There’s a Riot Going On!
We didn’t talk to Sly Stone, we did even better. We talked with Ben Case, the author of a provocative new book, “Street Rebellion: Resistance Beyond Violence and Nonviolence,” which challenges the long-time liberal insistence on non-violent and often non-aggressive protest and makes a case that riots are another tactic to be used by the Left.
This is a debate that’s been ongoing in Left circles for a long, long time and Ben Case makes a compelling argument that by pledging “non-violence” we let the ruling class know up front that we’re not going to threaten it.
Benjamin S. Case is an organizer, educator, and writer. He is a researcher at the Center for Work and Democracy and a fellow at the Resistance Studies Initiative. Case is based in Pittsburgh, PA. We also celebrate and mourn Jen Angel-publisher, writer, anarchist, radical media activist, baker, comrade to many and longtime friend and co-conspirator of Scott’s.
Scott Parkin (SP):
Welcome to the silky-smooth sounds of the Green and Red Podcast. Today, we’re going to be talking about a much-debated discussed topic that’s been going on as long as I’ve been in the movement. We’re gonna be talking with Ben Case, who is an organizer, sociologist, researcher, writer, postdoctoral scholar at the Center for Work and Democracy. And he is the author of a new book that we’re going to be talking about called “Street Rebellion.”
Welcome to the Green and Red Podcast, Ben.
Ben Case (BC):
Thanks for having me. Great to be here.
And so there’s been a long standing debate in the movement around violence and non-violence, one side held by Gene Sharp and Erica Chenoweth and their followers, others with a sophisticated view on perspectives around self-defense, property destruction and confronting state and right-wing forces, which differ with different from Sharp,
Maybe we could just start off with a definition of rioting which is a big theme in your book.
Yeah, absolutely. So rioting, obviously, is a is a fraught term. Right. So we should just say that upfront, there’s a lot of different ways that we can use this term. And there are certain social, you know, social theorists who have argued that we should abandon the term altogether as a descriptor, because it’s been over-leveraged for rhetorical meaning, right? And then there’s, there’s a lot of arguments, you know, obviously, in the US context, and many other contexts, the word takes on racialized connotations. And so there’s people who will argue that, for example, concerning black uprisings against white supremacy, that, you know, the term “riot” has been used to disparage these moments of uprising, and therefore, we should use other terms like “rebellion” or things like that. So we have to take that very seriously in context. And, you know, there’s also all these different types of things that get conflated within the same term of rioting. And so the most important distinction I want to draw upfront is whatever terms we use, we have to distinguish between the types of collective political actions that are, so to speak, punching up versus punching down.
Right, we have to understand the direction that systemic power is flowing through organized action. And because riots are chaotic and frightening and draw our attention, I think they’re particularly susceptible to being to being confused in these ways. Even when we talk about things like race riots, that term sometimes gets applied, that can mean two very, very different things. Specifically, in the US context, at the beginning of the 20th century, the term “race riot” was typically used to describe white people attacking black neighborhoods, basically, mass lynch mobs attacking people attacking black people’s property. Sometime around the middle of the 20th century, around the Watts riots, particularly, the term shifts and starts getting used to apply to black neighborhoods rebelling against police violence, against the institutionalized forms of white supremacy that were being enacted in those prior versions of what we might call race riots. So whatever we call them, we have to be very clear, these are two completely different social political types of, of events. And so for the sake of distinguishing in my book, and when I talk about this, I call the first instance, which, you know, in the US we could think about, like, the Tulsa massacre in 1921 is a classic example. But there’s many, or we could think about anti-Jewish mob violence in Europe around the same time, or we could think about anti-Muslim violence in India. Or we could think about, you know, settlers attacking Palestinians today or things like that any sort of instance of a dominant racial ethnic group attacking a marginalized group. I want to call a “pogrom.” Just to distinguish it from what I’m calling a riot, which we could also call an anti-police riot, which is an instance of a marginalized or impoverished or exploited oppressed population, rebelling against institutional violence, most typically sparked by direct police violence against community members.
