Reflections on Political Violence and Terror

Photograph by Nathaniel St. Clair

Political physical violence and the threat and capacity to use such violence, enforce ruling class power and other and related forms of domination and oppression. Ideological indoctrination and informational bias to “manufacture consent” matter a great deal of course, but we should not forget the significant role of force.

Manufacturing Consent with Rifles, Tear Gas and Military Helicopters

Frontier Fascism: “No Good Anarchists but Dead Anarchists”

The United States is no exception. Quite the opposite. The whole county was of course founded on the basis of genocidal ethnic cleansing (of Native Americans) and the violent enslavement of African people. With this massive racial violence as its historical foundation, American capitalism would generate the bloodiest “industrial relations” history in the capitalist world in the late 19th and early 20th Centuries – and a long history of violently repressing working-class activists and radicals. The grisly highlights included the execution of ten Irish-American “Molly Maguires” union militants at the behest of the Pennsylvania employer class on June 21, 1877 (the activists were hanged in two separate prisons surrounded by state militia with fixed bayonets) and the inhumane short rope hanging of four leftist Eight Hour Day activists (the “Haymarket Martyrs”) at the behest of the Chicago bourgeoisie (after a rigged trial followed the legendary merchandiser Marshal Field ordering the Governor of Illinois not to commute the death sentences) on November 11, 1887.

Just a month after ten Molly Maguires were murdered by the state as punishment for organizing coal miners and railroad workers, the one-sided “Battle of the Viaduct” took place on Halsted Street on the Near Southwest Side of Chicago. Federal troops called in from fighting (slaughtering) Sioux Indians in the Dakota Territory joined local police and state militia in repressing striking workers. When railroad workers went out on strike in Chicago in 1877, U.S. infantry troops were summoned fresh from Dakota campaigns against the Sioux to kills dozens of working-class men and boys on the city’s Southwest side. After the two-day “Battle of the Viaduct” on Chicago’s southwest side, 30 workers lay dead; the gendarmes experienced no fatalities. The troops had long rifles. The workers had rocks, pickaxes, pots, and pans.

The Gilded Age slaughter of rebellious wage-earners came with a heavy dose of racialized dehumanization in the capitalist press. As the labor historian James Green noted in his classic study Death in the Haymarket: A Story of Chicago, the First Labor Movement, and a Bombing That Divided America:

‘Many [U.S.] editorialists relied [in 1886] on animal metaphors to describe the anarchists, whom they branded “ungrateful hyenas,” “incendiary vermin,” and “slavic wolves.” …the alien incendiaries were often compared to other hated groups like the menacing Apache Indians. The St. Louis Globe-Democrat applied an old frontier adage about ‘savage’ tribes to the new menace. “There are no good anarchists except dead anarchists,” it proclaimed.’

As mostly white U.S. workers rose against their ruthless exploitation under the rule of “wage slavery” in the rapidly expanding new industrial capitalism of the post-Civil War years, the capitalist press not uncommonly justified the bloody repression of striking and marching proletarians and killing of their radical leaders by describing them as “white savages,” merged in shaded dehumanization with Native American “red savages” and ex-slave “Black savages.”

Commenting from his ranch in the Dakota Territory during the Eight Hour strikes of 1886, the future U.S. president, war instigator, and celebratory chronicler of Native American ethnic cleansing Theodore Roosevelt reflected on how he would have liked to deploy his rugged fronter ranch hands against Chicago’s swarthy labor anarchists: “My men…are hardworking laboring men who work longer hours for no greater wages than the strikers but they are Americans through and through…Nothing would give them greater pleasure than a chance with their rifles at one of these mobs” (emphasis added). By the Yale historian Greg Grandin’s account, Roosevelt’s eliminationist sentiments were shared by the western novelist Owen Wister, who applauded the deployment of “United States troops, just come from fighting Indians,” to murder radicals, described as “rats” who “swarm over the body social” (emphasis added). It’s hard to imagine a more perfect example of the Amerikaner mindset behind what Grandin calls “frontier fascism.”

