This war can’t be civil

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I find myself binge-watching random old shows lately. I think it’s a combination of nostalgia and keeping the background busy while I work on my laptop. My latest random TV show to binge at 5 a.m. has been “Glee.” 

In one of the episodes, the girls in the glee club plan to convince their football player boyfriends to physically stop one of their homophobic teammates from abusing one member of the glee club. But Quinn, one of the girls and a popular blond cheerleader, refuses to join them: She thinks fighting violence with violence will solve nothing. And I didn’t know a white woman saying “violence is not the answer” would be this triggering. 

People like Quinn love pictures of children handing roses or playing music to armed soldiers, who also happen to be wrecking their homes. They love quoting Gandhi and Martin Luther King Jr. about peaceful protest and resistance. They’re the type to claim that “radical love” will (magically) dismantle entrenched systems of oppression. 

“Radical love,” my ass. It disgusts me that the oppressors’ emotions and well-being (in all contexts, from institutions to individuals) are the first to be considered and accommodated whenever people question the validity of armed or violent resistance. People like Quinn seem to disregard power dynamics and historical context altogether; they’re more concerned about the Israel Defense Force soldiers’ safety when a Palestinian kid throws a rock, or whether a looted Walmart was insured amid Black Lives Matter protests. 

I’m not dismissing the power or impact of peaceful resistance. You may want to lead a silent march instead of setting a police station on fire. Sometimes, that may work best. What I’m criticizing is the constant rejection of violent resistance on grounds of respectability. There is no socially “acceptable” way to protest the murder of women and trans and queer people around me every single day. There is no “civil” way to resist ongoing occupation and war. All of the expected standards these anti-oppression acts are supposed to meet simply ensure they work in favor of the powerful, those already inflicting violence. 

“With the establishment of a relationship of oppression, violence has already begun,” writes educator and philosopher Paulo Freire in “Pedagogy of the Oppressed.” “Never in history has violence been initiated by the oppressed. How could they be the initiators, if they themselves are the result of violence?”

I spoke with student activist and writer Furqan Mohamed for the Ward Reads book club about Angela Davis’ “Freedom Is a Constant Struggle.” When I asked her about violence and the destruction of property and other forms of protest, she said, “When we talk about violence, we often think about destruction of property. … People like Angela Davis encourage us to think much bigger.” Mohamed invites us to think of violence in terms of its effects on the oppressed rather than the oppressor, asking, “Isn’t violence extreme poverty? Isn’t violence people not being able to provide for themselves and their families?” 

I bring up both Freire’s and Mohamed’s points to highlight our tendency to forget who actually initiates the violence — generally, we consider only how the oppressed react. The violence imposed on them is normalized to the extent that it’s not questioned, or worse: Some people expect the reaction of the oppressed to be colorful, poetic and polite. 

Egyptian American author Mona Eltahawy asked a simple question: “How many rapists must we kill before men stop raping women?” I remember going through the comments replying to this very hypothetical question. The backlash she received from men for merely suggesting violence against them was indescribable — she received death threats and endless sexist and racist comments asking her to “go back to Egypt.” 

“I find it really fascinating that we’ve heard about so many instances of male violence against women, … and yet when I talk about imaginary violence against men, everyone’s like, ‘Oh, my god! Mona wants us to kill men!’ ” Eltahawy said about this incident. “And I’m just asking you to imagine a scenario that is the daily reality for women everywhere.” People like Quinn are comforted with “beautiful” and “peaceful” acts of resistance, without even the slightest consideration that even those who resist peacefully or “beautifully” are often imprisoned, tortured, assassinated or at minimum, ostracized or humiliated by those in power. They don’t realize that by expecting the oppressed to be “civilized” — living quietly in daily misery instead of turning the world upside down and burning everything to the ground — they’re dismissing the struggle of the oppressed and their right to fight oppression with any means necessary. In the words of Assata Shakur, “Nobody in the world, nobody in history, has ever gotten their freedom by appealing to the moral sense of the people who were oppressing them.”

Khaled Alqahtani writes the Wednesday column on decolonization. Contact them at [email protected]