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In the land of the blind the one-eyed man is king

Pambazuka News by Kerrie Thornhill 13 January 2015

Violent fantasies are founded on two assumptions. First, that violence can solve one’s problems. Second, that one is good at violence. Seldom is either of these conditions true. Yet violence pervades the cosmopolitan imaginary through works of fantasy such as: crime shows, gory movies, and war games. Largely outside popular prurience and, often, out of sight, violent realities pervade our lives from global affairs to intimate relationships, in the form of unjust wars, the weapons trade, financial inequality, torture, gender-based violence, and colonised hearts and minds.

Contrary to the facile, perfect binaries of good and evil brought to us by universal human rights paradigms, it is rare to find an individual or institution who is ‘perfectly’ victimised by these injustices or who is in no way complicit with their existence. Perhaps because of our imperfections, non-violent resistence of the kind that Mohandas K. Gandhi embodied can capture the activist’s imagination as a heroic, stoic, and righteous act. Others, like Frantz Fanon, choose righteous fury as a justification for militarised resistance.

This piece is a rejoinder in response to a recent editorial defending street violence as a political act, written by Alex Gawenda and my colleague Ashok Kumar on the website, defending street violence as a political act. The article’s title encapsulates its central folly: An Eye for an Eye and the Whole World Can See: street justice and state violence. This is a subversion of Gandhi’s saying ‘anAn eye for an eye makes the whole world blind’. Let us examine this statement literally. It is true that a world full of one-eyed recipients of vengeful ‘street justice’ would technically be able to see. It is also true that they would lack depth perception. So too do the ‘one-eyed kings’ of Fanonian violence miss the point in their deceptively nuanced promotion of hatred. I argue that An Eye for an Eye ignores the contributions of peaceful organisers, fails to acknowledge any negative consequences of subaltern violence, and cherry-picks historical examples that rarely support the argument as intended. Consequently, the article silences African and indigenous non-violent alterity.


Gawenda and Kumar argue that episodes like the 2011 Nottingham police station bombings, the 2013 public slaying of a British soldier by Michael Adebolajo and Michael Adebowale, and the 1831 Nat Turner rebellion should be reconceived as ‘political acts’ against inequality. They do not merely object to racist and xenophobic media coverage of these events. They argue that violent organising is a perfectly sensible idea; that violence in Haitian and Zimbabwean independence and Indian peasant uprisings were ultimately more worthwhile than ‘apologist’ protest movements elsewhere.

Writers who cherry-pick empirical examples in support of their hypothesis should at least select stories that fit. The case studies of Haiti and Zimbabwe do not commend armed violence as a restitution of oppressed majority rights. Regardless of one’s empathy for the motives of armed resistance in Haiti and Zimbabwe, these countries did not emerge as sites of good governance, peace and prosperity in the aftermath of widespread violence. Everjoice Win (2004) demonstrates that patriarchal violence surrounding the Chimurenga land reform betrayed Zimbabwean women. This essay returns to the toxicity of violence in a later section. Here, the point is that from an instrumental perspective, these examples score own goals in the hyper-masculine game of legitimising ‘street justice’. Gawenda and Kumar’s persuasive revision of the Nat Turner rebellion is an interesting read but it is geographically, temporally, and logically distant from the main argument.

The tone of Eye for an Eye alternates between the kind of socialist polemic that Orwell lamented 80 years ago in his ‘Politics and the English Language’, and an Oxonian academic parlance. It confronts readers with not only the pig-dogs and dirt-pigeons of the struggle for the fight against the jackbooted velvet fists of squealing capitalist machinery, but also cerebral passages that invoke latin phrases and scholarly citations from Ranajit Guha among others. Speaking of Guha, the authors’ claim to ‘subalternity’ is not served well by their refusal to cite even one woman, much less a woman of colour, in their defense of violence from below. Discursive violence, as Spivak (1988, 1999) classically argued, is the foundation of the epistemological and physical erasure of the subaltern.

Outside the niceties of academic discussions about violence there are real world consequences. One of the authors referenced Eye for an Eye in an online discussion to support statements that mocked the murders of two police officers in NYC.New York City. By this logic of ‘street justice’, a man who shoots his African-American ex-girlfriend, then kills an Asian cop and a Latino cop, commits a ‘political act’act by punishing individuals associated with institutionalised racism. I will not intellectualise my anger for inhumane statements like: ‘the only good cop is a dead cop’, and ‘I’m putting wings on pigs today’. It is a rape of logic to say that shooting a Black woman and killing two police officers of colour is a blow against white supremacy. This example shows not only the limitations of scholarly celebrations of violence, but the blunt stupidity of their deployment in activist circles.


