An eye for an eye and the whole world can see: State Violence, Street Justice

By Alex Gawenda and Ashok Kumar , 22 December 2014
Image: Two-way street

Political violence doesn't happen in isolation. If you already knew that, pay attention as Alex Gawenda and Ashok Kumar connect Nat Turner, Ranajit Guha, black Zimbabweans' hands-on land reform, firebombed Nottingham police stations and other 'outrages' to prove that what it means is not so anodyne. Some subalterns would rather 'blow up Gordian knots' than humbly petition against the global distribution of class and racial bloodletting. And they couldn't care less if you think their hearts are in the right place


The only reason we have killed this man today is because Muslims are dying daily by British soldiers. And this British soldier is one … By Allah, we swear by the almighty Allah we will never stop fighting you until you leave us alone. So what if we want to live by the Sharia in Muslim lands? Why does that mean you must follow us and chase us and call us extremists and kill us? … when you drop a bomb do you think it hits one person? Or rather your bomb wipes out a whole family? … Through [many passages in the] Koran we must fight them as they fight us. An eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth. I apologise that women had to witness this today but in our lands women have to see the same. You people will never be safe. Remove your governments, they don’t care about you. You think David Cameron is gonna get caught in the street when we start busting our guns? Do you think politicians are going to die? No, it's going to be the average guy, like you and your children. So get rid of them. Tell them to bring our troops back … leave our lands and you will live in peace.

– Michael Adebolajo, excerpted from a Daily Telegraph transcript


Hath not a Jew eyes? Hath not a Jew hands, organs, dimensions, senses, affections, passions; fed with the same food, hurt with the same weapons, subject to the same diseases, heal'd by the same means, warm'd and cool'd by the same winter and summer as a Christian is? If you prick us, do we not bleed? If you tickle us, do we not laugh? If you poison us, do we not die? And if you wrong us, shall we not revenge? If we are like you in the rest, we will resemble you in that. If a Jew wrong a Christian, what is his humility? Revenge. If a Christian wrong a Jew, what should his sufferance be by Christian example? Why, revenge. The villainy you teach me, I will execute, and it shall go hard but I will better the instruction.

 – Act III, scene I, The Merchant of Venice


Isolated from their respective historical contexts, the uses of violence on a political stage can do none other than confuse and appal; the maimings, the murders, the destruction of property on a massive scale, these in of themselves do not allow even the thoughtful room for debate, and the avatars of a threatened ideology bend over backwards to reduce them, to define them for posterity as just so much naked evil. It is precisely for this distortion, and the many forces marshalled behind it, that these acts must be restored to their proper historical mises-en-scènes. Hijackings by the PFLP, rockets levelled at Israeli settlements – these are responses to a violent, institutionalised apartheid; The Battle of the Little Bighorn was an act of heroic defiance, briefly rolling back a holocaust sweeping the continent; these, like Tupamaros, Provos, Soledad Brothers, Tamil Tigers, Naxalites, and a multitude of others risings, are all instances of guerrilla warfare taking up where politics has been rigged, and oppression undergirds the social order. But these revolutionaries and renegades, these freedom fighters and desperados, are spared the same romanticism lavished on French Resistance fighters, the defenders of the Alamo, Robert Baden-Powell ­on anyone fighting the good fight for the good guys, who also happen to be us.


There remains little in way of room to explore the efficacy of subaltern violence to end an even greater violence. As anti-colonial leader Amílcar Cabral once said:

[There] cannot be national liberation without the use of liberating violence by the nationalist forces, to answer the criminal violence of the agents of imperialism. Nobody can doubt that, whatever its local characteristics, imperialist domination implies a state of permanent violence against the nationalist forces. There is no people on earth which, having been subjected to the imperialist yoke (colonialist or neo-colonialist), has managed to gain its independence (nominal or effective) without victims. The important thing is to determine which forms of violence have to be used by the national liberation forces in order not only to answer the violence of imperialism, but also to ensure through the struggle the final victory of their cause, true national independence. The past and present experiences of various peoples, the present situation of national liberation struggles in the world (especially in Vietnam, the Congo and Zimbabwe) as well as the situation of permanent violence, or at least of contradictions and upheavals, in certain countries which have gained their independence by the so-called peaceful way, show us not only that compromises with imperialism do not work, but also that the normal way of national liberation, imposed on peoples by imperialist repression, is armed struggle. [i]