And those, you know, those things we’re calling riots have actually a fairly stable repertoire of actions you might say across time and space, people protesting in the streets and then just drawing property or symbols of authority, you know, destroying corporate, you know, corporate property or you know, looting stores, at least, you know, it’s the, the term that’s often applied to, to that breaking into stores and you know, liberating items from those stores, throwing projectiles at the police or setting cars on fire or building barricades in the streets, those sorts of things, is a particularly identifiable type of protest action, right? You sort of know it when you see it. And it can happen across contexts. It happens over time. So when I’m talking about a riot, in the context of this book, and this research, that’s what I’m talking about,
Bob Buzzanco (BB):
Why is this such a huge issue on the left? I teach US history and radical history. So for a long time in colonial America, you had food riots, and you had labor riots, and on the left, at least, actually wasn’t seen in such a negative way. The Little Steel Strikes and things like that. I’ve talked to people who are part of that, who went out with guns, you know, and things like that yet, today. Scott and I’ve been comrades and allies for a long time. We’ve had this discussion countless times with other people. It evokes such huge emotions and anger. In fact a lot of people equated burning down a Target or putting a brick through a window with the police kneeling on someone’s neck for almost 10 minutes.
What do you think created the idea that riots are a bad idea?
Yeah. So let’s talk about where that violence/non-violence debate, as we know, it comes from because, you know, as you pointed out at the beginning, Scott, anyone who’s involved in in social justice activism, or is politically aware at all knows this debate, right, and you sort of know what side you’re on, people kind of take aside as though also We’re rooting for sports teams, right? It’s like people kind of know, generally, which, you know, which one you adhere to, and depending on the specifics, or the argument you’re assigned might look a little better or a little worse, but we still like, there’s not a whole lot of shifting that goes on, and that that argument comes from a particular place. Right. So I appreciate this question. You know, if you go back, again, about a century, the argument was still there, but it was happening along very different lines. It was typically a moral argument. Right. So most famously, of course, you know, Mohandas Gandhi is associated with the idea of non-violence and pacifism. And for him, it was, you know, of course, there was a strategic element to it, but really, the purpose behind abstaining from violent action in rebellion against British colonialism had to do with people building sort of fortifying their dignity and their spiritual character to take over and sort of run a newly freed nation. Right. So it had to do with a sort of development of a sense of empowerment among people who had been oppressed and occupied. And for him drawing on Hindu traditions, that a lot of people that were already organic, and a lot of folks, that this idea that you would, you would have the discipline to refrain from fighting back was a method that Gandhi was using was sort of arguing for, for achieving that type of, of transformation.
And this is related to his own, you know, maybe spiritual, or religious commitments, which was typical of a lot of these arguments in the US, you see around the Catholic Worker with a Quaker movement. So you know, this was wrapped up with spirituality and religion. And the same is true in many ways for Martin Luther King, Jr, the other the other sort of considered kind of the other main name when we think about about political nonviolence, of course, there were strategic elements, but it was deeply intertwined with, with his interpretations and beliefs of black Christian traditions. This argument for moral nonviolence, of course, it’s still there.
But over the course of the 20th century, as decolonial movements exploded across the globe, it became clear to a lot of people that, at least, ethically speaking, oppressed and colonized people had a right to fight back. That moral argument kind of lost a lot of its traction. And, you know, one of the most famous thinkers around this is Franz Fanon, who actually in many ways inverts what Gandhi is doing right for Fanon, the use of violence is not just an instrumental thing, it’s not just about you know, sometimes violence is necessary. It’s got to do with building a sense of dignity and oppressed peoples through fighting back, whereas Gandhi saw it as too refraining from fighting back Fanon saw the importance of fighting back in building a sense of empowerment and oppressed peoples to take control of their destinies in their nations. So that moral argument loses a lot of its traction.
So the argument for non-violence shifts, specifically around the work of political scientist called Gene Sharp, who extracts for I’m from Gandhi’s philosophy, specifically the strategic and tactical elements and tries to distinguish them from the moral arguments and argue for what he calls strategic non-violence. So the argument is that it’s not that we need to be non-violent, because non-violence is better, or that it’s somehow, you know, will make us better people, or that we’ll be able to, you know, to fortify a better type of politics through non-violence, we need to be non-violent, because it’s more effective in transforming political conditions, right, it’s an effective form of political combat, Sharp would say, and he has this whole architecture of, of logic around why this is the case, which all kind of revolves around, you know, the consent to be governed, right? The idea that regimes only have power because people sort of agreed to be governed by them, which is an observation that is certainly not unique to Gene Sharp. He has this observation. So for him the answer is removing your consent to be governed. If you can organize that withdrawal of consent to be governed, you can shift political institutions or overthrow them. Because it drains them of their authority, if people won’t agree to be governed. And the most effective way to do that, he argues, is through non-violent methods, because it’s most approachable, it gets more people on board and allows it to build faster. So that’s Sharp’s argument. And we can go down the Sharp rabbit hole, if you want is he’s a very complicated character and is bizarrely intertwined with the military-industrial complex in ways that are really uncomfortable, but important.
