Thinking about Property Violence,Nicole Scott,Free Inquiry

If a peaceful demonstration ends in smashing, looting, and burning, hard questions arise. Do these actions amount to justifiable violence? Excusable violence? Do they amount to violence at all? A study by Crowd Counting at the University of Connecticut estimated that in the spring and summer of 2020, 98 percent of Black Lives Matter demonstrations did not involve injuries, and 96 percent of them did not involve damage to property. Nevertheless, property violence was much displayed and discussed. Some commentators dismissed it, some sought to excuse it, and others sought to justify it.

In this context, verbal shifts may seem to avoid the tough problems. One can relabel these things. Looting is “proletarian shopping”; no, perhaps it’s not that, but something else, say “a tool for justice.” Maybe looting is “reparations.” Or perhaps “redistribution” or “a reshaping of the social order.” The terms have favorable associations, avoiding the issue of whether violence against property is justified or excusable. These things happen; they get attention, cause fear, and shift votes (in various directions, no doubt). But it has been said that, really, such actions as vandalism, looting, and burning do not amount to violence unless they are directed against persons. Smashing a window is different from killing someone by kneeling on his neck, that’s for sure. So if the second thing is violence, the first thing is not? The inference is flawed.

A straightforward definition of violent action, pretty close to ordinary usage, is “action to damage or destroy by the application of physical force.” Violent actions against persons may injure or kill them, and clearly these are highly problematic from a moral point of view. But not all violent actions are taken against persons. In smashing windows, one applies physical force to damage a building; in setting a match to it, one is also engaging in violence. Using physical force to damage or destroy property amounts to violence. The question is whether such violence is ever justifiable.

Physical violence is not wrong simply by definition. Given that an action is violent, questions about its legal, moral, and strategic status remain open. In the early twentieth century, suffragists in the United Kingdom smashed windows, blew up government postal boxes, and even started fires in the homes of members of Parliament. These were acts of violence. They were illegal. Were they morally wrong by standards of the time? Were they wrong by present standards? Did they help the cause? These questions can be explored and are not resolved by appeals to definitions. One can say that things are not people and that force applied to things is not as serious as force applied to people. That’s obviously true. But it doesn’t follow that violence to destroy things is of no significance.

In defining violence, one can emphasize intent, degree of damage, capacity, style of action, and even indirect effects. Tracts have been written on the matter: we have a powerful impulse to infer moral wrongness from violence and moral innocence from its lack. These shifts put a substantial weight on definitions. Johan Galtung, a scholar greatly influential in the field of peace studies [and a Laureate of the International Academy of Humanism —Eds.], developed an account of structural violence. His definitions allow vast conceptual extensions: for example, if one region of a country had less adequate educational funding than another, people in that disadvantaged region would be victims of structural violence, which would be a bad thing. With this sort of extension, violence and injustice are made to coincide. But conceptual clarity is not enhanced.

With reference to property violence, semantic moves are facile and fail to address the problem. Smashing, burning, and looting do serious damage; they cause harm and hardship to many and fear in more. They deserve attention, and they get it. Some commentators make excuses for the rioting and looting that accompany some demonstrations. They may insist that those engaging in these acts are outsiders who come to exploit the situation: perhaps they are thugs, common criminals, or just people anticipating good fun participating in a riot. Or maybe they are even agents provocateurs. Or anarchists.

The actions of such people are not those of the peaceful demonstrators, and they do not characterize the causes that peaceful demonstrators are defending. They should not be allowed to stigmatize that cause. That’s one thing some say about property violence: other people did it, not us. Another excuse is that what is being protested is so blatantly wrong, so gross and appalling, that people are overcome by anger in response. If some demonstrators smash and burn in fury, that is understandable. Or, also in the excusing mode, one might claim that people who loot are in need and taking what they need.

