf"/deranged individual/crazy person (which our press seems to always label rightwing terrorists) is not realistic if part of their motivation is linked to a particular social/political cause or religious movement or group. And the fact that someone committing an act of violence claims to be acting in a larger cause doesn't negate the moral and legal responsibility of the individuals directly involved.

Links:

This story is not about the Berkeley riot but related.

Students Lobbying In Capitol Arrested by Javier Panzar Daily Californian 03/02/10

The Berkeley riot stories:

Beyond The Riot:Looking Toward March 4 By John Stehlin Daily Californian 03/02/10

Police Departments Learn from Riot in Preparation for Protests by Chris Carrassi and Tomer Ovadia Daily Californian 03/02/10

Police Response Limited as Occupiers Avoid Arrest, Take to Streets by Tomer Ovadia Daily Californian 03/01/10

Rioters Clash with Police in Streets South of UC Berkeley by Tomer Ovadia Daily Californian 03/01/10

This interview is the Chancellor of UC-Berkeley discussing the budget situation dated the day before the riot:

The Battle for Berkeley's Future Bear in Mind (UC-Berkeley Web site)

Transcript of Bear in Mind February 25, 2010: The Battle for Berkeley's Future

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