A Place for Rage

A Place for Rage

WTO protests in Seattle, November 30, 1999 (Steve Kaiser / Flickr)

There is an image from the late sixties, so famous now as to be cliché, of a young woman slipping a flower in the barrel of a soldier’s gun. There’s another photograph, from Paris in 1968, of a young man in a black turtleneck surrounded by running and ducking protesters. The man has a rock in his hand and his arm is pulled back, ready to throw. To these I add one from the protests in Seattle last November against the World Trade Organization (WTO): a police officer standing at attention in full riot gear, his face hidden behind a gas mask and his body buried in black padding. On the sidewalk in front of him, someone has written HUG ME in large letters with an arrow pointing to the officer. I turn these images over in my mind. The peaceful determination of a young woman confronting potential violence with a flower. The unleashed power of the rock in the young man’s hand. The humor, the hope, the impossibility of putting one’s arms around the police officer’s heavily armored body.

The underlying question these images present is how to negotiate between violence and nonviolence as means of protest. It’s a conflict that started long before the sixties, long before the struggle for Indian independence began in 1915. In the last twenty years in the United States, this question has felt less urgent. With so little visible resistance and so few enduring victories for true democracy, there’s a temptation on the left to take what we can get, whatever its form. And yet the question flares up again now in response to the possibility of building a real movement out of the actions in Seattle: How do we present ourselves? How do we press our advantage?

Nonviolent protest, at its best, is the enactment of the prefiguration Marcuse describes. It works on the principles of solidarity and pacifism in the face of aggression. Nonviolence defines itself, even in name, in contrast—a protester going limp in the arms of a rigid police officer, a group sitting down and singing in the path of an oncoming tank. The state response is officers in uniforms, tear gas, tanks, arrests. This show of force becomes, paradoxically, evidence of vulnerability; the need for the state to protect what it has at any cost demonstrates that the current system is constructed and enforced, not natural, not self-perpetuating. Nonviolent protest is a considered way of being; in solidarity, people learn to relate to each other as part of a mutually supportive and mutually dependent community. This contradicts the social conditioning that says other people are a threat to our own success and we must each look out only for ourselves. Nonviolence is also effective theater—the media present images of pacifism in the face of force, innocence as the victim of violence.

And at the same time, there are those who refuse to play by the rules, who smash windows, draw graffiti on the walls, and shout back at the cops. Are these people outside the “morality” of progressive movements? These outbreaks aren’t just adolescent rage. Aimé Césaire described the violent process of colonization: it enforces control by refusing people their own emotions and natural reactions. Our current global system is a process of colonization. It not only creates organizations like the WTO that replace national sovereignty with corporate interests, it also displaces human ways of relating to each other and substitutes monetary relationships in which human worth is measured in dollars.

This system would prefer that people respond to exploitation with complacency and politeness. But what becomes of people who work full time for less than a living wage, without health care, without day care? What emotion builds up after years of work in dead-end jobs? What happens after finding out you live near a toxic-waste dump? That your son is arrested for driving while black? Rage is a natural and required response—so repressed by the powers that be that it often becomes a lashing-out, a misdirected form of resistance.

A politics that expresses any of this messy emotion is often considered—in nonviolent circles—to be “not following process” and “acting like the enemy.” But to condemn the rage by judging those who express it, without acknowledging the larger context of systematic state violence is to strengthen the oppression. Because rage is a natural and required response, the question is not whether it is good or bad or morally right, but what we do with it. How can we direct it into energy that creates a more just society? Traditional nonviolence is, of course, not a passive response. It is an organized attempt to confront injustice without succumbing to the violence of the state. And yet, traditionally it has often been the precursor to vanguard movements impatient with both the level of violence directed at the movement and the slowness of change. Out of the civil rights movement came the Black Panthers. Out of Students for a Democratic Society, the Weathermen. The system commonly tries to funnel the rage that oppression produces into other, politically acceptable, outlets—to turn aggression into sports tournaments, graffiti into sanctioned art projects—but there’s something about institutionally sanctioned, structured outrage that, because of the official seal of approval, ceases to exist as rage.

“Need I recall to any student of history the serious rioting and destruction of property which has preceded every advance in the liberties of which England is so proud,” wrote Frances Berkeley Young in the Nation in 1912 in response to an article describing women fighting for equal rights in England (smashing windows and “pestering public ministers”) as “hysterical, crazy, and therefore irresponsible women.”

Non-institutionalized rage expresses itself in a number of ways, many of them clearly harmful and abusive. Yet if those who advocate nonviolence as the only route to social change want to create a world in which violence doesn’t exist, then they must acknowledge that nonviolence and violence have been linked historically and examine the sometimes violent expression of anger and how it can be transformed into something progressive. Those who make quick moral judgments often conflate and dismiss many expressions of rage without examining their strategic value. Property destruction is one such expression. When speaking about “violence,” it’s important to distinguish the rock thrown through a window from the rock thrown at another human being. This is not a semantic distinction. All expression of anger is on a continuum, but historically property destruction doesn’t necessarily lead to violence toward other human beings. The Luddites smashed machinery, the Wobblies closed mills and mines, the English suffragists broke windows, and Earth First activists tinkered with the engines and tires of logging trucks—all without injuring other human beings.

One crucial element of change (and a necessity for building a larger movement) is the visible sign of resistance. Property destruction allows for a change in landscape, a visual punctuation. The institutional response to protest in the United States in recent years has been to clean things up. Once people are arrested and silenced, there’s no evidence that resistance took place. The broken window theory implies that if you can’t see the smashed glass, it isn’t a problem. You can’t see homeless people? They must have found homes. You don’t see graffiti? Must be that the anger and boredom (and creativity) behind it are gone. What if property destruction could also be creation, an added or changed image left behind? Particularly at this time—when nascent coalitions are forming against the privileging of profit over people—destruction of material things may be an apt response.

I approach these possibilities with caution. Property destruction has often been linked with larger uses of violence. Because of the way that men in particular are taught both to repress and vent their anger, it often comes out as an exaggerated representation of masculinity, reproducing instead of contradicting the existing power structure. Violent opposition in this country, from the Weathermen to the Black Panthers, has often internalized violence, taking out their anger on each other as opposed to a larger target. There is always a question of control, of keeping the energy of the initial emotion and transforming its expression. Is it possible to target this anger without deflating it?

Of course there are also legitimate questions about when is the time for property destruction and when is the time for sitting in the street (and when, if ever, the two can happen productively simultaneously). At times it may be necessary for thousands of people to lock arms at the entrances to a convention center. At other times, a few people may be able to capture media attention and define an issue through targeted property destruction. Note the instant fame of José Bové, the French farmer who tried to dismantle a McDonald’s. It is important to remember that these choices are, in large part, decided by media attention—they are strategic, not moral questions.

I am not suggesting that property destruction is the only or even the best answer to these questions. It simply represents one expression of rage that nonviolent movements have not figured out how to either integrate or control; it has its own energy and validity. To think about the ways in which protest uses emotion in terms of strategy, not morality, shifts the debate. Much discussion of these questions has been framed by broad definitions of violence and nonviolence. The words have been thrown around so often that, like pro-life and pro-choice, any actual meaning becomes unintelligible. An authentic discussion requires a restructuring of language, an interest in moving beyond the oversimplified debate of Gandhi vs. Che, Martin vs. Malcolm.

Clearly the rage that people feel as a result of exploitation and alienation, and the expression of that rage, is not the same as the violence committed by the overseers of coffee plantations, by sweatshop managers in New York and Taiwan, by sugar cane and pineapple field owners. A communiqué, sent out after the Seattle protests, from the ACME collective reads, “We contend that property destruction is not a violent activity unless it destroys lives or causes pain in the process. Private property, especially corporate private property, is in itself infinitely more violent than any action taken against it.” They go on to distinguish between personal and private property—the things that we own that have worth because they are dear to us (books, photos, the homes we have worked on) and property that exists solely at the expense of others and with the purpose of generating more capital.

There are few enough moments these days where real change is possible. The insistence by progressive movements to protest in the morally right way is, in part, the result of the scarcity of media opportunities for progressives. But to build greater momentum requires creating a language and organizing movements that are not just part of the officially sanctioned and familiar political landscape. Traditional nonviolence, as it has been practiced in this country, has become part of familiar political behavior. Gandhi is quoted on ads for First National Bank and Apple Computer. Protesters dutifully file into protest pens and, as in the massive protests over the shooting of Amadou Diallo in New York, arrests are choreographed in advance. This last example was both effective as a media event and oddly disconcerting for some participants. In large part performance, it brought the issue to the media’s attention, but didn’t address the frustration and anger of those who had been brutalized by the police. Nor, in the end, did it lead to “justice” in the form of criminal convictions of the officers who shot Diallo. How do we keep the principles of what has traditionally been called nonviolence intact and, at the same time, nurture an authentic and growing movement? Who will see themselves in our actions? Of all the graffiti spray-painted during the protests in Seattle last November, one piece stays with me: “Don’t Forget: We Are Winning.” The “We” here was everybody—the union marchers, the environmentalists in turtle costumes, the anarchists in black—and the brightly painted scrawl had a salutary effect on more than one tear-gassed protester. And even in Seattle, that “We” was not broad enough. We need to create forms of protest that have at their center room for those who are most silenced in our society, a space for those who are most often ignored.

Langston Hughes was describing, not threatening, when he wrote about the explosion of a dream deferred. How do we make room for the rage that has built up for so many years? This is something we have to do—not only in order to create a more economically and racially diverse movement of (and not just on behalf of) the most oppressed, but also so as to acknowledge our own anger and the ways we have internalized the violence around us. We all feel that rage. If there is a morality involved here, it is this: if we want the lives we envision to be prefigured in our actions, as Marcuse writes, this honesty is required: to recognize ourselves in the anger we see on the street. To act in the world as we would like the world to be requires making a space for the fulcrum of our emotions. It is dishonest not to talk about the intangibles: the feeling in the air and the smiles on people’s faces as the Nike sign was being dismantled in Seattle. It wasn’t so much the rage of the people destroying the sign—they were calm and focused. It was the reflection, and the release, of the crowd’s rage and a symbol of how it could be transformed into action. Without the sign, the place felt different; as if it belonged to us, the people in the streets and not the police. We need to hold these questions close to us: how to create not only a language but a way of being that holds true to ideas of solidarity and community, that does not recreate the violence we are protesting against, and, at the same time, holds a place for rage.


Rachel Neumann is an assistant editor of Dissent.