Activists and commentators may offer various excuses when violence accompanies a mostly peaceful demonstration; some excuses may seem to fit in some circumstances, and circumstances need to be considered. There are important ways in which arson will differ from smashing, looting from burning, and burning from vandalism. Private property is one thing; public property is another. Small businesses are likely to be more vulnerable than large ones. Details of cases and the excuses offered for property violence are bound to vary. But whether these excuses hold up or not, all have a common presupposition: property destruction is wrong. If you don’t think it’s a wrong, you don’t make excuses for it. So, is property violence wrong? Can it be justified?

Several recent accounts have offered justifications for property violence. Serious reflections are offered by blogger Bill Meyers in his essay “Nonviolence and Its Violent Consequences.”* Meyers states that advocates of exclusively nonviolent methods of protest offer to activists only one prescription for all social diseases. Believing this monotone strategy to be mistaken, he argues that a variety of oppressive circumstances calls for a variety of methods in response. This approach seems entirely sensible. But it does not lead straightforwardly to the conclusion that property violence is necessary and defensible, because it ignores the fact that nonviolence itself can take many forms. Street protests are different from general strikes, which are different from lawsuits, which are different from boycotts and again different from vigils, “die-ins,” lobbying, or writing letters to the editor.

Another argument offered by Meyers is that protesters who foreswear all violence will have limited power, and their nonviolence will only encourage their oppressors. On these grounds, Meyers contends that theorists and activists seeking to restrict protests and protesters to nonviolence will actually increase violence. But this causal sequence is not established and is not more plausible than the alternative urged by advocates of nonviolence. Their view is that violence on the part of protesters will provoke fear and legitimize more violence on the part of opponents. Theorists of nonviolence advocate winning over opponents by example and rational persuasion, not fear.

Writing in The Nation (“In Defense of Destroying Property,” June 10, 2020), R. H. Lossin is another commentator who has sought to defend property violence. Demonstrators who have shown themselves ready to burn, smash, and loot show by these actions that they have the capacity to damage those who resist them. The capacity to destroy property is a source of power; Lossin argues that this capacity should be acknowledged and used. Protesters who display their power to do violence can inspire fear, which on Lossin’s account is something positive, because it will give them increased power to push their demands. Lossin maintains that advocates of nonviolence inadvertently undermine activists—including those with whom they sympathize—when they insist that people basically lacking in power refrain from using the powers that they do have and could productively display. His account is thought-provoking, but his assumption that damaging things and inspiring fear will help a cause is open to obvious objections. Recent events strongly suggest that such fear may feed a “law and order” message that oppressive forces can exploit.

In Timeline (June 15, 2020), Hanif Abdurraqib says that there was violence in the 1960s civil rights movement in the United States. Abdurraqib states, “By the end of his life, Martin Luther King realized the validity of violence.” Historically, the claim is controversial to say the least. The inference invited is that King was right, that his conclusion is sound and should be respected, and that, accordingly, on the basis of historical precedent, violence would be a valid method for Blacks and others to use when defending their lives and rights today. Presumably, this conclusion would apply both to personal violence and property violence. Yet even if the historical interpretations were correct, historical precedents do not offer sufficient justification for current strategies and norms.

Nonviolence as a means of social action has been defended by Tolstoy, Gandhi, King, Vaclav Havel, and the political scientists Gene Sharp and, most recently, Erica Chenoweth. The first three used spiritually grounded arguments based on Christian, Jain, Hindu, and Buddhist teachings. These teachings appealed to the love of God and the love of fellow human beings, stressing messages of concern, non-harm, and communication of mutuality and respect. They urged a trust in reason and emphasized that there is an element of divine origin in each person. Christian teachings about loving one’s enemy and turning the other cheek were admired, with a teaching of using love to overturn hate. Theorists of nonviolence have emphasized persons, not property. They have written and spoken of dignity, of equality, of rational persuasion, of the love of persons in a framework of God’s love.

Humanists are unlikely to find their inspiration in religiously grounded theories, but they should be inspired by law and norms of non-harm, or at least the minimization of harm. There are laws against torture, assault, and murder, and there are laws forbidding the destruction of property. They are of profound importance in any decent society; they deserve to be respected and generally are.

Sharp, who died in 2018, echoed some spiritually inspired themes (equality and dignity) from a secular perspective. He argued for the most part on grounds of the greater strategic effectiveness of nonviolent methods. In several detailed and highly influential works, Sharp contended that training, restraint, and persuasiveness would be more effective than killing, injury, and torture for building a strengthened and improved society after a struggle. Reading Sharp, one of course senses moral commitment, but the shift away from spiritual sources is clear.

The Harvard scholar Erica Chenoweth stands as the contemporary successor to Sharp and, like him, defends the conclusion that nonviolent methods are more likely to succeed than violent ones. In Why Civil Resistance Works (2011), written with Maria Stephan, Chenoweth presents an analysis of more than three hundred political campaigns [TG, U.S. readers will associate “political campaigns” with running for elective office. Would “protest campaigns,” “reform campaigns,” or “social-justice campaigns” work better here? – TF] from 1900 to 2006. Of these, some 26 percent of violent campaigns were deemed successful, in contrast to some 53 percent of nonviolent ones. The superior strategic effectiveness of nonviolent campaigns was attributed to factors including greater ease of participation, enhanced persuasiveness to outsiders, and a greater capacity to usher in more durable democracies after regime change. This work won several prizes and has significantly influenced social justice and anti-war activists, who consult Chenoweth and her colleagues for advice.

Yet Ben Case (“Beyond Violence and Non-Violence,” Roar, issue 5) has questioned this work, disputing its underlying classifications. Case submits that Chenoweth and Stephan were comparing nonviolent civil campaigns with war, and that their classificatory framework avoids issues of property violence following upon civil demonstrations in a campaign that was primarily nonviolent. Obviously, war will involve both personal violence and property violence, and both will be (largely) defended within it. If war itself is deemed to be the alternative to civil nonviolence, whether street demonstrators vandalize sculptures, loot a department store, or set tires on fire will not emerge as an issue within the analysis. These forms of property violence stop short of war; thus, they will be classified as nonviolent. The classification seems like a gloss at best and offers no moral or strategic account of property violence in the highly relevant recent context of primarily nonviolent campaigns.

If strategic arguments such as those of Chenoweth and Stephan are not conclusive on the theme of nonviolence, we might flip the coin to reflect on contrary theories such as the anarchist theory that property is fundamentally illegitimate because its acquisition and administration are fundamentally unjust. Stemming from nineteenth-century anarchist theorists Pierre-Joseph Proudhon and Mikhail Bakunin, such theories delegitimize property and hence undermine norms in protection of it. The goal of anarchists was a society in which there was no property that owners could use to exploit others, and property would be held in common (though not by the state). On these accounts, property is not a positive thing; accordingly, damaging and destroying it would not be immoral. Here is an implication. If the local barbershop is not owned but “stolen,” then its legal owner is not a morally deserving owner; if people destroy his shop and business, they have destroyed something that was not really his in the first place. What they do will be illegal, likely disturbing, and environmentally destructive, but it will (apparently) not be immoral. In this frame of reference, property violence would be defensible, perhaps even virtuous, in its role in ushering in a situation of greater social justice.

How does one theorize and justify exactly who owns what, stemming from hypotheses about conquests and acquisitions distant in time? Will the barber fail to own his shop because of wrongful acts that occurred in the eighteenth or nineteenth century? Perhaps the great-grandfather of the man who sold the barber his chair profited from land taken by the government from Indigenous Americans. The historical chain leading to the barber’s lease will not be morally clean if this is the case. But how does one proceed from a very general theory about the history of property to a conclusion about the treatment of a particular contemporary individual? The answer is not obvious.

A recent book offers a controversial theory. In Defense of Looting by Vicky Osterweil was published in 2019. Osterweil offers an account of U.S. history according to which police and other enforcers have been solidly White-supremacist and property is contaminated by its colonial and anti-Black past. On her understanding, the history of the United States is one of unredeemed “cisheteropatriarchal” violence. Osterweil maintains that theories of nonviolent social action lack historical and contemporary credibility. She claims that what Blacks and other dispossessed people need is a true revolution, which will only begin when they act autonomously, from the grassroots, free of influencers who would restrain their impulses toward violence. On her analysis, if some have rioted and looted in their struggle, they should be proud of it. On this anarchist account, property as currently held is illegitimate: those who would riot and loot in response to current abuses can seek revenge and are on the right side of history. That would include the barber, who should lose his chair and his shop. If he suffers, well at least he is participating in a true revolution. Or so it would be said.

Departing, as most will, from anarchist theories of society and property, what is wrong with property violence from a secular point of view? It is illegal, immoral, and counter-strategic. To be sure, social and legal norms about violence will not be as strict as those stemming from theorists of nonviolent action. They may be expected to allow space for exceptions. Such norms are general (other things being equal, refrain from property violence) as opposed to universal (always refrain from property violence).

As to the law, we do not live in a society organized around anarchist principle. We live in a society where laws and institutions protect ownership. Private citizens own their clothing, often cars, dwellings, works of art, and land. Persons in business may own land, shops, and goods; they may employ persons paid for services, and these people in turn use their wages to gain and maintain their own property. The same can be said of corporations, some exceedingly large. (These points are boringly obvious.) For the most part, such ownership is legally protected and presumed in the conduct of daily life. People use property to provide themselves with the necessities of life and resources, in support of economic and social activities. Legal protection of property is a prerequisite for maintaining and conducting a life. People count on it to maintain shelter and food for themselves and their families. Corporations and governments also count on deference to property law and norms to carry on as they do.

We may wish that it were otherwise; there are terrible and horrifying abuses of power stemming from property. Income inequality is severe and damaging. Some people are homeless. People may cry “Eat the rich.” But this is life as we know it; these are the laws structuring our endeavors and relationships. Any effort to overthrow them in revolutionary gestures would be worse than unwise. It would be cruel; anarchist-inspired suffering would be highly unlikely to usher in a more just social order.

As to moral considerations, there are possible and actual harms to people when property is damaged. Attacks on property may injure people. While walls do not feel pain and corporate headquarters do not bleed, owners or bystanders may be injured when stones are thrown, explosives are used, or fires are set. The damaging or destruction of property may result in the physical injury of persons. Leaving the area of physical harm, people are often harmed otherwise as a result of property violence. If his barbershop is destroyed, the barber has lost his business, and his employees have lost their jobs. They and their families will suffer these losses. That’s looking at the small scale, and these sorts of losses often get media attention. Perhaps the barber is insured? Then the costs go to an insurance company, likely a large corporation. Even so, there will be spin-down effects on employees. The same case can be argued for attacks on corporate enterprises: people will be hurt economically and some of the harms will spin down to needy people and communities.

Thus, in addition to legal arguments, there are moral arguments against property violence. Such violence risks physically harming people, and it will nearly always harm people economically. Furthermore, resources will be destroyed and then, later, consumed in reconstruction. Environmental damage is likely.

Inspiring fear and resentment, property violence will nearly always be counter-strategic. That is to say, it is likely to undermine the cause being pursued by activists. Arson, smashing, and looting are unlikely to bring broad support; they will cause fear, resentment, and, in all likelihood, further repression. When police violence is the cause of justified nonviolent protests, any violent actions that accompany such protests will not lessen police violence. Instead, tragically and dangerously, arson and looting will inspire fear and more police violence, then bring on loud cries for law and order. Alarmingly, despite the very low level of violence accompanying Black Lives Matter demonstrations recently, such cries were loud and clear at the 2020 Republican National Convention.

