Scattered Thoughts on Violence and Non Violence

Fight Club

Going to the MLK memorial dedications gave me quite a bit to think about. I struggled, a lot, with Dr. King’s messages of non violence growing up, and I am working on a piece about these different schools of thought and how they influence us. I was grateful to Xernona Clayton, for being so candid about her struggle with accepting nonviolence while studying with Dr. King, because she articulated so much of what I felt.

So imagine my surprise this morning, while checking my feeds, to see this piece from Kenyon Farrow, titled “In Defense of Brontez—and the Rest of Us Too Proud or Too Trashy to Go Down Without a Fight.” In it, Farrow describes a situation where a friend of his was subjected to homophobic comments, and what happened after the situation escalated:

[H]e and friend/bandmate Adal had left the Paradiso nightclub when two Black men with some Caribbean accent began harassing them as they left the club. Adal is not queer, but the two men, according to Brontez, assumed that they were a couple, and began calling them “batty boy” and other epithets. Finally, they made the statement, “if we were at home you’d be dead by now.”

Brontez, clearly enraged, went the fuck off. After more words were exchanged, and Brontez says he spit at the car the men were in, and then he was punched in the face. Brontez says he then hit the man’s car with his bicycle lock and they assaulted Brontez and Adal (who’s face was broken in five places). The police were called but no arrests have been made.

In a write up of the incident in the Bay Area Citizen, another prominent activist (Kevin Bynes) entered the comments section and disputed the version of facts Brontez gave, which sparked an argument – and led Farrow to reflect on how we expect people to respond to violence:

But as Brontez himself said, and I very much believe, he wasn’t going to just let that shit slide. Brontez actually states in the article what Bynes re-asserts in his comment—he didn’t expect to be threatened with violence at a place he’d frequented for years (both men live in the neighborhood where this incident took place), so I am not sure why Bynes re-states this point in his comment—unless he flat out does not believe anything at all transpired to make Brontez angry in the first place (The Bay Citizen published a second story where Adal corroborates Brontez’s assertion that the men started harassing them first). Bynes’ assertion that the club used to be a queer space but is still frequented by queers seems to ignore the realities many of us know from experience. Many of us have been at “the club” in any city USA that used to be a queer bar, and the straights who then take it over act brand fucking new and further marginalize queers who continue to go there. And since when did neighborhoods or establishments with lots of LGBT people mean they were free from homo/transphobic violence? That doesn’t make any kind of sense.

So the question for me here, and where I vehemently disagree with Bynes, is how one defines “provocation” and who judges what then is the socially acceptable response. I tend to agree with Brontez. Too often people who are targeted for violence have to have their motivations and their recollection of all the “facts” or chronology of all the events hyper-scrutinized beyond recognition if they at all do anything other than lay down and take the abuse (or in the case of sexual assault, you’re accused of lying if you don’t have any physical evidence that you fought back, or you choose to try to still (and steel) yourself to try to avoid further violence, or are simply in a state of shock). And what is more true than not, most of us, in some way, respond verbally or physically fight back.

I think Brontez was enraged by the situation and responded accordingly. But rage, as bell hooks once stated, is an appropriate response to oppression. I actually have never seen Brontez angry to the point of fighting the way he clearly must have been that night. But any of us, caught at the right place at the wrong time, may have responded similarly. People get tired of this bullshit. I am tired of it. I have had people hurl similar epithets and make threats to me. One day I may walk away. Another day, I walk right into that fire. Once, similar to what happened to Brontez—two Black men started with me, but when I didn’t run or back down, they punched my non-black friend instead—who once they engaged, thought was going to be an easier target. So I know what it means to reach that point where you say to yourself, Fuck it. I don’t give a fuck what happens today. I am not going to be disrespected and let you walk away from here thinking that shit is OK to do. Not now.

Farrow is hitting the nail on the head here, and I’ll take it a step further – sometimes, walking away or taking the high road reinforces to that person that their behavior is permissible. Because there was no get-back, and there was no come up. Perhaps this is a class influenced response – I love how Kenyon writes “too proud or too trashy,” because fighting or making a scene in public are both coded as low class behaviors. I’m still thinking on it and forming what I want to say, but for now the floor is open.

  • Trubup

    Your passion for a struggle is admirable but your premise is wrong. If you truly compare Dr.King’s philosophy of a non- violent movement with isolated incident of homophobic hate crimes, you will see similarities but stark differences. Dr.King’s non violent philosophy was directed to a larger audience. The larger populous that were largely sympathetic to the civil rights movement, but very silent. The strategy was to expose a largely violent repressive government and garner sympathy and support thru media attention in order to create pressure on the national government for intervention and action. Local hate crimes were often unavoidable, but used as an example to seek prosecution of individuals and strengthen national laws against such acts. Now, hate crimes against homosexuals is just a atrocious and should be condemned. The strategy should be built upon a philosophy of non violence because as Dr.King understood, violent confrontations of two people will never garner sympathy or support the way that one would look upon a helpless victim. I would never say don’t defend yourself from harm, but I will say use only the force necessary to protect yourself from harm and no greater. Look at this perspective, what if the flash mobs in Philidelphia gathered in non- violent protest to express their point of view on joblessness and hopelessness of community. Do you think the local government would respond in the manner they did, or would they embrace them thus giving that movement more power than unsymaphetic responses. Look at the manner in which people respond to violent acts, unsympathetic, revenge oriented, the crush them like a cockroach mentality. That type of response is difficult to justify if the message is non-violent. Just something to think about.

