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The Language of Violence


I’m not sure how many witnessed Rev. Jesse Jackson patiently giving CNN’s Don Lemon a lesson on the Civil Rights Movement. In his comments on the riots in Ferguson, the poorly trained journalist was trying to push a revisionist narrative about the absence of violence in the Civil Rights struggle. Thinking he was posing a “deep” question, he asked the former Director of Operation Breadbasket why today’s African-Americans were not as peaceful in their protests as the Coloreds of yesteryear. His voice filled with shock and disgust, he just could not understand why the youth in Ferguson would express violent rage upon receiving the news of the Grand Jury refusal to indict Darren Wilson for the killing of Michael Brown.

Violence of Frustration

Once Mr. Lemon had issued his ignorant rhetoric, the fading icon who had marched and suffered abuse with the non-violent arm of the movement calmly reminded him of Watts, Chicago, and other American cities where the voice of violence compelled this Apartheid government to listen to Dr. King and the Southern Christian Leadership Conference. Had he time, Rev. Jackson could have also schooled him about the Black Panthers and Nation of Islam. He could even have given him a quick lesson on Nat Turner, Denmark Vesey, Gabriel Prosser and John Brown[1]—courageous men who lifted the violent sword of righteous indignation against the overwhelming force of their European captors.

Judging by the way in which Lemon tried to defend his position, I doubt this was a lesson learned for him. Nonetheless, as he reflects on the powerful platform from which he peddles his producers’ propaganda, hopefully he will take the time to read James Cone’s, Malcolm, Martin and America.[2] Hopefully, he will take the time to listen to Ziggy and Damian Marley’s prophetically relevant social commentary penned in Y2K in the wake of the brutal police abuse of Amadou Diallo:

Now I know you don’t care about me, I’m just a n***** walking down the street.

The brother did nothing wrong, but now his life is gone.

So I know you don’t care about me.

Code of silence you said. Yet your actions speak so loud and clear.

[Michael’s killer][3] going free, paid by society.

Now I know you don’t care about me.

Brother Lemon, this is why while most still choose to protest peacefully, a minority have resorted to violence, because their cup is full and running over with anger and frustration. Their behavior might be socially unacceptable, but you must interpret their actions through the paradigm of a frustrated infant with limited speech who will do anything to be heard. When you have a political system that protects what Rev. Jackson and others correctly term “state sponsored terrorism,” some will eventually say, “Enough is enough”! When you have a plutocratic and despotic system of government that is neither of the people, for the people or by the people, some will choose the “bullet” over the “ballot,” as Malcolm X warned. People speak violence because they have exhausted all other forms of communication. If you don’t believe me, ask the instigators of the American Revolutionary War!

Violence of Domination

As we learn from the American Revolutionary War, violence of frustration is often a response to violence of domination. Unlike violence of frustration, which is usually temperamental and impulsive, violence of domination is careful and calculated. Its aim is not to balance power or incite justice, but to scare others into submission and maintain a societal system in which the powerful privileged are protected while the rest are appeased and neglected.

Like other “successful” empires, America has skillfully mastered the syntax of the violence of domination, and has found it to be a language that is universally understood. Indeed, it was probably while researching the section of the war grammar text that discussed the rational behind dropping Fat Man and Little Boy on Nagasaki and Hiroshima, that General Colin Powell developed his “Overwhelming Force” doctrine. The dominance of the world’s greatest army definitely decimated the Afghan and Iraqi armies, and the collateral damage has progressively rippled into violent tidal waves of screaming violence that has seen the exponential multiplication of terror cells that also want to be heard in the same language.

Sadly, the “overwhelming force” mentality is not just limited to the field of war, but has permeated multiple levels of America’slaw enforcement agencies. Protected by the “blue shield,” many police officers are a law unto themselves as they act with impunity with the full knowledge that there is little chance that they will pay for their crimes. Indeed, it is this protection from law that has emboldened them to enforce control by the type of violence that characterizes the police state in which we live.

Although some eyes are just being opened to our dysfunctional law enforcement system, this is nothing new. I often hear Whites speaking nostalgically about the days when the “beat cop” knew everybody in the community.  During that same era, for Blacks in Montgomery, Birmingham, Boston, Chicago, Los Angeles, and other segregated towns, “beat cop” had a completely different connotation. Many of those whom their tax dollars paid to “protect and serve” have used their positions to maintain the system of White supremacy upon which this country was founded. As a result, the descendants of slaves are still disproportionately harassed, abused, framed and murdered by the occupying forces that have long terrorized their communities.

Undoubtedly, some who read this essay are so saturated by racist ideology that they have become deluded by their own twisted sense of victimhood. However, others know that Darren Wilson unleashed a volley of bullets in an unarmed teenager, who according to eye-witnesses was in a mode of surrender, simply because he could. For Officer Wilson, Michael Brown was no different than a deer in a hunter’s scope. The same is true for unarmed Eric Garner, Trayvon Martin,[4] John Crawford, Ezell Ford, Dante Parker, Kimani Gray, Kendrec McDade, Timothy Russell, Ervin Jefferson, Ousmane Zongo, Tamar Rice and untold others gunned down by police for the “crime” of “living while Black.” Sadly, for the most part, the media is selectively silent about state sanctioned violence of domination as it continues to vilify the frustration borne violence of those who feel they have no recourse through legitimate venues.

Conclusion: Violence Of Liberation

I find myself wondering how or if all this is going to end. I applaud outgoing Attorney General Eric Holder’s willingness to bring civil rights charges against some of these officers, however in order to fully address the problem he and others in the Administration must stop using terms like “recent spate of incidents.” With those for whom their version of the American Dream was written by Steven King, the word “recent” lessens the ingrained seriousness of the problem. I hope and pray that something can be done to end—or even lessen—the ongoing violence of domination so that there would be no impetus for the sporadic violence of frustration.

As a follower of Messiah, I am convinced that God expects me to respond to the violent dialects that express themselves through domination and frustration. If I can borrow an analogy from Archbishop Desmond Tutu, I cannot keep silent in the face of oppression as the domineering elephant has its foot on the frustrated mouse. As an agent of God’s grace, I cannot be indifferent to systemic and systematic government abuse of the “least of these.” Additionally, my Messianic citizenship also compels me to speak words of peace and wisdom to the frustrated. The architects of the Lexicon of Violence have mastered the syntax and know that sporadic violence of frustration tantrums are no match to the methodical violence of domination machine that will always have the final voice.

Well, not exactly always. According to scripture, the time is coming when political systems of domination will be forced to drink a tenfold dose of their own poison when they come face to face with the God who not only understands the language of violence, but can speak it with a holy and righteous accent. At that time, as the avenging God makes his final appearance with his terrible sword, the unrepentant perpetrators of the violence of this age will be the object of God’s eschatological violence. This is the violence of liberation foreshadowed in the Exodus, which lays the foundation for the eternal Kingdom of Peace.

As you think about the way you respond to the language of violence, always remember that, “a tree is known by its fruit.”

[1] Yes, I know Brown was White, but he sided with the oppressed.

[2] (Maryknoll, NY: Orbis, 1991).

[3] The original lyrics say “Diallo’s killers going free….”

[4] I know George Zimmerman was not a police officer, but if you recall the case he was strongly supported by the Ferguson Police Department.


Keith Augustus Burton is the Director of the Center for Adventist-Muslim Relations at Oakwood University. He is also on the Advisory Board of Adventist Peace Fellowship.

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