But setting that aside, for the moment, you know, this argument comes to, to speak to folks on the left, I think, in subsequent decades, sharp was writing in the early 70s. But in the 80s 90s, and into the 2000s, I think, you know, compounding crises of capital, the clear and apparent failure of, of liberal democracies to live up to any of their promises. And, you know, the increasing publicity and transfer images of police violence against black and brown and poor communities and, and climate crises, frankly, and, you know, have I think, imbued young people in movements with a real sense of urgency that we need to know what works, how do we make the change we need? So the strategic argument has been really effective and speaking to activists who just want to know, how do we do it, we want to know how we can make the change. And they’re saying, Well, we have this we have the answer, nonviolent methods are more effective. So that, that kind of transforms the conversation, I think, then it becomes the standard around the work of Erica Chenoweth and Maria Stefan, we can talk about who sort of empirically validate or claim to empirically validate that argument with data science saying, look, we’ve studied the violent movements to nonviolent movements, and we are showing you that non-violence works better to overthrow governments.
Before we get into Chenoweith, I have a couple of questions about Sharp. The term “strategic non-violence” is a little bit loaded. It’s saying “this is what strategic,” “this is what’s going to work” versus what’s not strategic like armed struggle. Or Fanon or “self-defense,” “community defense,” that sort of thing. I’m wondering if you have any insight from your work around Sharp about how much of that was an intentional decision? The answer is probably yes. But can you comment on that?
Yeah, absolutely. I mean, yes, I think it was, I mean, the term itself, depending on how you’re using it. And I think the way it’s often used contains within itself a logical fallacy. But the point of the strategy is to assess conditions and organize your forces in order to achieve a goal. If you’re starting from the get go with the idea of how you’re going to do that. That’s not strategic just on its face. Right. If you already know, the avenue you want to take then you’re not really doing strategy. What they’re doing is they’re trying to make a strategic they I’m talking about the people in the non-violence field, but specifically Gene Sharp, what Gene Sharp is trying to do is not assess all the different options and then see which works best right which was Chenoweth and Stefan claim to do. What Sharpe is doing is saying, “I think non-violence works better. I think you probably think that too.” You, the reader or whoever. “So I’m going to give you all these arguments for why that’s why that’s true.” You know, he was a committed pacifist himself when he was younger. And I think this is a sort of an attempt to make an argument that he thought was the rebuttal to some of the moral non-violent arguments from a lot of the violent people was that, well, it doesn’t work. It’s a nice idea, but it doesn’t work. You need to use violence to achieve your goals. So Sharp was trying to say, No, you don’t here’s this argument, actually, for how non-violence is an effective way to achieve political goals.
There’s a lot of problems there, though. Because what he’s really doing, it’s not an exploratory project. It’s a confirmatory project. Right? He’s looking for evidence that confirms his argument. He’s not trying to challenge it. And so what you get is all of these, just miss telling of history. Right? I mean, like, Robert, like you were talking about how, you know, the labor movement really came together and became powerful around the use of physical force either to destroy or sabotage machine machinery, or to fight with strikebreakers and scabs, over 10,000 armed workers in in West Virginia. Yeah, absolutely. The mind works. Yeah, I mean, you know, and you know, I’m, I’m living in the place that’s called Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania right now, where there was, you know, that strike, you can go today, and you can see the bullet holes, where the, you know, the, the fact that the workers were fighting with the Pinkertons, the mercenaries that the companies hired, you know, Carnegie and Fricke them hired to come in and, and fight with them. Right. So this was this was an inherent part of defending the power of the strike, right? So sharp views the labor strike, as this abstraction, this idea of, well, the fundamental aspect of a strike is you refusing to work, right? Okay. The, you know, the means of production rely on labor power. So if you refuse to give your labor power that’s fundamentally a nonviolent intervention. Well, it seems like that abstractly, but in reality, defending that withdrawal of Labor has meant often physically defending it.
