Past Is Prologue
The Irony of Lecturing Protesters About Nonviolence
To paraphrase Tupac, White folks love to scream peace after we start some shit
Don’t misunderstand. As a strategic matter, I believe nonviolence is the preferred method of political protest. As such, I am heartened by the fact — and it is a fact, no matter how much some suggest otherwise — that the recent national uprising has been almost entirely nonviolent. What violence we’ve seen has come mostly from police, from right-wing provocateurs trying to sabotage the movement, from opponents of the movement trying to run over protesters in their vehicles, or from aimless individuals with no connection to the broader struggle.
Whatever one thinks of graffiti, it isn’t in the same universe as the brutal treatment of demonstrators by police in video after video — over 600 strong now and growing. As for looting, it too has been rare given the millions of people who have poured into the streets. Not to mention, much of that activity was the work of the infiltrators and hangers-on mentioned above. Even the portion attributable to protesters could have been avoided had the officers who killed George Floyd been arrested immediately — as any of us would have been for doing the same thing they did — rather than several days later.
But putting aside questions of strategy, it is fascinating to hear White Americans cluck our tongues about violence. White people moralizing about the subject — when we would not be here but for looting on a grand scale and genocidal violence — is almost too perfect an irony to put into words.
We celebrate violence as heritage, ignoring its racialized subtext, and not only on Columbus Day.
One would think we had come by this place as a result of negotiation, chance, or perhaps a voter registration drive that ultimately toppled the loyalists and drove them from the colonies as losers of a simple plebiscite.
But not only was this nation founded in violence; it marinates in it daily. We bask in the glory of violence, from our statuary to our textbooks to our holidays — paeans to war and militarism and conquest. We celebrate violence as heritage, ignoring its racialized subtext, and not only on Columbus Day.
On July Fourth, we celebrate the violence of the revolutionaries, ignoring that most of the 5,000 free Black soldiers who fought for independence only gained it from England while returning to decidedly subordinate status in their new country afterward. And unlike White people who received land as a reward for their service — like my fifth great-grandfather, given 10,000 acres for his — those free Black people who fought just as heroically received nothing. Indeed, under the 1790 Naturalization Act, they would not even be considered citizens of the country for which they had fought.
And of course, we forget (or were never taught) that there were four times as many Black people who fought for the Crown in the war because at least the king promised them freedom from bondage if the loyalists prevailed. Their bravery and violence — on behalf of their own liberty — we do not celebrate, and the reasons for this should be obvious.
On Memorial Day and Veterans Day, we honor soldiers whose violence we consider acts of great patriotism, regardless of the purposes for which they fought. And so the soldier who fought Nazism and the soldier who napalmed a village in Vietnam or helped subjugate the Philippines are glorified the same. “Thank you for your service,” we say, as we move along. Even the World War II soldier is shrouded in a hagiographic fog within which we needn’t notice whether he returned to fight racial fascism here or whether he acclimated to it as he likely had before putting on the uniform to fight it overseas.
Our statuary fetishizes violence — racist violence at that. A few miles from my home, there is a statue of Confederate Gen. Nathan Bedford Forrest, who oversaw the massacre of Black Union soldiers at Fort Pillow and was one of the first leaders of the Ku Klux Klan. It peers out over I-65, reminding automotive passersby that the Nashville of the New South isn’t that reconstructed after all. Statues to Robert E. Lee, whose traitorous violence sought to maintain Black enslavement and White supremacy — by the admission of Confederate leaders — assault one’s vision across the region.
Memorials to the Confederacy can be found outside the South, too, even in places as far-flung as Montana, where Confederate soldiers relocated after the war, moving West to fight Indigenous peoples and conquer more Native country. The extirpation of Native folks is, of course, further memorialized by every statue of Andrew Jackson. It is celebrated, however silently, every time you purchase something with a $20 bill.