The authors argue that to view violent flashpoints as ‘random’ crimes is to isolate the act from the longstanding context of racialised/imperial/capitalist oppression. That is a reasonable observation. Yet that point itself is alienated from the context of peaceful social tranformation. They make no reference to changes inspired by Blacklivesmatter, Idle No More, diverse feminisms, queer liberation, and non-violent independence movements. Peaceful Ferguson protestors are obviously not ignorant of the wider context of racism. Therefore, An Eye for an Eye chastises white supremacist commentators by pointing out their hypocrisy, but offers no argument for why intelligent anti-racist activists should not condemn violent acts that we find tragic and pointless.

Save one. Kumar and Gawenda recommend that we ‘blow up Gordian knots’. This is because they have lost patience for ‘humbly petitioning’ oppressive institutions, the way ‘apologist’ movements apparently do.

I do not dispute that non-violence is frustratingly slow in achieving results. And thankless.

However, revolutions that aim to punch up often find it easier to punch down. Hyper-masculine and hegemonic agents of resistance turn upon easy targets, anyone even more vulnerable than themselves. Subalterned women often find themselves trapped between duelling saviors. Additionally, ethnic and religious minorities make convenient scapegoats when revolutions become emasculated by their own inefficacy.

What about those who painstakingly rebuild social structures ruptured by violent revolutions? An Eye for An Eye does not mention their burden. Those like Marjane Satrapi (2007) who sees popular revolutions hijacked by a minority of extremists? Not a word. What about Black and minority-ethnic feminists who find their energy stolen by attending to the egos of entitled masculine allies and equally entitled white-colonial feminist ones? Do African feminists, stiwanists, or womanists such as Chimamanda Adichie (2014)), Molara Ogundipe (1994) and Everjoice Win (2004)), count when they criticise patriarchal independence movements?

No. According to Eye for an Eye, women should shut up and take the slap, since Oxford-educated activists are too ‘tired’ to start the revolution from within. Of course, the piece does not directly state that marginalised women should bear abuse from their brothers for the sake of resistance. Rather, the silence on the issue of violence against women of colour by their ‘allies’ speaks volumes. Refusal to acknowledge the toxic, cancerous effects of violent organising on its lateral attendants and subordinates is a silent preface to the refusal to take responsibility or preventative action.

Out of cramped, intersectional spaces have emerged an expansive set of alternatives. African and North American indigenous feminist work is gaining centrality from mainstream allies willing to decolonise. Below, Cherokee feminist Andrea Smith disintegrates the supposed trade-off between gender justice and social justice:

‘It is often the case that gender justice is articulated as being a separate issue from issues of survival for indigenous peoples. Such an understanding pre-supposes that we could actually decolonise without addressing sexism, which ignores the fact that it has been precisely through gender violence that we have lost our lands in the first place…’ (2005, 137-139).

Her words could just as aptly describe the collusion between patriarchy and colonialism in the scramble for Africa. While there is a diversity of perspectives in both African feminist and American indigenous feminist activities, clear parellels can be drawn between geographically disparate feminisms that are anticolonial, inclusive, and transformational.

Smith’s point goes beyond zero-sum reasoning that pits subalterned women against subordinated men. Militarised violence – a legacy of colonialism – costs men and boys their lives. If not their lives, then their souls. Kumar and Gawenda’s call to ‘blow up Gordian knots’ rather than assiduously untie them is a reference to Alexander the Great’s colonial conquests. Alexander’s imperial arrogance in slicing the knot with his sword is an apt analogy. It excises the socially weakened post-colonies around the world: populations divided and hearts cut by the ‘martial races’ doctrine; peoples whose militarisation was the method of their conquest by British imperialists (Streets 2004). It slices aside the complex gendered abuse of African men on plantations, which slavers denied every shred of humanity except physical force (Hooks 2004). It cuts right around Iroquois and Cherokee fighters whom the British paid for scalps during settler wars in North America, and indigenous communities in Canada who first learned sexual abuse from the genocidal residential school system (Smith 2005).

Indigenous peoples’ rich heritage of democracy, diplomacy, and gender equality has been cropped from the colonial record. These days, many refuse to play Cowboys and Indians. Rather than replicating violence, activists devote their lives to the hard, honest work of repairing family and social relations, protesting injustice, and taking considered and ethical forms of direct action. They are armed with weapons of mass information. In 2013, Attawapiskat Chief Theresa Spence survived a six -week hunger strike for aboriginal sovereignty in Canada. The world paid attention, and Idle No More became a global decolonising force. Not coincidentally, Idle No More is gender equitable, pacifist, and inclusive. (See, for example: Violence is rarely a winning strategy for a minority population recovering from near extermination. Recovering stories and languages and repairing social networks is not about ‘apologism’ but survival (King, 2003).

Once again there are similarities between the North American indigenous uprising and African gender justice movements. Lehmah Gbowee’s peace protest in Liberia drew upon indigenous and vernacular female leadership mechanisms to demand an end to war and corruption. As a researcher I have personally witnessed countless unsung, unstudied, unrecognised everyday actions in peace-loving West African societies. Political protests in Burkina Faso in 2014 recalled a Sankarist ethic of care and gender equality. These actions are no ‘humble petitions’ nor are they ‘apologist’.

Everyday heroes refuse to add their integrity to the long list of things imperialism stole from them. White feminists like myself are slowly learning to decolonise our minds and our politics. I am grateful that Black and indigenous feminists gave me the chance to change; grateful that their justified anger never veered into murderous hatred. And I am tired of the ‘manarchists’ and the ‘brocialists’, thoughtlessly angry young men who would sooner throw a Molotov than they would bottle-feed their female comrades’ babies.


Holding individuals accountable – by death – for structural and institutionalised violence is irrational. Big minds attack ideas. Small minds attack people. Killing an individual soldier as a ‘political act’ against the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq is not just a cowardly form of reprisal, it also precludes the possibility that the guilty can change. The soldier murdered in Woolwich could have become the next Chelsea Manning, but this will not happen posthumously. Therefore, exterminating individuals presumed to be beyond redemption is a self-fulfilling prophecy. Circular reasoning is superimposed upon the circle of life, drawing even tighter the suffocating logic of wretched-earth justice.

Kumar and Gawenda are correct in indicating the racism and double standards of those who condemn Adebolajo and Adebowale’s crime while celebrating militarised state violence. But condoning ‘street justice’ as a safeguard against state hegemony is a pointless fantasy for the moral majority who oppose both. If anything, the dacoit and the Leviathan are mutually supporting, as they collude with each other’s self-fulfilled prophecy of the necessity of harm. The countless alternatives provided by Black and indigenous feminisms went uncounted in Eye for an Eye. We should all fight, not against individual bystanders, but against the invisibility of black non-violence.

In conclusion, I offer some afterthoughts. The reader may wonder why I took the time to write this response when worse forms of institutionalised violence exist. Is it a racist double standard to expect more from socialist men of colour than from white police officers who commit or condone racist violence?

I offer that this is a valid double standard. Those who stand up for social justice should by definition hold themselves to higher expectations than those, like racist cops, who invest heavily in the inequalities we oppose. We should answer disgrace with grace, following a range of examples provided by Black, African, and indigenous feminists and their men. On the topic of double standards, if Gawenda and Kumar truly believe that being oppressed justifies violence against those in the line of fire, with no consideration for other potential victims, then they will necessarily have to abandon their criticism of the state of Israel. Activists who call for the annihilation of anyone inhabiting an oppressive institution are naïve to think they would survive a cull. Then again, maybe death would be a relief in a world where the antidote to centralised violence is decentralised violence.

But this is not our world. As I write, a tiny bird born in winter hops between the branches of an evergreen tree outside my window. How privileged I am to hear its song from my warm and bright apartment in a university town. How deeply outrageous that others are denied the chance. The chickadee reminds me that the decision to choose harm – whether for philosophical or tactical reasons – is a possibility offered by the prior condition of having the capacity to harm, a capacity that not all of us share. But we all share the capacity to flourish, even under outrage, and to help others do the same. An emancipatory political movement inheres modes of change where harmlessness can go unpunished.

* Kerrie Thornhill is D.Phil Candidate, University of Oxford School of Geography & the Environment, 2012 Trudeau Scholar.