With kind permission from activist-author-friend-scholar Aryeh Cohen, I’m posting this excerpt below about power and violence, reading Hannah Arendt in the wake of the police killing of Freddie Gray in Baltimore, a city I love and where I grew up. You can find the whole piece here at Justice in the City. The photo above is from the riots of 1968, an unraveling from which the Baltimore where I grew up never recovered. Things fall apart hard in the face of the ethical and political exigencies signaled in Aryeh’s post as his logic follows along the pivot of social justice. My own melancholic sense is that the current current corruption of state power and the spasm of popular violence portend nothing better.
On Power and Violence (Baltimore, for example) Aryeh Cohen
Posted on April 27, 2015
Watching, reading, and thinking about Baltimore, the killing of Freddie Gray by Baltimore police, and the current nonviolent and violent reactions to that killing, I keep going back to Hannah Arendt. Arendt, in her essay on violence, draws an important distinction between violence and power.
Politically speaking, it is not enough to say that power and violence are not the same. Power and violence are opposites; where the one rules absolutely, the other is absent. Violence appears where power is in jeopardy, but left to its own course its end is the disappearance of power. This implies that it is not correct to say that the opposite of violence is nonviolence: to speak of nonviolent power is actually redundant. Violence can destroy power; it is utterly incapable of creating it. (Reflections on Violence)
The power that concerns Arendt is the power of political communities. Power is the result of people coming together for political ends. Or as Arendt says: “Power needs no justification as it is inherent in the very existence of political communities…”. However, Arendt here adds a supremely important caveat: “…what, however, it does need is legitimacy.” Power is dependent on legitimacy. This is why violence is the opposite of power. When the power of a political community is legitimate, when it is recognized as legitimate by those who form the community, then there is no need for the violence of domination. It is only when legitimacy disappears that violence takes center stage.
In many parts of this country, power—the power of the state, derived from the people—is suffering a crisis of legitimacy. This is a direct result of the deployment of the forces of domination over communities of color for hundreds of years. The reaction to the violence of the state is twofold: on the one hand, the creation of alternative forms of power, nonviolent power which competes with and sometimes influences state power; or, alternatively, when the violence of domination breaks the power of community totally, the response itself is violent.
Roger Berkowitz on HA: