Featured image by Republica.
A friend asked me if I thought property destruction was a non-violent tactic. After all, property isn’t people. These are just things, and while things can have immense value, their destruction in principle bears little resemblance to taking up arms. Yet, people seem think of it as a form of violence, or violent protest. Why? I think that in exploring that question, we can gain a new appreciation of what non-violent resistance is about, and how society perceives certain forms of non-violent action. The reality is that people’s perception of property damage as violence is deeply tied to people’s perception of justice with regards to property, and it’s the responsibility of an activist to pursue actions and tactics that minimize both percieved and real injustice while maximizing their chances of success.
In order to understand why people perceive property damage to be violent, we must examine violence and its role in our society. Retributive violence (as opposed to deterrent or utilitarian violence) is a norm and a value perpetuated by society at large. The history of the human pursuit of justice is one long struggle to see misfortune befall the evil and luck find its way to the good after an injustice has been perpetrated. Where the gods fail to ensure this outcome, we intervene with imprisonment, seizure of property, torture, and murder. We are not particularly good at ensuring that there is parity, proportionality, equality, and equity in our pursuit of justice. This is not simply a weakness of the state, or of governments, but of people.
Torture, murder, imprisonment, and other acts are considered horrendous crimes to commit against another person, and a necessary part of the process of justifying violence is the removal of a person’s intrinsic humanity. Suffering, which is normally seen as the singular bane of humanity, is deliberately inflicted on those we can see as inhuman. It is easy to see how denying a person’s humanity becomes license to visit unimaginable suffering on others in the retributive justice model. There are people who feel that the worst excesses of our prison system are justified against the pettiest criminals, simply because they must necessarily lack the requisite humanity that immunize the rest of humanity from the deliberate imposition of suffering. The dominant model of retributive violence equates punishment with suffering, lack of humanity with justifiable violence, and retributive violence with justice.
It is precisely this conflation of justice with violence that makes all acts perceived as unjust seem violent, even when they completely fail to attack the humanity of a person, or when a person’s humanity isn’t the target of an action. It is in this framework that non-violent destruction of property is evaluated. Attacking someone’s property is considered a method of justice. The state dissolves and seizes property regularly as a method of punishment. When the state does this, it is often accompanied by violence or the threat of violence. So as a society, we bind up the idea of a person’s right to property with the notion of their status as a human being. In order to extract justice in the retributive model, the person’s humanity must be compromised, and this opens them up to violence. To destroy a person’s property is to punish them, and to punish them is to rob them of humanity, and to rob them of their humanity is to excuse and call for violence against them. This is why the destruction of property is seen as an inherently violent act in our society.
So should an activist should feel free to commit to property destruction as a tactic? After all, it’s a perception of violence, and not true violence. But violence is not the sole consideration in non-violence. Non-violence is selected for tactical, as well as moral considerations. And there are moral considerations beyond the false dichotomy of violence or non-violence.
For those unconcerned with morality, there are practical reasons why a non-violent movement has an obligation to maintain a high ethical standard. Evaluate this plausible scenario: Picketers, or a subset of picketers from a larger group, begin to set cars on fire, or break shop windows, during a protest of banks and their perpetuation of inequality. The perception of them as behaving violently is inextricable from the sense that they have perpetrated an injustice: They have caused misfortune to befall someone who is not normally considered to deserve it. After all, the picketing seemed to target banks, the signs and chants all indicated that banks were the target of ire, and so the destruction of shop windows seems essentially random. Yet, these are no agent-provocateurs, but genuine idealists who believe that small-business owners perpetuate inequality as well. The news covers this, and people become disillusioned with the protesters. Some who were planning on joining the protest, don’t see how it aligns with their values and they stay home. Local business owners begin applying pressure to police and politicians to put an end to these protests that threaten their businesses.
Negative press coverage of a movement is inevitable, but paradoxically, one of the more powerful ways to use the media is to keep an issue alive in the public consciousness long enough to attract support. The problem here is that potential supporters who might have otherwise been willing to join in action will stay home. Those are people you need in the streets, not at home. Participation is critical to any movement. Much like in armies, strength comes in numbers, not the ideological and moral perfection of those numbers. For example, during the American Revolutionary War, the Continental Army chose to whip deserters, not to shoot them. They also whipped soldiers for most infractions. The reason this punishment was preferred was that a whipped soldier could still fight in the fields the next day, and numbers were needed more than perfectly obedient soldiers. Otherwise they could have shot them, as many militaries have done through history.