Yet, official opinion is aghast whenever the receipt-holders come a’ knocking – over here, of all places! for their pounds of flesh. ‘Atrocity!’ cries Owen Jones. ‘Butchery!’ squeals Seumas Milne. So soon is our role in the making of world events forgotten and disavowed. The papers and networks graciously spare us any sober examination of motives that would upset the ecstasy of self-regarding indignation they’ve drummed up, and prove healthy for us, in moral and practical terms; however the blame is parcelled out. After all, ‘the calculated use of violence or threat of violence to attain goals that are political, religious, or ideological in nature […] done through intimidation, coercion, or instilling fear,’ or terrorism, is what they do; when we heap violence upon the world’s poor and vulnerable, we do it in the spirit of deliverance, with gusto kicking dictators off their stumps and freeing en-veiled maidens![ii]

Take the events in the east London district of Woolwich in May 2013. Two black working class Londoners attack an army gunner (not simply a ‘drummer,’ as popularised), and afterward calmly explain themselves to witnesses — civilians in their eyes — who receive them with poised curiosity; enacting an exchange whose blood-soaked affability still astonishes the media (they would later commend these witnesses for their ‘bravery’ — i.e.: for apparently recognising that these cleaver and knife wielding men were angry with the state, not with them). Eventually, the internal army, in the form of the police, arrives, and Michael Adebolajo and Michael Adebowale – who remain on the scene – have a go at them too, before finally being subdued. Now, where was the ensuing political analysis? Where were the courthouse crowds? Who among the Left — even among its so-called radicals could approach the kind of elementary solidarity these Londoners had articulated towards the people of Iraq and Afghanistan?

Unchallenged, the media outrage machine seized control of the situation, unspooling its discursive devices and confining debate within the notion that Woolwich was significant only insofar as it exampled a (damnable, gruesome) crime committed by Muslims. And the a priori evil of abstracted crime is something liberals and conservatives can close ranks around; if big enough and bad enough — if of a September 11th magnitude — they can even join together for a chorus of Hannibal ad portas, while flattering the nation’s wounded ego and justifying huge expenditures of public funds on ‘defence’ contracts. It’s when these bona fide major crises hit that the gloves come off, and the good cop, bad cop routine, so often practiced by liberal and conservative parties, is charged with delivering its most grandiose performances; feigning hawk one moment, dove the next, it stokes, then restrains the fears and antipathies it has helped unleash, honing them. Conservatives come spitting curses, warning of imminent danger from irrational foes, motivated by jealousy and religious hatreds. Understanding naught but force, they must be dealt with accordingly and conclusively. The liberals on the other hand wade in cautiously, with furrowed brows. They dress their own cultural supremacism in the guise of reason, insisting — in a show of broadmindedness — that beneath their conservative colleagues’ harsh, kneejerk response lays a genuine and valid sense of duty. Abstracting thusly, they’re able to distil a question of logistics from the kicked hornets’ nest; all while cloaked in an air of dispassionate objectivity. Forgotten in this, however, are the moral considerations: are we right? are they? will war, in either case, be just? Doves – what there are of them – are left to criticise tactics, not strategy: Iraq and Vietnam were moral in conception, but blunders in execution. But the liberals do grant the terrorists their premises and the haphazard use of reason – though they fall short of agreeing with their interpretation of those premises, and distance themselves with unambiguous condemnations. Instead, they discern in their violent acts the tragic culmination of moral naïveté, of bullheadedness. In choosing to blow up Gordian Knots where they should be putting in legal footwork, they err grievously, liberals say, yielding the higher moral ground for petty vengeance writ large. There already exist channels specially created for the non-violent, non-disruptive redress of injuries — even those perpetrated by the government — and, more than simply handy; they are what separate us from the beasts. Amongst the professed radicals, the ossified forces of resistance within the rectum of the beast with delusions of their own revolutionary potency – the withdrawal of labour power, the withholding of rent, the downing of tools, the marching from A to B, the tired modes of protest fit snugly into the logic of capital – tactics privileged by the global labour aristocracy all the while oiling the death machinery.

