Making Sense of Violent Resistance

I’m teaching a course this semester entitled Black Power, Black Panther. The course is pretty much what it sounds like: a course on the Black Power and Black Panther movements. There are plenty of similarities between the movements, and of course plenty of very intensely contested differences. More about those in another post.

We started with two essays outside that frame for the course: Achille Mbembe’s “Necropolitics” and Walter Benjamin’s “Critique of Violence.” From each, I wanted a few basic insights:

  • from Mbembe, I wanted students to see how in an anti-Black racist world, bodies are managed in large part through the production of killable populations — populations that lie outside the law, populations for whom extra-judicial killing is the order of the day and central to the fabric of our shared lifeworld. This has been the history of Black peoples, from the slave trade to colonial domination and segregation to current regimes of over policing and racialized mass incarceration. Sit with that, I said.
  • from Benjamin, I wanted students to start thinking critically about the meaning of the police, to think about them beyond common sense ideas of “helping to make us safe.” Instead, Benjamin describes the function of the police as a form of violence, making and enforcing and re-making the law. It’s a long argument.
  • also from Benjamin, I wanted them to think about this term “justice.” Justice, in his essay, is what Benjamin calls “divine violence,” something that comes about as or at the end of the world as we know it, instituting an entirely new order. Thinking that dramatically about justice is counter-intuitive for most of us, because justice so often just means “giving people their due” or “being kind.”

From that, we’ve leapt right into a foundational text about violent resistance to anti-Black racism: Robert F. Williams’ Negroes With Guns. This short book is a collection of occasional writings, letters, statements, radio transcripts, and the like, all documenting Williams’ thoughts on armed self-defense. His work as an NAACP rep, then as a militant organizer, co-existed with Martin Luther King, Jr’s nonviolent movement. Both were Southerners and worked in rural communities (Williams mostly in Monroe, NC). That surely complicates our understanding of the civil rights movement! Already, at the beginning, a split on the question of violence.