Less so today, but there’s a whole history behind how that happened, and why the labor movement is so much less powerful than then had the potential at least to be the turn of the 20th century. So it involves these mistellings of history, telling the history of labor power as a nonviolent story, for example, and other examples that are just like really egregious, to anyone who has any sense of revolutionary history. I mean, Sharp wants to describe the 1905 and 1917 Russian revolutions as primarily non-violent events. It’s just I mean, you know, it’s just, I don’t even know, I don’t even have the words to describe, like insincerity of something like that.
Because resistance is a field study, which includes whole departments at universities around this. But then the other piece, which, you know, one of the things that we’d like to do on the Green and Red Podcast is contrasting liberal thought versus left thought. And so it seems like part of the strategic non-violence is a process of de-politicizing resistance. And, it makes it non-violent, make it nice, make it we’re asking nicely, but if not, we’ll sit in it. And I have built a career on organizing people to do direct action and do sit-ins and things like that. So I’m a big proponent of it. But you know, I but I also want it to be politicized. And I think an important part is politics. We’re resisting capital, we’re resisting the state. We’re trying to do something about climate change. And I’m just wondering if you could comment on that.
Yeah, I think that’s a really important part of this. Politics doesn’t show up in Sharp’s work at all. You know, there’s this idea of the state and sort of a very rudimentary theory of power concerning the state. But there’s no, there’s no politics beyond that. And Sharp is even upfront that that he’s ambivalent about the use of his, of his tactics to, you know, to attack what he would call legitimate governments, but he doesn’t specify what legitimate means, you know, and what illegitimate should mean, he kind of uses words like tyranny sometimes, but doesn’t, again, doesn’t explain what that means. So he’s really just trying to describe a method of political action on its own completely distinguished from any reasons why you would use it, which, you know, and this ties into the uses of that, of those tactics by for example, you know, US foreign policy, and, you know, military, you know, special operations or you know, is Special Warfare departments that there’s all this, you know, there’s all this? Well, I don’t want to go too far. Like, it’s very, it’s tempting to go down a conspiratorial rabbit hole here. But there are very clear uses, not just in theory, but in practice right now of us, you know, psychological and Special Warfare operations, deploying these sorts of, of training manuals, 198 methods, right, exactly, to inspire and to train activists in enemy states. I was just talking to someone the other day, after talking about this book, who was an activist from Nicaragua, who was talking about like, yeah, who said he was invited not long ago to a training and activist training for activists from Nicaragua, and El Salvador and Venezuela and Cuba. I’m sure that it was a coincidence, those countries that was sponsored by USET, US Institute for Peace, where we’re Maria Stefan works now one of the authors of why civil resistance works. Where they were training people in these nonviolent methods. And when activist said, Well, you know, this isn’t gonna work. They pointed to this, this work in civil resistance studies, this is nemenhah, we’ve started it does work better. So again, there’s no politics as part of it. So it can be deployed by whoever. And it can at the same time be sort of pitched as, as something that’s part of movements everywhere, it’s part of movements in the US and the left has picked it up and run with it. But I think when you do that, you must be aware, and I’m on the same page. I mean, I think that certainly, you know, the problem with the violence, non-violence has been one of the problems is that all these flaws in these non-violence arguments can get sort of snowballed into this argument for other folks that will all this stuff is garbage. And we can’t use it not at all these are some of these are very useful methods and tactics, and are important. But in using them alone, because the arguments for non-violence are always purist in this way, right? They’re always made as though there can’t be any intrusion of violence, the word itself kind of implies that non-violence, when you’re using those alone, you’re drastically limiting your your tactical and strategic toolkit. But also, as you pointed to, also, you’re cutting off access to the sort of political genealogies of different types of resistance that would connect you to revolutionary struggles in places that are not using non-violence.
Yeah, you know, I didn’t want to say take a weapon out of your arsenal. I don’t like that, you know, but but in this particular case, and I think the left often doesn’t understand the difference between strategies and tactics, which I think it’s kind of something you’re saying, but when you, you know, begin this whole process by saying, we’re not going to be violent or want to have riots, and that means like, we’re not going to put a brick through a window. I mean, you just kind of, you know, it’s it’s a clean slate. They kind of, you know, you’re starting at such a huge deficit, you know, because the state can then use that against you. And you’re kind of in a sense, like, you don’t really mollify them and letting them you know, I mean, obviously, the Wobblies didn’t do that. And the CIO didn’t do that. And, you know, even segments of the civil rights movement, you know, didn’t do that. And, you know, King obviously was not violent, but he certainly understood why people raged. In Newark and Watts and in Detroit, and every well so, you know, again, I mean, you talked about this is a moral and a strategic issue. And I keep going back I think, like the Vietnamese side, this idea what they call “revolutionary morality.” And a lot of American leftists in the 60s, you know, kind of adopted that like, kind of taking it to where we are today, like kind of post-George Floyd uprising.
Do you think there’s kind of that this is there’s shifting terrain on this where especially younger people, I think like the kids in Portland, I call them kids because I’m an old man. But again, antifa is who we’re actually going toe to toe, because the right has never forsaken violence, obviously. And so when you say, we’re not going to be violent, we’re not going to put a brick through a bank window, and you have the Proud Boys and you know, there are guys out there where they are, as you’ve kind of said, I mean, frankly, you know, almost lost the battle before you get started.
Yeah, there’s a lot there. I want to be in the discussion. That’s great. I mean, that’s a big part of what inspired me to take on this research project and write this book is the fact that this is a recurring argument. And it’s and I think it’s, you know, it serves a destructive function and movements too often, where we get bogged down in this argument and fighting each other over it when in reality, if you look at any moment of uprising from a sort of, you know, an insurrectionary moment of the uprising, all the way through to a whole sort of revolutionary moment. There always are, you know, asterisk on always, but almost always, they involve the sorts of actions you’d call violent and the sorts of actions you’d call non-violent, they involve both. So if we’re going to understand that if we’re going to build toward that, we have to reach a point where we understand at least the ways that these can coexist and potentially act symbiotically. That doesn’t mean every individual has to do has to, like, you know, engage in actions that run the whole spectrum.
But they’re all there. And the George Floyd uprising is, you know, is a perfect and tragic example. The, you know, I’m just working my way through this book that just came out “The George Floyd Uprising” by a collective called Vortex Group just came out from PM Press, fantastic work, that really tries to dig into, you know, moment to moment, what happened, the people who make meaning of these uprisings after the fact you talked about the difference between liberals and radicals, or liberals and revolutionaries, that, you know, it’s the liberals who tend to make meaning of this, they have, you know, they have louder voices in the media, and they have more funding in their organizations. But, you know, if we go back to some of those moments, you know, in Minneapolis, those few days after Derek Chauvin murdered George Floyd, we learn a lot about this debate itself. And you know, you go through that moment to moment, there were people who were demonstrating nonviolently the whole time, you know, and there were a peep, and when those and when demonstrators got attacked by police, there were also people who counter attacked and set police vehicles on fire and ended up burning down the third precinct. But all the while they were demonstrating nonviolently in different parts of the city and sometimes in the very same places, these were all going on at the same time. Then you have these narratives that come in after the fact and try to make us filter it through this violence, non-violence thing. But no, this is a deeply complicated and, you know, moment when all this stuff was present.
So in response to your other question. Yes. I mean, I really do think that moment has shifted the conversation. I don’t know if that shift will last. I think we must help make it last, I think we have to help continue that momentum. Because otherwise there’s always that, you know, again, there’s always the liberal voices that are trying to roll us back into the same destructive arguments. But I really did feel a shift in the way people were talking about it in my lifetime, and movements. I’ve been involved in organizing since I was in high school. And that’s a long time ago for me now, a couple of decades ago. And so in my relatively short time and movements, but still decades. This is it. This is a there was a new quality to the way people were talking about this after that moment, I think there was a sort of a visceral understanding that that sometimes these types of responses and reactions are necessary. You know, there was a poll, I think it was a I can’t remember I don’t want to get it wrong. It was USA Today. But there was a national poll, right after, right after the uprising in Minneapolis that showed that 54% of the US supported burning down the 3rd precinct.
54% thought that, A large majority supported defunding the police, they supported Black Lives Matter. And you know, even though they had that momentum, I remember Biden and Bernie Sanders and everybody stepping in and saying, “oh no, we can’t do this.” We’ve got to get the cops more money. You got to stop doing this stuff.
