On Vigilante Justice and the Need for Social Movements

“Compared with the wholesale violence of capital and government, political acts of violence are but a drop in the ocean. That so few resist is the strongest proof how terrible must be the conflict between their souls and unbearable social iniquities. High strung, like a violin string, they weep and moan for life, so relentless, so cruel, so terribly inhuman. In a desperate moment the string breaks. Untuned ears hear nothing but discord. But those who feel the agonized cry understand its harmony…”
–Emma Goldman, excerpt from “The Psychology of Political Violence”

By Tariq Khan, BRRN

Alton Sterling, murdered by the Baton Rouge police at point-blank range for the crime of selling CDs to feed his family. Education worker Philando Castile, murdered by the Minnesota police in front of his girlfriend and her four-year-old daughter; targeted by the police because he had a “wide-set” nose. Michael Brown, murdered in the street by the St. Louis police for jaywalking, described by his murderer as having a face “like a demon.” Twelve-year-old Tamir Rice, murdered by the Cleveland police as he played with a toy at a playground. Sandra Bland, murdered by Texas police, died in jail where police took her for failure to signal a lane change. Freddie Gray, murdered by the Baltimore police, who brutalized him so cruelly that his spine was severed from his neck. Every day another person murdered by police and vigilantes. 17-year-old Trayvon Martin looked suspicious. 14-year-old Emmett Till wasn’t deferential enough in his demeanor. These murders stretch back through the decades, through the lynchings and pogroms of the Jim Crow era, into chattel slavery, when the predecessors of the modern police, the Slave Patrols, hunted people who escaped enslavement and violently exerted authority to control the movement of Black people.

And in spite of continuing mass protest, city and state officials find that the police “acted appropriately,” “followed procedure,” and acted with “restraint and professionalism.” No accountability. No justice. No changes deeper than the superficial level. The daily, systemic state violence against poor and racialized communities continues unabated. So is it really “random” when Army veteran Micah Johnson, apparently acting on his own, killed five police officers (one of whom had white supremacist tattoos) in Dallas at a protest against police violence, or when even more recently a shooter killed three officers in Baton Rouge, where militarized police have been bullying people over the past week?

This suicidal anti-police violence is the tragically inevitable outcome of a violent system that is impervious to the concerns of the people it targets. Given the cruel nature of this system, and the deep alienation under which people live and work, it is remarkable that these suicidal acts of desperation do not happen more often. If things do not change significantly, we can be assured that such acts will happen more often.

We do not celebrate or encourage such acts but recognize that the anger is justified. The powerlessness and hopelessness from which these acts spring is cultivated by violent law enforcement institutions and more by the systemic political and economic injustice that such institutions function to protect. We aim our anger and condemnation up, rather than down, the social hierarchy. We condemn the businessmen, politicians, corporate media outlets, and state officials whose policies create a situation in which people feel so disempowered that they see no way out other than anti-social violence.

For those of us who want to live in a more just and less violent society, there is no magic bullet solution. No lone gunman, unaccountable to larger emancipatory mass movements, can shoot us into a free and equal society. The kind of revolutionary change we struggle for requires mass people’s movement organizing for clear demands to change the underlying unjust social relations at the root of police violence. Within the larger anti-police violence and Black Lives Matter movements, the demand to disarm, defund, and disband the police is a hopeful start which we support, however it is only a start. As anarchists, the questions we grapple with have to do with what needs to change in the structure of society – socially, economically, politically – for police to become obsolete, and how do we build a mass movement strong and aware enough to fight for those changes.