Property Damage as Violence

There’s a lot of good analysis out there right now deconstructing media and other attempts to paint antifa protests as the mirror image of white supremacist rallies featuring Nazis and KKK members. I like this one in particular, because it breaks down how it’s done.

So. It wasn’t too long before “alt-right” meant something negative again (as it should). Which is why calling antifa its antithesis, “alt-left,” is notable. Without the racially critical lens that white supremacy tries to avoid, “alt-right” can be reduced to meaning that one is way too conservative, to the point that it is impolite and problematic. And because white people have shown historically that they are bad with definitions (coincidence? unlikely), most would opt to assume that “alt-left” simply means being way too liberal.

Most of them I don’t share, though, because they’ll be rolling along just fine then pop out with something like “And stop saying property damage is violence!” Oops.

The irony here is that most of the people saying this are anti-capitalist. Of all people, they should know that destroying property in a capitalist society without a good, fair social welfare system is violence. But I suppose that’s what comes of equating everyone who owns capital with monopolists.

Destruction of property was part of the violence, along with widespread murder, of the attack on Black Wall Street in 1921.

But while anger towards Rowland may have lit the fuse, Franklin says the riots systematically targeted Black wealth. Franklin helped bring a manuscript from his grandfather, Tulsa lawyer Buck Colbert Franklin, to the museum last year. The manuscript includes the elder Franklin’s description of private planes, commissioned either by the city or White business owners, that were used to bomb Greenwood:

“Smoke ascended the sky in thick, black volumes and amid it all, the planes—now a dozen or more in number—still hummed and darted here and there with the agility of natural birds of the air.


“The side-walks were literally covered with burning turpentine balls. I knew all too well where they came from, and I knew all too well why every burning building first caught from the top.”

The accumulation of wealth had allowed the black citizens of Greenwood to be independent of a segregated Tulsa that worked to destroy them. In response, the white residents destroyed that too.

Similar things happened when the U.S. Interstate Highway System was built. Black neighborhoods that had managed to accumulate wealth in the form of houses and businesses were destroyed to make way for cars. The Minnesota History Center is explicit about the effect this had on St. Paul’s Rondo neighborhood.

African Americans whose families had lived in Minnesota for decades and others who were just arriving from the South made up a vibrant, vital community that was in many ways independent of the white society around it. The construction of I-94 shattered this tight-knit community, displaced thousands of African Americans into a racially segregated city and a discriminatory housing market, and erased a now-legendary neighborhood.

Again, destroying property carefully accumulated over decades put these people at the nonexistent mercy of the racist systems around them. It destroyed the abilities of many to feed their families and pushed them into unsafe housing. It caused direct physical harm. It was violence.

The violence done by property destruction gets easier to see when you look at people who have the least. Does anyone really want to argue that destroying the blankets of a homeless person is nonviolent? Without relying on nonsense like “Well, what if they were plague blankets?” When you destroy the property of those who have next to none, the violence becomes obvious.

Photo of broken safety glass with upper right completely broken out.
Untitled by Michelle, CC BY 2.0

Does that mean it makes sense for the media to harp on about the broken windows of a large national bank? Well, no, but not because those broken windows are nonviolent.

It is absurd to hold up those particular broken windows as some massive threat to society. But it’s absurd because those windows were chosen because the violence of that property damage is largely symbolic. The bank is a massive entity with a significant cushion of assets. They have insurance. The people who own the bank and the insurance agency do so in a structure that insulates them from the damage.

On the scale of violence, saying a large bank was targeted for window breaking is like saying an aristocrat was slapped across the face with a gossamer glove. It’s newsworthy as a novelty. It represents a challenge to the social order. Showing up to synagogues and black neighborhoods with torches and military weapons it isn’t.

It is still violence, though. In this precarious economy, it’s violence that an awful lot of people will recognize as a threat to them. If you can’t talk about it as violence and talk about how it fits into a political philosophy that declines to be nonviolent but still doesn’t target the vast majority of people, you can’t reassure those people. Hell, if you’re antifa, you’re going to have trouble explaining to your own people who’s off-limits as a target.

So let’s stop saying property damage isn’t violent. We need to get better at talking about violence in general. Let’s not leave this bit behind.

Property Damage as Violence

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