Posted on | May 2, 2012 | 1 CommentIn today’s Stranger, Brendan Kiley has a thought piece about yesterday’s May Day activities in downtown Seattle entitled Why All the Smashy-Smashy? A Beginner’s Guide to Targeted Property Destruction.
In that piece, Brendan draws a distinction between “violence” and “vandalism,” suggesting that the news media too often lumps these two things together under the singular heading of “violence.”
While I agree that Brendan’s distinction may well be worth considering, particularly at the level of theory, I’m not surprised that people typically link the term “vandalism” with the term “violence.”
Here’s why: Both vandalism and violence are forms of aggression. Yes, they take place along a moral continuum. Violence is worse. But when people, animals, etc. are nearby, the distance between vandalism and violence can be very short indeed.
Most people are cognizant of this reality. They know that once you let out the genie of aggression for whatever purpose, righteous intentions may not be enough to prevent a situation from careening into violence.
When I was in school in Madison, Wisconsin back in the mid to late 1980s, there was a fruit smoothie stand on the Library Mall called “Loose Juice.” It was owned by a guy named Karleton Armstrong. On August 24, 1970, Karleton, his brother and two other dudes blew up the Army Math Research Building at the University of Wisconsin-Madison.
It was intended as an act of vandalism or targeted property destruction to use Brendan’s terminology. Karleton and his cohorts tried to make sure that nobody was inside.
But a post-doctoral fellow named Robert Fassnacht apparently didn’t get the memo. He was in the basement doing research that night, trying to wrap some stuff up before starting his family vacation. When the building blew up, he was killed.
Karleton and some of his cohorts went to jail (one of the four dudes is apparently still at large). When he got out, he opened the smoothie stand.
Karleton made a good smoothie called the Dick Gregory with strawberries and bananas. He seemed like a humble, soft spoken dude. I’m sure his intentions were good back in 1970. But his act of targeted property destruction killed somebody. That was real. That was violence. That he intended something different didn’t change the outcome.
This reality was hammered home for me years later here in Seattle. A distant cousin of mine came to visit and pinged about having lunch with my brother and me. We met him and his wife at the Saigon Bistro above the Viet Wah in the I.D..
My cousin was older than us, and we didn’t know him really at all. As we talked, it turned out that he had attended grad school in Madison during the late 1960s and early 1970s.
I made a comment about that era being crazy times. I think I must have referenced the Math Research Building blowing up and how Karelton had the smoothie stand on the Library Mall while I was in Madison.
When I said that, my cousin tensed up a little. “The guy who was killed in that bombing was a friend and colleague of mine. He had a wife and young kids.”
That put a razor sharp edge on things. Maybe Karleton had had a weird life he didn’t expect, blowing up a building, going to jail, selling smoothies, and later owning a deli called the Radical Rye on State Street in Madison. But he was still alive. My cousin’s friend was dead, and his kids never got to know their father.
My take away: Any time you move into aggressive destruction mode, you create a risk of hurting somebody. In an urban environment like downtown, where there are a lot of people around, that risk goes up.
Probably, the most brutalizing aspect of modern capitalism is the way that it turns people into abstractions on a spreadsheet. Philosopher Kings of the market make decisions that don’t take the human costs into account and a lot of people suffer. Generals and government officials do the same thing on the battlefield.
But when “anarchists” do targeted property damage vandalism, they’re kind of just fighting one immoral approach with another one. They replace the spreadsheet with some sort of theoretical revolutionary framework. But they’re still trying to play the role of Philosopher King, taking their cues from a place of abstraction, where the human costs of their actions don’t seem any more well considered than the actions of the people they are protesting against.
Sure, the wine in their glass may be different, but the glass itself is the same. It’s the same pattern of thought. It’s the same psychological impulse. It’s two wrongs don’t make a right.
To me, this is the power of non-violence. It mostly avoids this mirror imaging problem. It’s a different kind of vessel entirely. Yes, it is slow. Yes, it requires lots of discipline. No, it is often not emotionally satisfying. But like interest compounding, if people can stick with it long enough, it’s been known to add up.