In April of 1914, one can learn from the undergraduate history student’s favorite source Wikipedia, “The Colorado National Guard and Colorado Fuel and Iron (CFI) Company guards attacked a tent colony of 1,200 striking coal miners and their families at Ludlow, Colorado, on April 20, 1914, with the National Guard using machine guns to fire into the colony. Approximately twenty-one people, including miners’ wives and children, were killed.” The ruthless massacre was ordered by the legendary American capitalist John D. Rockefeller, Jr., the chief owner of the CFI mine.

Three years later came the notorious “Bisbee Deportation.” Again, one need look no further than trusty Wikipedia for a useful introduction:

‘The Bisbee Deportation was the illegal kidnapping and deportation of about 1,300 striking mine workers, their supporters, and citizen bystanders by 2,000 members of a deputized posse, who arrested these people beginning on July 12, 1917. The action was orchestrated by Phelps Dodge, the major mining company in the area, which provided lists of workers and others who were to be arrested in Bisbee, Arizona, to the Cochise County sheriff, Harry C. Wheeler. These workers were arrested and held at a local baseball park before being loaded onto cattle cars and deported 200 miles (320 km) to Tres Hermanas in New Mexico. The 16-hour journey was through desert without food and with little water. Once unloaded, the deportees, most without money or transportation, were warned against returning to Bisbee…As Phelps Dodge, in collusion with the sheriff, had closed down access to outside communications, it was some time before the story was reported….no individual, company, or agency was ever convicted in connection with the deportations.’

The end of the “Great War” (during which the eloquent U.S. Socialist presidential candidate Eugene Debs was held in federal prison for the sin of opposing mass-murderous inter-imperialist slaughter) was followed by the nation’s “First Red Scare.” A massive violent government and employer class crackdown on the Left included the capture and deportation of hundreds of suspected anarchists and communists, called subversive and anti-Americans.

Payback for the Sixties

The examples are endless. The left sparkplug militants and workers who built the new industrial unionism of the 1930s and 40s faced beatings and bullets from company thugs, hired mobsters, city police and state and federal troops. Fred Hampton and numerous other Black Marxist radicals were executed and imprisoned by the American police state in the late 1960s and early 1970s. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr, and Malcolm X were executed with the likely involvement of the racist US police state in 1965 and 1968. The fascist Philadelphia Police burned down a city block and killed 11 people, including 5 children, to destroy the Black revolutionary group MOVE in May of 1985. The giant campaign of violent racist mass arrest and incarceration launched in the deceptive name of the War on Drugs was white nationalist and ruling class payback for the Black uprisings of the 1950s-70s.

“It Harkened Back to Nazi Germany”

Flash forward into the next century. Ever read about how the Occupy movement was taken down in Oakland and New York City in the fall of 2011? The brutal collapse of the Oakland camp was described by a downtown security guard who witnessed a massive, Nazi-like police rush on 100 or so hundred peaceful occupiers on October 25, 2011:

‘It was terrifying to see …there were just so many policeman… the numbers were incredible….they lined up almost like in a phalanx, on the street, and then they moved in….There were helicopters flying about and with high beams on the camps…the beams were moving across every which way…there were young people in these camps and children, infants in a lot of the tents and this was just …completely out of whack with the situation….they shot …tear gas into the middle of the camp, and at the time, there were dumpsters lined up in front, at the entrance, on the corner because the occupiers were trying to conform to the new regulations that the city of Oakland had given to them….the police moved those dumpsters to the side and then they moved to the next stage of taking the barricades and kicking them down. And then they moved in and the first thing they hit was the information tent, and they just started just tearing everything down… this was a military type operation, the way they moved in. It harkened back to old footage I had seen of Nazi Germany where you know you had the Nazis, the SS going in and picking up innocent people. It had that tenor. …the helicopters, and the lights, and the loudspeaker, all those were all intended to create panic and terror for the people inside…. It was something like out of a Star Wars movie except instead of being in white they were all in black. …they were all in riot gear…with the visors, they looked like automatons, they just moved in, in a line…They had these vehicles that looked like armored boxes, black, special riot vehicles….the thing that stays in my mind’s eye is in the middle ground with the lights from the helicopters, the police moving in and just stomping on these tents, and moving in one layer, after another, moving in deeper and deeper.’