All tactics must serve specific purposes that fit the campaign as a whole. The duty of most campaigns is to impose costs on an adversary, and not simply to impose costs on anything resembling the adversary. If any kind of property destruction is to take place, it should impose direct costs on the target. Alternatively, it should apply leverage to those that do business with the target and make the injustice perpetrated by the adversary possible. But, in the example above, shop owners are often the reluctant victims of banks, not their willing benefactors.
Two purists aligned ideologically in every way are worth nothing. Two hundred people aligned along a single cause but with nothing else in common is what can be modestly called, “A start.” Any movement employing tactics that causes people to leave it should reconsider those tactics before persisting to use them. People and their sensibilities are an important factor, and much like the Continental Army, the army you are given is the army you must work with. The case of the local business owners pressuring authorities to put a stop to your movement is an example of reverse leverage. Instead of levering your target’s benefactors in a way that convinces them to abandon your adversary, movements sometimes unintentionally lever other interests in a way that harms the movement.
This example outlines the realistic dimensions of human behavior and why property destruction is something that must be carefully considered before using. Artillery serves a specific purpose, tanks another, infrantry yet another. In non-violent movements, picketing serves one kind of strategy, striking another, sit-ins, yet another. Property destruction is one tool in the arsenal, and should be employed judiciously.
For instance, striking drivers cause produce to rot in the trucks and loading bays, causing their employer to lose money. This is property destruction, though the workers cause the destruction by inaction rather than action. It is extremely difficult to see how this isn’t a worthy tactic despite being an indisputable form of property damage. It targets a specific adversary, and it does not inadvertently lever the community against you. On the other hand, consider a truck driver strike during an epidemic where life-saving drugs are sorely needed by the community at large. To not deliver the drugs would be seen as a gross injustice, and even a form of violence. Viscerally, it is difficult for even the most hardened skeptic of property rights to pretend it isn’t.
This brings us to the moral dimension of property destruction. Property is a construct, and one that we routinely build around singular entities, despite its true nature being more broad. A supply of vaccines may belong to the pharmacy of a hospital on paper, but realistically, those vaccines belong to the community the hospital serves. Cars usually have one name on the title, but realistically, cars belong to entire families. Communities served by commerce essentially own the resources of commerce, even when laws and papers say otherwise. To the extent that the community at large is harmed by the destruction of property, the tactic should be avoided.
There is an element of proportionality, as well. Obviously, detonating a nuclear weapon in a major city is disproportional to the cause of LGBT equal employment rights even if is elaborately and miraculously designed to kill no one. When it is a matter of life and death (as in Black Lives Matter), the tactic has a reasonable chance of working, and the impact of the destruction on the community is minimal- then, property not only can be destroyed, but there is a moral imperative: It must be destroyed to preserve the lives of others. However, all of those elements must be satisfied. Lives may be on the line, but if the tactic stands no chance of working or is counterproductive, then the moral imperative runs in the reverse: Property must not be destroyed. Sometimes, this is a difficult call. It can be hard to truly understand the chances of success or failure. But it isn’t an optional consideration, from both moral and practical perspectives.
Ultimately what is found in practice is that property destruction is a symptom of an undisciplined or frustrated movement. It is often born out of a sense of urgency, or the need to “do something.” But doing anything and doing nothing useful have the same outcome most of the time. This is much like rallies whose primary purpose is as a gathering of like-minded people, rather than a purposeful act of resistance, or a planning session. But an active, mobile, and healthy resistance movement is goal-oriented, rather than emotionally driven. Morale is important, but anger and frustration burn hot and fast, leaving a movement without the kind of long-term stamina that is necessary to accomplish things over a sustained period of time.
These are the complex features that represent the moral and practical landscape around property destruction. Violating property rights will always be seen as a form of violence in our current framework for justice. It is a tool like any other, and a refusal to use tools responsibly can have undesired consequences. It should not drive people away from your movement, and it should not lever uninvolved institutions in the community against you. Property must always be evaluated in a broader context than on-paper ownership. Property destruction should also observe moral and practical proportionality. More often than not when property is destroyed, it is counter-productive as a matter of practice, because these principles are not considered or observed. In the end, the question of property-destruction is not really one of whether it is violent or non-violent, but is really two different questions: Useful or detrimental? Moral or immoral?