Legal and social norms concerning property violence do not stem from the nonviolence theories of Tolstoy, Gandhi, and King. Although advocates of nonviolence theory would like to think their theories have broad social support, that is not the case. Public norms against property violence are best explained as general, not universal. They do not prescribe moral absolutes and should be understood as applying “other things being equal.” There will be candidates for exception. These cases fall into various categories: acts of sabotage, symbolic acts, acts of civil disobedience, acts to protect oneself or other people, and acts doing violence to one’s own property.

Examples of acts of sabotage may be found in anti-war activities. In 1967, in opposition to the Vietnam war, the brothers Philip and Daniel Berrigan poured blood on Selective Service records in the United States. In 1968, as members of the Catonsville Nine, the Berrigans burned Selective Service records. These were acts of sabotage involving public property and were at the same time acts of civil disobedience. Far from hiding their activities, the activists awaited arrest and the judgment of the law, and they spent time in jail. One who wished to defend these activities could argue that these activists demonstrated respect for the law even while violating it. The Berrigan brothers were again involved in acts of sabotage in 1980 when they smashed the nose cones of several nuclear weapons and poured blood on documents relating to them. As well as exemplifying sabotage and civil disobedience, their acts were symbolic in nature. One might argue for the high symbolic value of spilling the blood of activists in showing the threat to life posed by nuclear weapons.

More recent action in Bristol, England, provides another example that one might seek to justify on grounds of symbolic significance. On June 8, 2020, a statue of Edward Colston was toppled and thrown into the Avon River. Colston (1636–1721), a native of Bristol, was a slave trader and official in the Royal African Company and later a philanthropist after whom various streets and buildings in Bristol were named, many years after his death. In a clear representation of their sympathy with Blacks in the United States protesting the killing of George Floyd by a police officer in Minneapolis, protesters who tore down Colston’s statue laid it prostrate on the ground and leaned on the neck. These acts clearly amounted to property violence; they were illegal and open to objection as such. However, they were nevertheless defended by many for their symbolic significance as actions against slavery and the denigration of Black people. A poll by the Bristol Post indicated that some 60 percent of Bristol people backed protesters on the matter while 40 percent did not. One arguing against the vandalizing of this public property could contend plausibly that petitions, lobbying, and votes by authorized officials would have been an alternate means of achieving the removal of the statue.

Regarding candidate exceptions to norms against property violence, we may consider as well acts to protect or save lives. If personal violence can be justified in such cases, surely property violence can be justified along the same lines. Suppose, for instance, that hostages were held in a barbershop and rescuers needed to smash the door to get in. Doing that would be justified. The “offender” would probably be regarded as a hero, and any legal case against him would unlikely stand up in court.

Notwithstanding such candidate exceptions, there are important and cogent legal, moral, and strategic arguments against property violence. There are laws against the damaging and destruction of property. Though less important than laws against personal violence, they deserve respect and generally receive it. Failure to observe them will harm persons; it may even kill them. If a cause is valid, as is certainly the case for recent protests, property violence in its wake will be counterproductive, lessening support and increasing repression. We may count that undermining as an additional moral reason against acts of property violence; they are extremely likely to undermine public support for an important cause.

Left or Right, don’t try to justify property violence except in extraordinary cases. Alternatives are likely available, and your justification will be open to objections. Here’s the general message: legally, morally, and strategically, property violence is wrong. Don’t discount it. Don’t excuse it. Don’t try to justify it. And—nearly always—don’t do it. It won’t help your cause.

* n.d.

If a peaceful demonstration ends in smashing, looting, and burning, hard questions arise. Do these actions amount to justifiable violence? Excusable violence? Do they amount to violence at all? A study by Crowd Counting at the University of Connecticut estimated that in the spring and summer of 2020, 98 percent of Black Lives Matter demonstrations …

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