Democratic Party-run Oakland’s brutal exercise in militarized policing put a U.S. military veteran (Scott Olson) in intensive care with a fractured skull and inflicted numerous other injuries.

That wasn’t the corporate media “manufacturing consent.” It was the capitalist state kicking ass.

Equally chilling was the dystopian police state crackdown conducted in the name of public safety at the orders of the financial titan Michael Bloomberg in lower Manhattan in the dead of night in November of 2011. By one eyewitness account:

‘The area around Zuccotti Park was subject last night to a 9/11-level lockdown over peaceful, lawful protests by a small number of people…Martial law level restrictions were in place. Subways were shut down. Local residents were not allowed to leave their buildings. People were allowed into the area only if they showed ID with an address in the ‘hood. Media access was limited to those with official press credentials, which is almost certainly a small minority of those who wanted to cover the crackdown (the Times’ Media Decoder blog says that journalists are describing the tactics as a media blackout). ..reading the various news stories, it appears they were kept well away from the actual confrontation (for instance, the reported tear gassing of the Occupiers in what had been the kitchen, as well as separate accounts of the use of pepper spray and batons). News helicopters were forced to land. As of 10 AM, police helicopters were out in force buzzing lower Manhattan.’

That was not about calm corporate media “manufacture of consent.” Indeed, the media helicopters in this instance were grounded by the urban military police, like something out of a “totalitarian state.”

Whose Streets? Some 21st Century Chicago Memories

Manufacturing consent? Chicago’s downtown was chock full of heavily militarized police from multiple jurisdictions and armed private security personnel when thousands marched against NATO’s summit and the US-led global imperialist War on (of) Terror there in May of 2012. As I joined hundreds of marchers watching dozens of former soldiers throw away their “Global War on Terror” medals in disgust, a massive phalanx of riot police, many on horseback, waited eagerly to clear the scene with brute force.

The city preceded the protest with hysterical, paranoid claims of massive left-wing destruction in the city’s downtown Loop, creating a false narrative of impending mayhem to justify turning central Chicago into a militarized police state.

No more than 150 Black Lives Matter protesters (myself included) were surrounded on all sides by many hundreds of fully equipped city and state riot police as we marched through the mid-South Side of Chicago in mid-August of 2020. The point of this massive, asymmetrical deployment was clear: “step out of line and you’ll get tased, clubbed, and taken away to one of our covid-infected lockups.”

Funny how exempt from that lesson were most of the Trumpo-fascist marauders who attacked the US Capitol last January. (Funny also how the marchers were masked and the police weren’t.)

Later the same day of this strange August procession, with social justice marchers outnumbered 10 to 1 by gendarmes, I witnessed Chicago cops brutalize youthful Black Lives Matter activists in the city’s financial district. Fresh from having hauled dozens of young people into paddy wagons, a Chicago police white shirt (lieutenant) picked up a bullhorn and roared “Whose Streets? Our Streets!” (He glared at me menacingly when I responded: “Citigroup and Goldman Sachs and JP Morgan Trust and Wells Fargo’s streets. You work for them, and you know it.”). A young Latino stood next to me bleeding from one of his legs, where a Billy Club had caught him. He was hoping to retrieve his bicycle, which the police had thrown into an ugly pile of protester bikes in front of the Chicago branch of the US Federal Reserve.

Anti-Abortion as Violence and Slavery

Those are obvious and graphic episodes of big state police state muscle-flexing. But political violence also takes less visible and obvious forms.

Is it not physical violence and terrorism to deny women the right to control their reproductive lives? Of course it is. Indeed, doing so is actually to impose forced motherhood and female slavery.

Texas’s recent abortion law couples this vicious atrocity with economic terrorism by empowering anyone from anywhere to sue anyone who in any way helps a Texas women get an abortion. The bill maniacally extends its violent reach to cases of rape and incest. That is patriarchal terrorism.

The US Supreme Court may well soon reverse Roe v. Wade, making abortion once again illegal across the entire United States. Such a ruling would stand in violent opposition to majority public opinion, which is regularly defied by US policy made under a militantly anti-democratic aristo-republican national Constitution crafted to appease southern slaveowners in the last quarter of the 18th century – an archaic, absurdly venerated national charter designed to preserve and protect the definitionally violent and arch-racist institution of Black chattel slavery.

Potential Menace and Pandemofascism – Notes from the Amerikaner Heartland

Sometimes it’s about a reasonable fear of potential violence, like when an American citizen doesn’t want to publicly protest racist policies and practices and/or anti-abortion laws because she fears being targeted by a demented racist or sexist with one of the many millions of military assault weapons that US government has seen fit to be sold and fitted with deadly repeat-fire ammunition across the nation. Like when a school board member holds back on voting for public school mask mandates for fear of being physically attacked in the parking lot outside the school board meeting site. Like when a high school teacher or college professor holds back on telling the truth about white systemic racism for fear or triggering a violent attack from an armed white student or parent who takes their world view from right-wing (not to mention for fear of being prosecuted under a new spate of fascistic laws criminalizing such teaching in red states across the country).

“We Had Some Incidents, So We stopped Saying Anything”

Then there’s the pandemo-fascism. I recently asked a natural foods coop manager in Iowa City why I saw unmasked people being allowed to shop in his store despite the presence of a big sign proclaiming that “Masks Are Required!” there. I naively assumed that the sign had no legal force in Iowa because of Iowa’s Nazi Lite governor “Covid Kim” Reynolds and its Amerikaner, pandemofascist legislature. But that wasn’t the problem. “Kim and Des Moines are fine with private businesses setting rules for their establishments,” the store manager explained. “But we had some incidents up in our Cedar Rapids store where anti-maskers were making threats, so we stopped saying anything.

Threats of what, letters to the editor? Withdrawing of co-op memberships? Holding protests outside the store? No, threats of violence, of shooting, of maiming and death. Anti-masker lunatics have murdered retail personnel over masks – no small matter in a nation awash with firearms and caught up in a world-leading epidemic of mass shootings.

So, hire armed security guards to stop anti-/non-maskers at the door? Arm cashiers? Those are unthinkable remedies at the business in question. The coop could, I suppose, call the police, who possess the local monopoly on the legitimate use of force, but there are three problems with that option.

First, bringing in cops to haul off unmasked shoppers promises to create ugly scenes and publicity that would make the coop a high-profile public enemy and target of the people who absurdly think that mask requirements are totalitarian tyranny. That would not be good for business.

Second, the cops have no capacity to pre-empt a terrorist assault on the store by an anti-mask lunatic. Why egg such lunatics on?

Third, many cops share the right-wing politics of many anti-maskers and anti-vaxxers. There’s been resistance to masking and vaccines on the part of police forces, many of whose members take their information and world view from a right-wing media that chose to violently politicize the covid pandemic and the public health policy required to defeat it. It’s not clear that police would honor a request for intervention to protect its shoppers and staff from sociopaths who childishly and viciously think it is a violation of their personal freedom for a retail establishment to require them to take an elementary step to block the spread of a pandemic.

So, the cool-headed business decision is to tolerate the trickle of anti-mask maniacs who insist on fouling the store with their sickening presence. Individuals caught up in this lethal sociopathology are free to increase the Delta infection risk for others looking to purchase some of the natural foods that can be counted on to help prevent profound consequences from a covid infection. Why? Because they might kill some people with guns if store personnel try to stop them from inflicting the more stealth and difficult-to-trace “invisible” violence of spreading Covid-19’s latest variant. That’s political violence.

A friend in rural northern Illinois reports that his local gas station recently closed because of repeated violent threats elicited by its teller’s effort to enforce the state’s indoor mask mandate.

Here are have political violence emerging not just from the barrels of guns but from the nasal passages and mouths of potentially infected anti-maskers, anti-vaxxers, and anti-distancers. It’s no small matter. Killing someone with a quick gunshot to the head is merciful compared to sending them to an Intensive Care Unit to die slowly from a horrible respiratory infection.

“I Cannot Even Discuss It With My Students”

Think of the terror inflicted on professors and teaching assistants and their families at the University of Iowa, Iowa State University, and the University of Northern Iowa. Forget about vaccine mandates, widespread in American colleges and universities – that’s not even on the table in fascist Iowa. The state’s right-wing Board of Regents has decreed that public university professors and teaching assistance can do essentially nothing to enforce or directly encourage student mask-wearing in their classrooms or even in their offices. As a geography and sustainability professor recently told The New Yorker, “I am being forced to behave in ways that are contrary to the best science and the best public-health advice. And I cannot even discuss this with my students. My students and I talk about power and power structures and how progress is impeded by powerful interests who prefer to have things the way they are, when we talk about climate change. And I feel the same thing is happening to us now with classrooms, but I am being gagged and I cannot discuss this with my students.”

Is this political violence? Terrorism? Sure. For one thing, the professors, teaching assistants, and pro-science students in their classes are being forced against their will to work and learn within a physical environment made excessively and unnecessarily dangerous to their health. That is physical violence and an open assault on the personal freedom of students, teaching assistants, and professors.

Students, instructors, professors and other university staff with immune deficiencies and other potential covid co-morbidities like asthma are physically compelled to consider whether they can continue at the university.

It is understood that organized professor and teaching assistant opposition to this insane anti-public health policy could well lead to discharge from employment and the right-wing state government acting on its longstanding threat to abolish tenure in the state’s public universities. That is economic terrorism and violence with a very real physical dimension. Job loss and the fear of job loss obviously come with real biological consequences: increased stress, reduce access to food, shelter, health care and more. Economic violence translates into physical harm.

Economic terrorism, with all its attendant physical consequences. can be wielded against the professional class as well as against the immigrant packinghouse workers #KillerKim forced back into the state’s disease-ridden slaughterhouses early in the pandemic.

This mad university policy combines with the standard reckless conduct of the university’s largely mediocre and nationally leading binge-drinking students to keep me and other Iowa City residents physically out of the universities otherwise attractive and useful gyms and libraries, not to mention out of the campus town’s retail establishments, which are directly proximate to the university. Is that physical violence? Sure. It is certainly part of why Iowa’s under-reported Covid-19 case count climbed to more than 17,120 on September 6th of this year, up from 1,129 on June 27th.

Eight Years for Water Protection, Four Months for Fascist Capitol Destruction

Speaking of Iowa, the heroic Des Moines Catholic Worker Jessica Reznicek has been absurdly sentenced by a federal judge to 8 years in prison for engaging in the supposed “terrorism” of trying to protect water and livable ecology from the eco-cidal Dakota Access Pipeline (DAPL) in 2016. Meanwhile, some of the fascist marauders who violently attacked the US Capitol in the name of Trump’s Big Hitlerian Lie of a “stolen” 2020 election have gotten 4 months.

But of course: Reznicek and her fellow water and climate protector Ruby Montoya (currently claiming to have been coerced into confessing) interfered with the holy eco-cidal and capitalist flow of oil and profits. The Capitol Marauders posed no threat to the bourgeois order.

Adding the economic violence of state-mandated peonage to the physical violence of incarceration, the federal government has ordered Reznicek and Montoya to somehow make a $3.2 million restitution payment to pipeline owner Energy Transfer LLC.

Even after Reznicek and Montoya openly acknowledged their Earth-defending attack on some of Energy Transfer’s weapons of mass environmental destruction (the activists burned some graders and backhoes), the FBI launched a massive, armed FBI raid on the Des Moines Catholic Worker house Reznicek shared with two women.

That’s political violence, to say the least.

No Exception

Political violence and threats of such violence come in different forms. Sometimes it’s obvious, like when an e-mailer from western Iowa threatened to attack me (“I’ll make sure you never write again”) for writing critically about the state’s right-wing politics, or when an Iowa state trooper guarding Interstate-80 told George Floyd protesters in Iowa City last year that “we’re not afraid to put you all in body bags.” Or when school board members are threatened with beatings and shootings for voting on behalf of masks or for permitting elementary and high school teachers to tell the truth about slavery and the Jim Crow era. Or when a “right to life” maniac murders a doctor for committing the supposed crime of abortion. Or when a lone-wolf white nationalist lunatic murders dozens of Wal-Mart shoppers or a handful of Synagogue worshippers in the name of keeping nonwhite immigrants out of the US. Or when a judge sentences a heroic ecocide resister to 8 years physically behind walls, fences, and armed guards for trying in a small way to protect life from the abject ecocidal violence of climate destruction and water pollution.

Sometimes it’s less obvious, like when a governor and state legislature ban local school districts from doing what they can to protect teachers and students – and the broader community – from a pandemic. That is violence.

So is the neofascist National Rifle Association-mandated political decision to flood the United States with enough firearms (including at least 20 million military-style assault rifles) for every one of the nation’s men, women, and children, with 67 million left over. That political and policy choice has turned the USA into a mass shooting gallery (here’s a typical insane news item from downtown Chicago last Wednesday night) wherein a militarized police state gets to justify its fascistic existence as necessary to stem mass gun carnage. An untold number of citizens are afraid to voice their majority-held liberal and progressive beliefs for fear of being shot down by the nation’s disproportionately armed right-wing. Elected officials are now regularly threatened with fascist gun targeting in the US.

“Political power,” Mao once wrote, “grows out of the barrel of a gun.” With all due respect to ideological indoctrination and biased media, physical violence is no small part of the class rule equation[1], like it or not. The United States, once accurately described by Dr. King as “the leading purveyor of violence in the world today,” is no exception to the rule, past or present.


1. And of course no small part of the white supremacist race-rule equation, the patriarchal gender-rule equation, and (of course) the world systemic national and imperial equation, all intimately and dialectically related back to each other and class rule in the broad simultaneous equations system of contemporary historical oppression. Just to be clear, I am not arguing against political violence as such. The slave-owners’ Confederacy had to be defeated with legitimate mass and organized violence. So did the Nazi Third Reich. The mass-murderous US Empire had to be forced out of Southeast Asia (where it had killed perhaps as many as 5 million people between 1962 and 1975) with legitimate organized violence. Same for the US imperial invasions and occupations of Iraq and Afghanistan. The French, Russian, Chinese, and Cuban revolutions, each necessary and welcome historical developments, could not have been carried out without legitimate organized violence. Even the American Civil Rights Movement required an organized capacity for armed self-defense, consistent with a long and legitimate Black Arms Tradition that emerged logically and quite defensibly from the horrific Black experience under slavery and wite-supremacist Jim Crow terror. It is morally legitimate to use police force to clear anti-maskers from retail establishments with mask requirements. The killing of the fascist marauder and Ashli Babbitt on January 6, 2021 was necessary and legitimate, if tragic.

Paul Street’s latest book is This Happened Here: Amerikaners, Neoliberals, and the Trumping of America (London: Routledge, 2022).