For the past few weeks the United States has been burning. Political protests spread quickly across the country after Minneapolis police killed George Floyd, an unarmed African American man. From that point onwards, news and social media feeds everywhere were inundated with images of broken windows, blazing cars, and police beatdowns. President Donald Trump reacted by calling for “justice” for the Floyd family and “law and order” for the activists.
Whether or not you buy this story depends largely on how you define the term “violence.” Trump’s comments locate violence squarely in the acts of bad actors on both sides—protesters and police—who can easily be identified and punished. The solution seems simple enough. Those that study violence might argue that it is too simple.
“Violence can never be understood solely in terms of its physicality—force, assault, or the infliction of pain—alone,” writes Nancy Scheper-Hughes and Philippe Bourgois, two scholars of the subject. They argue that rebellious protest and police brutality are not discrete acts, but rather points along a “continuum of violence … that also includes assaults on the personhood, dignity, sense of worth or value of the victim.” Viewing violence along a continuum sees it as a series of interrelated forces—ranging from murder, to racism, to poverty—that conspire together as common forms of coercion and abuse to limit the lives, status, movement and opportunities of victims.
My own research is not about acts perpetrated by protesters or police, but about those perpetrated by gangs. It is based in Cape Town, South Africa, one the world’s top tourist cities, and also one of its deadliest. Like the US, South Africa has its own history of racial oppression. In 1948, the South Africans implemented a policy of “apartheid”—meaning separateness—that institutionalized racial segregation across the country. White minority rule ended over 25 years ago, yet poverty, inequality, segregation, and insecurity still delineate the racial contours of South African cities.
Surrounded by a coastline that straddles the Indian and Atlantic Oceans, Cape Town is as glossy as a travel brochure, full of scenic vistas of Table Mountain, busy restaurants and bustling shops. Only a short drive from the city center, however, rival gangs fight bloody battles to control drug turf in the poor township communities where most of the city’s black and coloured population lives. Lots of white Capetonians will bemoan the lack of safety in their city. But, like me, the vast majority live in its center and suburbs, and do not experience anything close to the levels of violence found in townships.
Most city dwellers also forget—or ignore—the other ways they are connected to that violence. For one, poverty on periphery is the cheap labor supply that drives a high standard of living for those with wealth. This is the polished flip side of the so-called gang problem. What makes the city such an “affordable” destination for foreigners like myself, is the same thing that makes so many thousands of young Capetonians turn to gangs for income and empowerment. Policing in the city is also focused on fortifying the restaurants and shops of the downtown core, while conflict in township communities is merely controlled and contained. Without protection from police and courts, more youngsters join gangs. Others still, who are kept out of the city’s beaches and restaurants because of racism, likely find gangs more welcoming.
What is happening in Cape Town today is the result of a form of “neo-apartheid” that has outlived South Africa’s transition to democratic rule in 1994. Contemporary Cape Town’s black and coloured working classes remain trapped in extreme poverty, located at an arm’s length from middle-class—and mostly white—centers of commerce, tourism and leisure. Unable to access the basic amenities of life, up to 100,000 people have turned to gangs. Cape Town might seem a world away from Minneapolis, but the lessons for Americans are clear: violence exists on a tangled social continuum. Gangs are violent; but so is hunger; homelessness is also cruel and pitiless; inequality, racism and segregation are too; all in ways that are interwoven and inseparable.
Phillipe Bourgois, one of the researchers who studied the “continuum of violence,” did so against the backdrop of “American inner-city apartheid.” It is a phrase he coined to encapsulate the everyday oppression found in marginalized communities in the US, where murder rates are many times higher than those of other industrial nations, and expedient arrest and incarceration take the place of equitable access to shelter, employment, sustenance and health. Most of American society does not see this side of itself, however, “because drug dealers, addicts, and street criminals internalize their rage and desperation. They direct their brutality against themselves and their immediate community rather than against their structural oppressors.” Bourgois encouraged readers to avoid stark judgements of the people in his study, stating instead that “‘mainstream America’ should be able to see itself in the characters presented on these pages and recognize the linkages. The inner city represents the United States’ greatest domestic failing.” All of society was explicitly implicated in the continuum of violence Bourgois wrote about.
If Bourgois is right, then law and order initiatives are unlikely to bring peace or justice, as Trump has claimed. Anyway, America has tried this approach. South Africa has had its own tendencies towards militarized criminal justice, sending the army into townships to fight gangs—also without effect. Failure in both locations suggests that what is needed is not law and order, but rather a complete reformation of the current order of things. Accepting a more encompassing definition of violence helps make this clearer, by refocusing the emphasis for violence prevention away from aggressive criminal justice tactics, towards a broader spectrum of solutions like: community development, social services, recovery programs, mental health interventions, etc. Indeed, it is a perspective that reflects demands of anti-racism activists that policing is defunded and reconceptualized.
In a country like the US, which considers itself a society above others, it may be particularly difficult to face the many ways in which it is complicit in the killing of somebody like George Floyd; but if people will look, they will see the everyday violence that makes African Americans 2.5 times more likely to be killed by police than white people; the violence of a poverty rate that is 2.5 times as high for black people as it is for whites; the violence of higher rates of black arrest and imprisonment, and lower rates of employment, educational attainment and home ownership.
This round of unrest is already flaming out. The police that killed George Floyd may or may not go to jail in the coming months. The media interest will surely move on soon. But the continuum of violence in the US will inevitably continue. As more black people die, demonstrations will eventually flare up again as well, unless Americans start to see both street rebellion and police brutality as part of a system of aggression that is continuous and insidious. For if one is to censure such acts, one must also censure the systems that sustain them, as well as the role that wider society plays in perpetrating them. Anybody unwilling do so also becomes culpable, by making him or herself an accessory to murder through ignorance and inaction.