Rationalizations for violence are found in even the most seemingly innocent spaces. Consider the Schoolhouse Rock tune “Elbow Room,” in which children are taught “There were plenty of fights / to win land rights / but the West was meant to be / It was our manifest destiny.” This is, quite inarguably, a musical tribute to conquest and mass murder, for children no less, and by the same people who gave us “Lolly, Lolly, Lolly, get your adverbs here.” But we think nothing of it.
We are so unbothered by violence that we have weddings at former plantations. Check that: We have weddings on the grounds of forced labor camps, whose history we elide because they’re so “beautiful.” Look at the trees, the columns, the pretty interiors. Imagine the ball gowns and parasols and carriage rides. Just forget that these places were prisons and the people who ran them were jailers and kidnappers engaged in a vile and murderous enterprise. And don’t worry, they’ll make sure the reception for your guests is well away from the slave quarters — no need to spoil the mood.
That we would do all this, while no one in Germany would think to have their wedding at Dachau — nor, for that matter, to turn the infamous camp into the equivalent of a theme park — tells us all we need to know about America. That many, if not most, will blanch at the analogy here does too. It tells us that America has taught us to deny the moral connection between the plantation and the concentration camp and to believe that at some level, the former was not as awful as the latter.
But remember, while Auschwitz, Chelmno, Birkenau, and several others were places where people were sent for extermination, Dachau was not. Yes, people died there, driven to the crematoria by overwork, starvation, and disease in particular. But the fact that American enslavers sought to keep their property alive, while the Nazis didn’t care if their slaves died, hardly changes who the enslavers were in both instances. Indeed, to suggest that keeping captives alive to milk them for profit bestows upon those who do it some moral superiority, relative to those who just work them to death and get it over with, is a strange and arguable moral calculus.
America has taught us to deny the moral connection between the plantation and the concentration camp.
Simply put, America loves violence. We get more pleasure from — and take considerably more pride in — the exploits of the Navy SEAL team that took out Osama bin Laden than from the efforts of scientists working on cures for disease. If a cure for cancer were discovered tomorrow in an American laboratory, no throngs would spill into the streets to chant “USA, USA,” replete with fist pumps and high fives, the way they did upon receiving word that bin Laden was dead. Priorities and such.
To now demand nonviolence in the face of police brutality and murder is an obscenity. And we are lucky — the recipients of a magnanimity we do not deserve — that so far most persons in the streets have agreed to play by such rules. But not because we asked them to, and not because such a gift was earned, and not because they can be expected to maintain such decorum indefinitely.
Many years ago, during a family reunion of my mother’s father’s people, a great aunt asked me whether I thought there would ever be a race war. She asked it with the sincerity of an academic and solemnity of a graveside mourner, worried that her neighborhood was changing and nervous about what that might portend.
I explained that if she meant what I thought she did — a race war in which marauding bands of Black people decided to seek revenge on whitey for years of mistreatment — the answer was no. If Black folks were that given to payback, little of America would still be standing, and surely the place where we were speaking wouldn’t be: an Embassy Suites on the border of Germantown, the very white and affluent Memphis suburb.
But, I noted, the bigger problem with her question was that it presupposed such a war was not already underway. It suggested that currently, we were reveling in racial harmony and that only somewhere down the line might things get dicey. And there was also the assumption, however unspoken, that Black people would be the ones to fire the first shot across the bow when that day came. But none of these propositions were true.
The race war began when the first Africans were brought to the colonies as indentured servants: the precursor to enslavement. It started when those colonists drove Indigenous peoples from their land and praised God for the diseases they had carried from England, to which the latter had no immunity.
In other words, by the time she would ask me the question, the race war had been raging for 15 generations. To ask only now if and when it might begin was like asking whether winter was on its way, even as the mercury dips to minus 10 and the snow piles up in six-foot drifts. There was no question as to the likelihood of a race war. The only question now was how the war would end.
She did not like my answer. I suspect many of you will not either. But it is the only one I can offer because that is still the only real question relevant to the moment.
Well, that and one more: namely, which side are you on?