  • Anonymous

    Too often, folks touting non-violence to marginalized and oppressed folk is the equivalent of telling us to just shut up and take it AND do it with a smile on our faces (bonus points for “goodness” if we ask for more like Oliver Twist).  Bullshit on that.  The only language some people understand is an ass-whoopin. 

    Do the people who are condemning Brontez (and way to blame the victim, folks) really think those homophobes would have just left them alone if they stopped, sat down and sang “Kumbaya?”

    Defending ones person is important … intending to hurt another person is a dangerous act that involves the wounded ego. I think it takes extensive training, psycho-spiritually, to understand how to hold your awareness of what you are willing to respond to.

    Now we have the whole “if you resort to violence then you’re weak-minded/stooping to the level of your oppressor” argument.  Please!  No need for a hammer all the time since not all problems are nails.  But to those folks who don’t understand polite discourse, that hammer could go quite a ways in getting your point across.

    As a marginalized person, no I do NOT feel I must just shut up and take it.

  • Anonymous

    Also, interpersonal conflict is different than 1000′s of black people with open hands and fists fighting against an entire police brigade. Violence within those conditions are just foolish. Dr. King is eternally right for that position. The Dalai Lama and Ghandi are other prime examples of facing a no win situation when it comes to violence. 

  • Anonymous

    Fighting/violent aggression is an altogether different act than self-defense. Defending ones person is important … intending to hurt another person is a dangerous act that involves the wounded ego. I think it takes extensive training, psycho-spiritually, to understand how to hold your awareness of what you are willing to respond to. The sad thing in this case is that the two harassers got exactly what they wanted and succeeded in hurting someone they despised. I sincerely believe that the importance and significance of non-violence is to show exactly where the violence lives. It is a way to show that the aggressor is the one with the problem. I understand fighting back, yet, had  Brontez sent a message by whooping the other guys ass, it would be symbolic victory at best. “Thinking Twice” about attacking someone again is nice, but it doesn’t eradicate the issue … it only inflames it further. Fire needs fuel … non-response is water … and allows the aggressor and everyone else to be witness to their hatred. I’m sorry, I feel bad for Brontez and his broken jaw, but he gave his aggressors exactly what they wanted. 

    Beyond all of that  … karma is real. It may not be quick nor justice delivered in the way that our egos would like to see fit, but … it is real nonetheless. 

  • kayj

    Funny, I was talking to my sister about this the other day, how we censor ourselves, hold in the anger we feel, in our case for fear of being perceived as “angry black bitches”.  (this was occassioned by my sister having “gone off” about a colleagues behavior, which believe me is rare).  I’m still thinking this through myself, but I do believe there is something damaging when you feel as if you cannot express your justifiable frustration and anger in the face of oppression for fear that, better, in the reality that, you will likely be judged more negatively than the person doing the oppressing.  I’m really looking forward to the discussion on this.

  • http://www.facebook.com/stancliff Grant Stancliff

    To be clear, what we are calling non-violence is weeks of mental and physical training and strategic use of people’s bodies in space to assert resistance. It’s a little bit of a trick to call it non-violence. Any act of resistance to power, whiteness, maleness, heterosexuality, is interpreted without reservation as violent or inappropriate.

    Just ask the person at the office who’s been labeled a troublemaker for wondering if Joe in accounting was racist.

    I think some of this frustration is that it feels like being defanged and accepting oppression. But it’s really not… I think the question is what sort of resistance is acceptable ethically, sustainable in terms of movement, and accessible for the most amount of folks.

    Me? I gotta admit to being working class and prone to the scrappiness, but “scrappiness” means something else to me as a grown man than it did when way back in the day.

  • Katie

    I just…can’t get 100% on nonviolence. Not if it means that many people will die, or take constant disrespect without hope of change. I think oftentimes nonviolent means work just fine, but I cannot look someone in the face and tell them that they should not fight for their freedom in whatever way they have available to them.

  • http://twitter.com/GREGORYABUTLER Gregory A. Butler

    By going in front of a queer-identified space (or a space that was perceived as queer-identified) and yelling out homophobic slurs, those two bigots were picking a fight.

    They got what they were looking for.

    I think Brontez did the right thing. He stood his ground, confronted the bigots and defended himself. He got hurt – but I bet that those two bigots will think twice before they pick another fight with a man they perceive as gay! If anything, having gotten in a two on one fight with a man they thought was gay and almost losing would cause enough cognitive dissonance ["but gay guys are supposed to be weak!"] that they may never try that kind of stunt again!

  • Anonymous

    I think a lot of the emphasis on marginalized folks to be non-violent or “take the high road” or “rise above” their societal abuse is about keeping the oppressors from being punished in any way, shape or form.  A racist can take comfort that s/he won’t suffer the fate of John Massie (http://www.huffingtonpost.com/2011/07/06/one-punch-murder_n_891788.html) if they decide to racially harass someone.  It reinforces that there will be no negative consequences to this behavior.

  • Anonymous

    I think a lot of the emphasis on marginalized folks to be non-violent or “take the high road” or “rise above” their societal abuse is about keeping the oppressors from being punished in any way, shape or form.  A racist can take comfort that s/he won’t suffer the fate of John Massie (http://www.huffingtonpost.com/2011/07/06/one-punch-murder_n_891788.html) if they decide to racially harass someone.  It reinforces that there will be no negative consequences to this behavior.

    • Kimmy

      Absolutely. I have felt the pain of racial intimidation and Ive know that even of my words tell of me being the next MLK Jr, it doesn’t mean a thing to people who are low enough to be racist. What I really want is to not even beat them all the way up, just flex, so that I can at least get my point across that I’m not scared and I can intimidate you too. But even that bit paint me as the angry black woman…hell, they could have called the cops and locked me up just because of my skin.