So the farce plays itself out: invective, followed by rationalisation. Meanwhile the capitalist project, with all its blood and pelf, continues unabated. And while many still harbour delusions of its ability to right the ship, and carry civilisation into the next epoch, it’s clear that the would-be technocracy of liberalism — that staunchly anti-ideology ideology — can do nothing but ‘compromise,’ by removing political irritants (i.e.: all ideological mutagens) to sublimated neutral territory, so they may dissipate of themselves, safely.

It’s understandable then that the obvious political dimension of firebombing police stations in Nottingham in August 2011 would be lost on conservative and liberal circles alike amid the furor over property damage (there is an exception here, as always, for non-subaltern perps. When white ‘anarchists’ bomb a police station in Bristol in 2013, they are at least accorded an ethos). But the firebombers of Nottingham were acting within the collective cognisance that the Hyson Green police station had been fire bombed in the past, in the 1980s, and never rebuilt (background which is a predictable oversight of mainstream reportage). Their tactics were informed by history, by knowledge of struggles and their successes. Class has cleft history in two, between the concrete, chased existence of subalterns and the self-serving mythos of elites, wielded variously as a pragmatic politically expedient tool and convenient gospel for the ministering of retainers. Acts of political violence are not isolated, independent of these collective memories; they are the acts of an insurgent. 

Take the history and memory of the rebellion of 1831 led by Nat Turner, the slave turned preacher turned revolutionary, who, along with slaves whom he’d inspired, went house-to-house killing 60 white oppressors. Yet, this history, absent from history books, thrived amongst the subaltern. As historians Duff and Mitchell observed,

Until recently, few historians acknowledged any validity in [the] concept of an intense longing for freedom on the part of the oppressed as the prime motive for rebellion. Either implicitly or explicitly, they accepted [the] view of the insurrection as an unprovoked act of outrageous barbarity committed by superstitious slaves led by a religious maniac… And what of the slaves and their descendants? How did they remember Nat Turner? From the first a strong oral tradition existing. Higginson used such testimony, and in the New Deal era, as those participating in the interviewing of ex-slaves for the Federal Writers Project discovered, legends of Nat Turner endured. For those hoping for a place of equality, pride, and dignity for the Negro in American life, ol’ prophet Nat was a ready symbol. [iii]

Thirty years ago a historian named Ranajit Guha published a monograph to this point, a response to the traditional characterisation in his profession of the rural peasant resistance in colonial British India as an ill-advised project of the rabble.[iv] According to this dominant school of Indology, peasants-in-arms were a mass of rioters. Impulsive and bereft of an intellectual framework, they were ill prepared to challenge the British Empire and its armies. This mode of thought was accounted sophisticated for its time. However, Guha stressed the (almost oxymoronic in that period) ‘consciousness of insurgency’: that the insurgent articulated an ‘awareness of his own world and [a] will to change it’. Guha's work inaugurated a new understanding of these rural rebels and by extension all subaltern insurgents. No longer passive grist for the theoretical mill, they were again agents in their own rights, agents who created their histories — at least inside the groves of academe. The audience of mainstream media, a generation later, would still be left in the dark ages. Both sides of televised opinion agree: terrorism is indefensible, psychopathic at worst and dangerously callow at best. Once the shrieks have subsided the liberals at the table might grant terrorists their premises – in vague terms – and a full deck of mental faculties, but no-one to whom a mic can be clipped without combusting will take the next step and allege their full praxical maturity and examine them without deference to caricature or engagement in opportunistic or reflexive reactionaryism. That would mean examining these ‘terrorists’ under a more sober, more dialectical lens, in the light of their specific contexts, as people of sound mind choosing to undertake drastic actions —which only incidentally involve violence. Suffice to say, the subjects emerge from the other end of such an analysis as just that, subjects.

If ‘experts’ are needed to explain the Who and Why of things in countries whose founding, growth, and maintenance have all been bought by the bullet, this raises the additional question of our own ignorance. It should not be accepted as natural that only a small minority of Westerners can locate countries other than their own – if that – on a map: politicians actually collaborate to make this the case. Conservatives guff about government overreach — that immortal red herring — and decimate, among other things, public education, while liberals dwell apart in a Sorkinian West Wing, contemplating how best to resolve the ‘cultural conflicts’ plaguing society. Admittedly, it’s hard, too, at times, for a radical to argue with an ideology that presupposes good people (honesty, even among the ambitious!) — if not mutability. The elegant abstraction of the liberal imagination represented by Aaron Sorkin’s Washington is attractive: a political ecosystem operating, however messily, according to a kind of comparative advantage, in which things, after negotiations, can and do shake out, such that zero-sum games are avoided and mutual back-scratching is made possible. But that formulation could only apply when all parties are of equal standing and undertake negotiations in good faith. In the real world there are disparities of power and resources, of need, and whoever has the upper hand is free to exercise it, exacting concessions from inferiors. What obtains in real asymmetric, non-idealised relationships is the so-called ‘Mafia Principle’ of geopolitics, in which the implicit or explicit use of threats (economic, political, military, etc.) enforces a regime of racketeering and protection money, run by local bosses. Reality like this is depressing, so liberals avoid it with convenient escapes into idealism and carefully hedged agreements with conservatives when dissent would indict them as well.

Society’s villains and heroes are born of this political consensus. Our ‘good guys’ are good because of course they’re good: they embody our sanctioned virtues; our ‘bad guys’ are bad because of course they’re bad: they do not. Everyone who isn’t an outcast agrees on this. When subalterns act up they’re labelled ‘bad;’ and when they conform they’re labelled ‘good.’ The posthumously whitewashed Martin Luther King, Jr., for instance, is good because his forgiving, Christian modus operandi could be construed as absolving whites of their sins, placing the shameful chapter of American history with which he is associated squarely in the past. Government workers will never get Malcolm X’s birthday off, however, because he asserted the black person's right of self-defence and emphasised the ongoing culpability of whites. And so on. ‘Good’ subalterns, like the freedmen who fought with the Union against the Confederacy and got to bask in the glow shed by their emancipators’ righteous mission up close, are good insofar as we can identify with them and they represent no challenge to the social order. The ‘good’ are those who, like the Gurkha, protected and plundered by order of his master — colonial subjects retained to kill colonial subjects. ‘Bad’ are those who, like, the Mau Mau, spear their colonisers. By this same self-serving morality, Algerian baby carriages are tools of the terrorist trade, used heartlessly against French colonials; the Palestinian or Tamil suicide bomber is deplored as an ‘extremist’ and mass murderer. Strikingly, the repossession of land by indigenous Zimbabweans is a sign of ungratefulness, even violent resent toward the innocent white settlers. As soon as Black Zimbabweans refused to settle for the empty truths and hollow reconciliation preserving the economic heart of white supremacy, the architects of world economy, sensing a threat, decided to make an example of them. And as their crops spoiled and economy soured, the white world smiled to itself as if to say: ‘they only know how to serve – give them some power and it’s chaos’ – part of the civilising process reserved for children or a pet. So it goes: Haïti, now the poorest country in the hemisphere, was once the richest colony on earth — until its slaves achieved the only successful revolt in history and everywhere the doors closed. The preservation of power for posterity does not come in doing things by halves.

