On Rioting and State Violence

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On ‘Rioting’ and State Violence

Clare O'Connor interviews AK Thompson

The uprising that emerged following the murder of George Floyd reignited debates about violence both in the media and among activists and scholars of social movements. Under pressure to distinguish the violence sometimes used by protestors from the state violence they oppose, activists have alternated between emphasizing the strategic or moral value of nonviolence and analyzing the causes and effects of violent action. As in the past, the former, “normative” approach has enjoyed broad social traction; however, as critical theorist AK Thompson has pointed out, movement participants who advance such conceptions have often ended up implicitly defending the state’s monopoly on the legitimate use of force. In contrast, Thompson has argued that developing an analytic approach to the question of violence has allowed... activists to perceive the limits of political representation and thus to begin coming to terms with the demands of politics as such.

Thompson first advanced these arguments in his 2010 book Black Bloc, White Riot: Anti-Globalization and the Genealogy of Dissent, an underground classic that turned 10 this year. Focused on the struggles against corporate globalization that heralded the new millennium, the book anticipated many of the themes that continue to shape debates about protest violence today. Black Bloc, White Riot is now the subject of a forthcoming special issue of the journal Theory in Action committed to documenting the volume’s enduring relevance. In this interview, I push Thompson to clarify the political and strategic implications of the distinction he advances between normative and analytic conceptions of violence.

Clare O’Connor (CO): In Black Bloc, White Riot, you argued that the emergence of black bloc tactics, which use sartorial uniformity to facilitate confrontation, helped reveal the limits of the representational sphere within which most movements operate. Since then, political violence by non-state actors has become more common and state violence has become more brazen. Nevertheless, the polarized debates this violence has yielded have been very similar to the ones you described 10 years ago. How do you account for this?

AK Thompson (AKT): The emergence of the black bloc during the Battle of Seattle in 1999 presented movement participants and commentators with a form of political violence thought to have arisen from the white middle-class. This resulted in a tremendous conceptual confusion since, historically speaking, the white middle-class has served as representation’s ideal subject. Since representation is commonly understood to be violence’s antithesis, black bloc actions disrupted not only norms but also presuppositions regarding the meaning of politics as such. This confusion has not really abated.

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