“Remind them that the sword still hangs upon the wall and the heart still beats within the man, and that that sword will be unsheathed again, if necessary, in defense of your rights.” – Lucy Parsons

In the everyday struggle to sustain ourselves amid the constant upsurge of state assaults, we always encounter the question of violence. People wrestle with numerous ideas about what it is and isn’t. The debate about what constitutes violence is a violent one itself. Because ultimately, the terms of that debate are dictated by a ruling class of people who decide what violence is acceptable or unacceptable. People protesting the regressive decisions of an unelected Supreme Court body or the latest police killing are portrayed as uncivil and dangerous, but the policies that kill those uprising are all too normal. 

Much of the violence we’re used to being inflicted on us is codified in what’s called: the law. As a settler-colonial project, the U.S. uses the law to uphold the arrangements of white supremacy and capitalism that dictate the oft-accepted oppressive norms of society. Legality is the framework used to secure perpetual injustice under the umbrella of one of the most accepted atrocities we face: state violence. Therefore, every time injustice occurs we have to look at what structures and organizes these cyclical conditions. 

If the law was an inherently just and neutral tool that could be used to secure freedom, it would not have needed to be broken at every turn to secure the supposed “rights” we now enjoy. People rebelling against slavery, disenfranchisement, segregation, apartheid, and much more all broke the law. However, the state structures that ordered these conditions in the first place can always take back what we know as reforms. These can be concessions made to make acceptable violent standards more tolerable. For example, think about police reforms like anti-bias training, body cameras, and diversity hiring that do nothing to stop police from committing racist killings. When reforms are issued through policy trying to translate the demands of the public, they can be used to quell uprising and become counterrevolutionary. 

Here is where one of our key problems lies. While many activists, nonprofits, and even politicians employ revolutionary language, many of them are quite afraid of an actual revolution. Enough of them know that revolution is an uncomfortable, deadly, and yes, violent affair. So rather than create the ultimate disturbance, many people succumb to watered down radical practices that are tantamount to blatant or inadvertent reformism. However, to confront what we’re up against, a counterforce is necessary. The late Russell Maroon Shoatz described oppositional violence as “counterviolence.” What other reason would someone who’s holding power over you by assaulting you have to stop unless they’re forced to? That’s why during uprisings and rebellions anything that even slightly insinuates such a counterforce is decried as unacceptable violence by the bipartisan political class, the ruling class billionaires they serve, and ultimately the state. 

The predicament I’m detailing underlines why Martin Luther King Jr. said “a riot is the language of the unheard.” It’s important to note that King “was a lawbreaker,” as the revolutionary Black anarchist Martin Sostre once wrote. King, he stated, set an example by “defying and breaking the white man’s ‘law and order,’ in willingly ‘paying dues’ by going to jail, in being brutalized, and in finally making the supreme sacrifice in the cause of Black liberation.” Though sanitized by state-sanctioned versions of history, one of the most important aspects of King’s legacy was “defiance to white authority.” What I am suggesting further is that the language we could be speaking back to our oppressors is not because we are just unheard, but also ignored. We are being systematically ignored by structures that were never meant to serve us, which is why the state and its systems reject even their own reforms and updates to their repressive terms and conditions. White society and the state are on an unending quest to fulfill their original intent, by design—they cannot be reformed, seized, and manipulated to be stripped of their intention because that’s how they were built. “The bourgeoisie has no right to complain of the violence of its foes, since its whole history, as a class, is a history of bloodshed, and since the system of exploitation, which is the law of its life, daily produces hecatombs of innocents. Assuredly, too, it is not political parties who should complain of violence, for these are, one and all, red-handed with blood spilt unnecessarily,” wrote Italian anarchist Errico Malatesta in “Anarchy and Violence.” 

This society is so poisonously riddled with the legacies of slavery, Indigenous genocide, sexual violence, imperialist warfare, and countless other evils that millions of deaths are made into nothing but pages in supposedly regrettable histories. Thus when mass death happens in the present, such as during Hurricane Katrina, a neglected pandemic, or otherwise; the state makes the deaths of those who it always systematically kills another mere misstep on the path to progress. It’s not the state failing, this is a feature of state power; it is the state succeeding in its endeavors. This is the violence many of us are accustomed to. We see how it manifests on a micro-scale within our communities where those who are Black, trans, Indigenous, poor, queer, children, disabled, and nonbinary will bear the brunt of this normalcy. After all, this is an incredibly gendered phenomenon leveled disproportionately against those patriarchal domination exploits, abuses, and subjugates the most. This is the violence we have to overthrow through a multifaceted approach of different measures utilizing radical means. 

Since there is no one solution to countering the violence this society is inflicting on us, I wholeheartedly embrace the thinking of the aforementioned Shoatz. In “The Mosaic,” he advocated for autonomy and self-determination, serving separate and collective interests. He stressed this approach following his historical study of organization methods called “The Dragon and the Hydra. In that text, he championed Black anarchic formations of the past because “centralization will only make it easier for our oppressors to identify and level repression upon us.” But rather than making either of these ideas about sectarianism, he suggested that people overcome these hindrances to fight for our collective wellbeing in the spirit of intercommunalism. 

This is what the contours of such a counterforce could look like, but when we return to the questions about violence we must accept the truth: the struggle to overthrow violence will not only be nonviolent. And those who are not prepared to fight force with counterforce should understand the intricate nature of struggle. The people who are prepared to take radical struggle to the next level do not only look one way. It was Lorraine Hansberry that said, “Negroes must concern themselves with every single means of struggle: legal, illegal, passive, active, violent and non-violent.” Again, she said “violent and non-violent.” Everyone can’t be on one side of that binary, nor does it mean people can’t embrace both. Yes, there is a violence we need to resist and to be an opposition to the violence we’re inundated with on a day-to-day basis. There is no one way to struggle, but in an attempt to beat back reality, the necessary action is to not be dominated by this gross environment. Instead, can we make unrelenting defense the new norm? In a war against the regularity of violent oppression, can we adopt unforgiving radical opposition, sabotage, destruction, and abolition of all that harms our people as a core principle? Anything less may not get us where we need to be. After all, those who hope to kill us and keep us in this disastrous situation have made our destruction a standard we have to dismantle. 

William C. Anderson is a writer and activist from Birmingham, Alabama. His work has appeared in The Guardian, MTV, Truthout, British Journal of Photography, and Pitchfork, among others. He is the author...