But we need not look all the way to Zimbabwe or Haïti from centuries past for examples of example-making – a closer look at the 2011 English riots reveals the same ideology. First, were the riots political? (The fact that this nauseatingly obvious question still needs to be asked reveals the straitjacket binding popular discourse.) Almost everything about what happened during the riots was insurrectionary. Everything. Stealing shit, burning shit, petty crime – all of it was political – and they achieved more then all the organised, disciplined, white-led movements and sects of the past decade combined. The thousand young people fast-tracked through courts for obscene sentences – an exemplar of example-making – your only recourse in the face of the violence of capitalist life is more violence. The riots were agreed upon, naturally, as safely condemnable — but not for their political implications. Instead they were drawn as the rabble taking to the streets again, without coherent goals or aims, to cause a headache for well-meaning shopkeepers; rabid consumers running amok, while the police busied themselves elsewhere. In light of this, Zygmunt Bauman reminds us to recall consumerism’s tendency to subsume all impulses toward self-expression, redirecting them to the nearest mall. In his analysis, the riots were a peasant revolt against the owning classes like any other, but manifest in the contemporary dialect, with its own various social signifiers, of commodity fetishism.[v]

For defective consumers, those contemporary have-nots, non-shopping is the jarring and festering stigma of a life un-fulfilled – and of own [sic] nonentity and good-for-nothingness. Not just the absence of pleasure: absence of human dignity. Of life meaning. Ultimately, of humanity and any other ground for self-respect and respect of the others around.

And when the moment comes, they seize what’s been kept from them.

Lastly, why need subalterns resort to bombs and slaughter when they could be canvassing, or could blunt a few tools (to buy a minute of respite)? Again, this glosses over what might be peculiar to the situation of a subaltern who’s decided to become a terrorist or insurgent, and assumes these ‘other options’ are both practical and sufficient. Generally, they are not. Those who suffer daily the violence inflicted on them by Western power abroad have little use for the ballot box. Likewise those at 'home' without the resources to support causes, lawsuits, or candidates for which there is a good deal of opposition. Even the informal variety of petitions, the more radical kind that eschew the gathering of signatures for a show of bodies in the streets, bringing the message to legislators in an impressive and tangible display, are rituals often more cathartic than effectual. Recognition of this inertia, embedded in culture and the structures of institutions, leads very easily to the conclusion that any alteration of society in favour of the disenfranchised must be done manually. Anything less than the material disruption of those mechanisms by which a society maintains and reproduces itself will leave it the same shape, with its oppressed none the better. The question then becomes one of tactics, of what to do, how to do it, and when. Whether this includes — or even necessitates — the use of violence will be a moral decision for some and a tactical one for others. But ‘propaganda of the deed’, the grand exemplary act that sets a power structure off kilter, can in either case demonstrate the inherent limits and contingency of that structure, and restore to a population trained in passivity a sense of political agency. By evoking a morality outside the legal apparatus, attacks on the state as the state illuminate a dangerous noetic space transcending state claims to legitimacy. It is for acts like these that the offence of ‘treason’ was created and vested with the utmost retributive potency. It reveals that the state and the proprietors of common sense inform us of who is entitled to the human response of responding to violence for profit with insurgent violence. They tell us who is and who isn’t human. Violent attacks, especially, provoke a visceral reaction by not only threatening the state’s monopoly on morality and the so-called common sense policing its boundaries, but by invoking the concept of revenge in so doing. For if the state can no longer adjudicate vengeance and mediate internal aggression through state-sponsored revenge — a task which it has taken upon itself since Hammurabi (1754 BC), when the state first codified the practice of eye-for-an-eye justice and thereby put an end to inter-tribal feuding — it stands to lose the legitimacy of its claim to a monopoly on violence as well.


Alex Gawenda is a Chicago-based writer employed as an EMT

Ashok Kumar is a PhD student who tweets @broseph_stalin



[i] Cabral, Amilcar. 1969. ‘The Weapon of Theory.’ Revolution in Guinea: Selected Texts (New York: Monthly Review Press):

[ii] DOD. 2004. Department of Defense Dictionary of Military and Associated Terms

[iii] John B. Duff, and Peter McQuilkin Mitchell. The Nat Turner Rebellion: The Historical Event

and the Modern Controversy, Harper & Row, New York: 1971.

[iv] R. Guha, On Some Aspects of the Historiography of Colonial India. Subaltern Studies Vol. 1, Writings on South Asian History and Society, 1–9, Oxford Paperbacks, Oxford: 1982.

[v] Zygmunt Bauman, 2011. The London Riots On Consumerism Coming Home to Roost’, Social Europe Journal: