A Political Philosophy of Self-Defense


In his 1964 speech “Communication and Reality,” Malcolm X said: “I am not against using violence in self-defense. I don’t call it violence when it’s self-defense, I call it intelligence.”
Image: The Library of Congress


This essay is an adapted excerpt from Setting Sights: Histories and Reflections on Community Armed Self-Defense (ed. scott crow).

In his 1964 speech “Communication and Reality,” Malcolm X said: “I am not against using violence in self-defense. I don’t call it violence when it’s self-defense, I call it intelligence.” Earlier that year, he made a similar point in his Harlem speech introducing the newly founded Organization of Afro-American Unity: “It’s hard for anyone intelligent to be nonviolent.”

To portray self-defensive violence as natural, in no need of justification, or as so commonsensical that it could barely be called violence has a depoliticizing effect. Since the goal of Malcolm X’s speeches was to undermine critiques of armed black resistance, this effect was intentional. For good reasons, he was attempting to normalize black people defending themselves against the violence of white rule. When Malcolm X did speak of self-defense as a form of violence, he emphasized that it was lawful and an individual right. In his most famous speech, “The Ballot or the Bullet” (1964), he explicitly stated: “We don’t do anything illegal.” This was also, of course, how the Black Panther Party for Self-Defense justified its armed shadowing of police in Oakland in the late 1960s: it was the members’ Second Amendment right to bear arms and their right under California law to openly carry them.

To develop a critical theory of community defense, however, we need to move beyond the rhetoric of rights or the idea that all self-defensive violence is quasi-natural or nonpolitical. The self-defense I discuss in this essay is political because the self being defended is political, and as such it requires both normative and strategic considerations. This project seeks to articulate the dynamics of power at work in self-defense and the constitution of the self through its social relations and conflicts.

Because communities of color defend themselves as much against a culture of white supremacy as they do against bodily harm, their self-defense undermines existing social hierarchies, ideologies, and identities. If we were to limit ourselves to the language of individual rights, these interconnections would remain concealed. Violence against women (but not only women), for example, has a gendering function, enforcing norms of feminine subordination and vulnerability. Resistance to such violence not only defends the body but also undermines gender and sexual norms, subverting hetero-masculine dominance and the notions of femininity or queerness it perpetuates. Since the social structures and identities of race, gender, class, and ability intersect in our lives, practices of self-defense can and often must challenge structures of oppression on multiple fronts simultaneously.

In the following, I do not focus on the question of whether self-defensive violence is justifiable, but rather on why it is political; how it can transform self-understandings and community relations; in what contexts it can be insurrectionary; and why it must be understood against a background of structural violence. It is necessary to clarify these dimensions of self-defense for two reasons in particular. First, arguments advocating armed community defense too often discuss the use of violence and the preparations for it as somehow external to political subjectivity, as if taking up arms, training, or exercising self-defensive violence do not transform subjects and their social relations. The influence of Frantz Fanon’s The Wretched of the Earth (1961) on the early Black Panthers, Steve Biko, and others derives precisely from Fanon’s understanding of the transformative effects of resistance in the decolonizing of consciousness. “At the individual level,” Fanon writes, “violence is a cleansing force. It rids the colonized of their inferiority complex, of their passive and despairing attitude.”

The second reason for clarification is to distinguish the strategies, ways of theorizing, and forms of social relations of liberatory movements from those of reactionary movements. There is an increasingly influential understanding of self-defense today that reinforces a particular notion of the self—a “sovereign subject”—that is corrosive to horizontal social relations and can only be sustained vis-à-vis state power. This notion of the self runs counter to the goals of non-statist movements and self-reliant communities. To be aware of these possibilities and pitfalls allows us to avoid them, a goal to which the following sketch of a critical theory of community self-defense seeks to contribute.

Resistance and Structural Violence

At the National Negro Convention in 1843, Reverend Henry Highland Garnet issued a rare public call for large-scale resistance to slavery: “Let your motto be resistance! resistance! resistance! No oppressed people have ever secured their liberty without resistance. What kind of resistance you had better make, you must decide by the circumstances that surround you, and according to the suggestion of expediency.” I describe resistance as opposition to the existing social order from within, and, as Garnet suggested, it can take different forms, such as self-defense, insurrection, or revolution. We can think of an insurrection as a limited armed revolt or rebellion against an authority, such as a state government, occupying power, or even slave owner. It is a form of illegal resistance, often with localized objectives, as in Shays’ Rebellion (1786), Nat Turner’s Rebellion (1831), the insurrections on the Amistad (1839) and Creole (1841), the coal miner Battle of Blair Mountain (1921), Watts (1965), Stonewall (1969), and Attica (1971).

Distinguishing between defensive and insurrectionary violence can be complicated. In the Amistad case, for example, white officials initially described it as a rebellion and thus a violation of the law, but later reclassified it as self-defense when the original enslavement was found to be unlawful. In a rare reversal, the U.S. Supreme Court recognized the captives on the Amistad as having selves worthy of defense. That was never in question among those rebelling, of course, but it does indicate the political nature of the self and our assessments of resistance. “Since the Other was reluctant to recognize me,” writes Fanon, “there was only one answer: to make myself known.” On the Amistad, rebellion was the only way for the enslaved to make their selves known, meaning that their actions were simultaneously a defense of their lives and a political claim to recognition.

A sustained insurrection can become revolutionary when it threatens to fundamentally transform or destroy the dominant political, social, or economic institutions, as with the rise of the Zapatista Army of National Liberation in Mexico in 1994 and the recent wave of Arab uprisings in the Middle East and North Africa, including most significantly Rojava or Syrian Kurdistan. The armed rebellion led by John Brown in 1859, which seized the United States arsenal at Harpers Ferry, was intended to instigate a revolution against the institution of slavery. Although the insurrection was quickly put down, it inspired abolitionists around the country and contributed to the onset of the U.S. Civil War.

Brown’s rebellion was not a slave revolt (and thus not an act of self-defense), but it did highlight the nature of structural violence. Henry David Thoreau, the inspiration for Gandhi’s nonviolent civil disobedience and, in turn, that of Martin Luther King, Jr., wrote the most insightful analysis of this violence at the time. In his essay “A Plea for Captain John Brown,” Thoreau defends Brown’s armed resistance and identifies the daily state violence of white rule against which the insurrection took place:

We preserve the so-called peace of our community by deeds of petty violence every day. Look at the policeman’s billy and handcuffs! Look at the jail! Look at the gallows! Look at the chaplain of the regiment! We are hoping only to live safely on the outskirts of this provisional army. So we defend ourselves and our hen-roosts, and maintain slavery. . . . I think that for once the Sharps rifles and the revolvers were employed in a righteous cause [i.e., Brown’s insurrection].

In this passage Thoreau highlights how the so-called security of one community was achieved by oppressing another and making it insecure. To properly understand the insurrection, he therefore argues, one must view it as a response to illegitimate structural violence. He enumerates the commonplace mechanisms of this rule, which, for whites, fades into the background of their everyday lives: law and order upheld by a neutral police force, enforced by an objective legal system and carceral institutions, and defended by an army supported by the Constitution and blessed by religious authorities. The violence of white supremacy becomes naturalized and its beneficiaries see no need for its justification; it is nearly invisible to them, though not, of course, to those it oppresses. “The existence of violence is at the very heart of a racist system,” writes Robert Williams in Negroes with Guns (1962). “The Afro-American militant is a ‘militant’ because he defends himself, his family, his home and his dignity. He does not introduce violence into a racist social system—the violence is already there and has always been there. It is precisely this unchallenged violence that allows a racist social system to perpetuate itself.”


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