Yeah, I mean Biden’s a whole other thing. But I think it’s worth focusing on that for a moment, right in that moment. A majority that’s a nationwide poll, that wasn’t just people locally, right, people who are far away. What if you had taken that poll two weeks earlier? There’s no way you probably wouldn’t have made it out of single digits. If it was just an abstraction. People would say no, but why? Because people had just seen that video. Right? That video was everywhere. And it was just enraging and heartbreaking. And after seeing that video, you don’t know what to do with that. And then you see people who did something who burned down the third precinct people say yeah, you know what, I’m so mad that is justified in that moment. That’s how that felt that was accessing some reality there, through all of the noise, right, that gets imposed on us, you know, but then you give right so then there’s this there’s the this, you know, campaign to defund and disband
In fact, the police in Minneapolis and replace it with a you know, sort of community support system and it has a ton of support. But between then and when they actually hold the referendum is a year later, right. You give the police time you give the media time to you know, reinspire the standard, you know, order and policing and fear of crime and that sort of thing. You give people time you give that time. And those numbers shift. Now they don’t shift entirely right, they still I think it was 40 something percent 46 or 47% voted for something like that voted for that referendum. So at last, but still, if you had taken that, again, just in the abstract a year prior, you know, before the uprising, you wouldn’t have gotten, I think you wouldn’t have gotten very many votes at all. So it shouldn’t, it was a major shift that in and of itself, I think is significant, even though in our in our sort of, you know, 50% plus one vote system, it loses the fact that you have that that many people who are willing to say no, no, we need to get rid of this entire institution is really significant. Um, but it shows the power of of actions, like what we could call a riot, to sometimes emotionally break through the narratives that we’ve all become used to about, you know, the status quo and the society we live in. And you know, who’s the good guys and who’s the bad guys kind of thing. That just like endless reruns of law and order that we all watch, if you’re like, you’re in can’t sleep or your whatever, you know, it’s like, all that sort of stuff is deep in there. For a moment, you can break through that sometimes with those sorts of actions.
Just to shift it a little bit.Because I have definitely two other things I want to hit on one of which is I want to talk a little bit about in Erica Chenoweth which is just sort of a newer, more recent argument that Sharp was making.She and Stefan put out the book “ Why civil resistance works.” In it, it claims to be a sort of data-based argument about non-violence, revolutions being more effective than the armed struggle and things like that. And you take that apart in your book. And I’m just wondering if you could give us a little bit of a background on that. And then, you know, talk about NAVCO.
Right, okay, so that book, “Why civil resistance works,” the strategic logic of nonviolent conflict comes out in 2011, it comes out at a perfect time for them. And this is a moment of global uprising really feels like we’re in maybe another 1968 moment across the world. There’s all these uprisings. And this book comes out and claims to be able to explain why there’s so many uprisings and why so many of them are being successful. Starting at the beginning of that year in Tunisia and Egypt, and then spreading across the world. And it’s saying it’s because of non-violence. It goes back to Gene Sharp. It doesn’t talk a lot about Gene Sharp, it basically recycles a lot of Gene Sharp’s arguments. It’s part of that same, you know, field of study, you talked about civil resistance. And so what it does, but it claims it claims to assess it empirically. So they build this dataset, called NAVCO, nonviolent and violent conflicts and outcomes. There’s a bunch of versions now. But initially, the idea was to examine what they call primarily violent strategies to overthrow the state and primarily nonviolent strategies. And they compare them for efficacy on basically a binary variable, do they or do they not overthrow the state at the peak of their campaign, and again, there’s a lot there we can critique and unpack and I get to some of it in the book, but there’s even more, I think, but chapter three (of “Street Rebellion”) goes in-depth on that.
But even on that basis, alone, the primarily violent campaigns come from another data set in political science. It’s called the correlates of war dataset, which catalogues all armed conflicts going back to I think, 1816, and the subset of those that’s interested in conflict. So basically, civil wars, looking at civil wars between two armed parties, where they’re shooting at each other. And there’s, you know, at least 1000 Battle-related casualties, so quite a high threshold for inclusion in that dataset, armed hot Civil War conflict. Okay, that’s the primarily violent struggle, primarily non-violent, they can pose themselves with their, with their colleagues. And this is mass protests in the streets where we were today recognize as a moment of uprising right in the image of Tahir Square in Egypt in 2011, or, you know, are all the ones that’s become much more standard as as a sort of method of uprising. They call that primarily non-violence. But there’s no measure in the data for any type of violence that falls below the threshold for war. They have this radical flank variable, but that has to do with like a country where there’s armed struggle and unarmed struggle happening at the same time. But there’s no variable or no measure at all for riots, which are again, the sort of main type of action that draws our attention and sparks these kinds of arguments that just goes away in the data or what it does. Is it like any riots that take place during our movements? In reality, they contribute to those movements succeeding or failing, which I also have an issue with that binary six, succeeding and failing, but let’s put that aside for the moment. They contribute to that but in the data, that contribution gets counted as non-violence. because it’s just erased goes away. So that was my main intervention was saying, okay, look, let’s take data on riots that’s comparable. And let’s stick it into the nonviolent, supposedly nonviolent campaigns in Africa. And you find that the vast majority of them include major riots, or 80%, just looking at the data. But of course, the data is also limited, especially with smaller countries and long go. So if you go by case by case, you bring that number up to almost 100%, almost 100% of the cases we’d call a nonviolent revolution include major riots.
Yes. Okay. So Chenoweth uses that data in the book when there are actual riots in the US, like January 20 2017 for example. She says, “see, look at my data. This is why the tactics that were being used at the Trump inauguration didn’t work.” And then you have hundreds who are charged with felonies by the DC police.
Yeah, and that article, actually, speaking, frankly, that article actually changed my perception of Chenoweth in their work, because it showed a couple of things. First of all, I’m quite sure that Chenoweth knows that that would not have been in that dataset. You know, once the data was updated until today, you know, the Trump resistance was counted as a primarily nonviolent movement, which I also think is problematic because it wasn’t a maximalist campaign, whatever, whatever. But either way, those actions on January 20– smashing the Starbucks and bank windows and burning the limousine, and punching Richard Spencer in the face, that does not merit qualification for a civil war, that would not be counted, as has violence in that dataset.
So to use the evidence from that data set that shows that the nonviolent struggles are more effective, and turn it around to say, well, because this is happening, this is going to reduce the efficacy of resistance against the Trump regime is disingenuous. I don’t know, I don’t really know how else to put it, I guess, I don’t know a nicer way to put it, I should say, I do know other ways I could put it. And specifically, I saw that article was in the New Republic. And I saw that being used on social media too to argue against doing support work for the 200-plus people who are facing felony riot charges. Some of them were of them friends of mine. And, you know, full disclosure, I was there that day. And so I know what could’ve happened to me, too. Yeah, I was lucky enough not to be kettled, and but, you know, I was very committed to that on a personal basis in a lot of ways. And so to see that being used by people who say like, no, these, these folks are going to ruin the movement. We shouldn’t be doing, you know, support work for them. I suppose. To be honest, it did fuel me it fueled my desire to unpack some of these things. And clarify for folks, what’s actually going on in these in this research that’s being used in all these ways people don’t understand what’s actually in there.
Yeah, I mean, we’ve all run into people like that, who I have personally had to find disgusting. But we’re kind of close to the end here. And I’m serious, I really want to have this as an ongoing discussion. So we have to talk to you again because this is really, really important. But, um, this is kind of a little more specific. But if people weren’t there, do you have any ideas about like, the actual targets of aggressive actions or direct actions, I don’t even know if you want to call violence because what kind of spurs me in such actions in some ways that kind of deviate from a lot of the left with people I know, by 2020, you know, the initial attacks on like, monuments, I think, you know, I was cheering him on and burn it down, you know, but after a few weeks, you know, going after monuments, and Thomas Jefferson and George Washington, Christopher Columbus had thought, I think it kind of played out. And I just wondered if, if you have any ideas, if there have been studies on like, is it more effective to burn, you know, the, you know, topple a Confederate monument, put a brick through Bank of America. You know, we don’t have Kyle Rittenhouse is on the left. So that’s not even really a consideration. But is there and you know, give some thoughts on like, what if you are going to be more aggressive to the point where there’s a riot or violence or however you want to define it? You know, how should that? What should that look like?
Yeah, it’s a good question. And you know, of course, we don’t have Congress in houses on the left, you know, thank the gods and goddesses or whoever. But we do have armed community defense folks are having that conversation more and more, I think. Well, that’s a separate conversation. So for the sake of time, let’s let’s bracket that for the moment. I don’t have data to back up, a sort of argument around which targets are most effective, although that’s really interesting question, I think. And you know, but before we started speaking, Scott, you mentioned the question of like, do right It’s work, right, which is a lot of times the way this this, this sort of argument plays out. And one of the things I want to do, which I know is dissatisfying for a lot of folks, but I want to step back and ask work to do what, let’s pause for a moment. working and not working has everything to do with, with, with what are what our goals are. And sometimes the goal is a specific immediate outcome, of course, like getting rid of a statue. But sometimes the goal is different. Sometimes the goal is sending a message, sometimes the goal is emotional, sometimes the goal has to do with the way people feel in their bodies, their ability to fight back. And I think that that really varies from place to place. I mean, I’ve certainly seen actions that I think, are strategically stupid, for example, in someone, you know, smashing the window of like, some local family-owned store or something this like, has no hope of building any kind of power, in my opinion. Whereas, you know, potentially a certain bank, or corporation or government office or statute could theoretically have had a ton of impact. I mean, one of the case studies, that example, I examined through interviews in the book is in South Africa, the student uprising in 2015-16, that was sparked by someone vandalizing a statue of Cecil Rhodes in Cape Town. So in that instance, that ended up sort of catching fire, so to speak, and spreading into all these other campaigns. I do agree that in certain instances, there’s a there’s kind of a palpable sense that repeating the same action doesn’t necessarily have the same effect today, as it did yesterday and the day before. Sometimes it does, and sometimes it doesn’t. And I think those sorts of things have to be sorted out in real-time in context, there might be ways to explore sort of like a more objective understanding of which work better and worse, but if there are I haven’t come across them.
We’re seeing some of this right now in Atlanta around the assassination of a Forest Defender. And I’m just wondering if you have any thoughts or comment on, we’re seeing we’re seeing a diversity of tactics play out there. People have been sitting in trees. We’ve seen groups advocating through legitimate means to fight the permits or bird dog the mayor. But then we’ve also seen more confrontational tactics, whether it’s mixing it up with the police arson and sabotage. Do you have any thoughts on that?
I mean, on the face of it, most people who are were activists who’ve engaged in direct action, know that the police will generally call you violent if they want to use violence against you. And, you know, that can be very, you know, that can be very acute, like, if, you know, if you get beat up by the cops in an action and then arrested, it’s very likely, they’ll charge you with assaulting an officer to sort of retroactively justify what’s happened. And that’s what we saw, you know, with the really tragic murder of Tortuguita, where the police say, well, they shot at us. Right? Of course, they’re gonna say, I don’t know if that’s true or not, but now it comes out, it looks like very likely were the cops shooting each other? Right, and like what was more likely, of course, like that a forest defender is going to open fire on heavily armed police, or that or the police are going to accidentally shoot at each other. So it’s not a shock to me that it turns out that that wasn’t true. But it is important to remember that language is always going to be used for political purposes by authorities in order to try to demonize movements. And you know, they’ll call sitting in the forest violence, right? They’ll call blocking traffic violence will call whatever they have to vote,
Or that they are terrorists.
It’s from this country that blew up the Nord Stream pipeline. but don’t put a hammock in the forest.
Sure. No, exactly. I mean, so I think that the way so we have to be conscious, I think, on the left, and we talk about these things about how these words will be used. But I think that it’s also counterintuitive, and I also a lot of people will argue well, therefore, we have to, you know, maintain non-violent discipline, or at least describe these things. It’s not about I think it’s actually more complicated and I think we have to reclaim our understanding of what resistance actually means and looks like and to understand that it’s the word violence or the specific actions you’d call violent or used politically by authorities. That doesn’t mean we have to accept that. It also doesn’t mean we have to cut out any sort of action that could be called those things from our repertoire because of it, I think we have to reclaim our sense of, of how we’re resisting in ways that are building power in ways that are disrupting systems of oppression and domination, and be having those conversations ourselves and to the extent that the violence non-violence question having to litigate, which it is, is, is disruptive and starts fights, I want to just move beyond that. Let’s actually talk about resistance and not force ourselves to fight over if it’s violent or non-violence, talk about what we need to do. Let’s talk about, you know,, what works and what doesn’t, yes, but also like, what we need to build power, what our communities need to feel safe and defend themselves.
I don’t know if you’d I just want to say thank you. And, you know, to me, it’s really important also, just to have this discussion openly, because I know, for so long, you know, I’ve had this discussion, but people will say, Well, you can’t talk about this, you know, and I actually really appreciate the fact that you are having this discussion, and I think it doesn’t need to be like, you know, kind of publicly discussed by people who want to change this world.
Yeah. Thanks. Yeah. Appreciate you coming on. Appreciate how much your book has been trying to shift the conversation and the debate here. I think it’s very important. And definitely, we’d love to have you come back on again sometime in the future. So thanks for joining. Folks. You’ve been listening to Ben Case, who’s the author of a new book that we’ve been discussing, called “Street Rebellion.”