“Legitimate” and “Illegitimate” Violence: the double-standard of colonial and capitalist exploitation

AAD STATEMENT DECEMBER 28, 2017

A common complaint directed at homeless people, especially when they form visible communities, is that they produce criminal activity. Criminalization is a method of social regulation that disproportionately targets people who are poor, Indigenous, homeless, drug-using, sex working, racialized, or undocumented. It functions to cover up social inequalities rather than address their root causes. Within a criminalization framework, populations that do not conform or are not able to participate within the confines of consumer capitalism are treated as threats: their poverty is moralized and survival methods punished in order to occlude forms of violence that pervade Canadian society but remain largely illegible to the public. The outcomes of displacing and criminalizing vulnerable populations is increased policing and surveillance to enforce involuntary detainment in psychiatric institutions, imprisonment, marginalization, and death, yet none of these violences elicit popular disgust. Rather, they are alternately perceived as unremarkable, or mobilized to further displace and attack marginalized populations. Alliance Against Displacement (AAD) believes that capitalism and colonialism depend on a fundamental denial of the relationship between violence and power.

If we understand violence as connected to systems of political and economic dominance, then it becomes clear that all of us live and breathe violence: as settlers benefitting from stolen land, as Indigenous people battling colonization, as working class people who are forced to sell their labor to survive, and as poor and homeless people who are blamed for the crises of poverty and homelessness. Canada, a fictitious nation that wields State power on Turtle Island, subsists on violence, both in terms of its historical foundations and its ongoing systems of domination and control: colonialism, white supremacy, capitalism, criminalization, and imperialism produced and reproduce Canada. AAD rejects a politics of bourgeois respectability, couched in social and cultural norms that hypocritically treat crimes of survival with moral disdain while condoning the violences of the State. AAD rejects the conflation of violence with crime, which is used to justify punitive responses that make the world more, not less, violent. Crime in marginalized communities functions as both a means of survival as well as a symptom of the systemic violences that produce marginalization in the first place; by understanding how violence is foundational to capitalism and colonialism, and sanctioned by the State to maintain these systems of power, we can work towards articulating a more just and equitable society.

Anti-crime discourse: auxiliary for State-sanctioned violence

Anti-crime discourse masks the dehumanizing conditions of legislated poverty. Rather than pointing to the austerity policies of the State, which distribute wealth upwards and force increasing numbers of people into homelessness and premature death, these discourses individualize poverty, confining their analyses to the realm of personal choice. The limitations of individualizing the relationship between crime and poverty is best demonstrated by the self-interested myopia of NIMBYism. NIMBYists are not interested in targeting the systems that create poverty and desperation; rather they prefer that the violences inherent in our society remain out of their sight. Although NIMBYism and related stances are primarily phrased in terms of concerns about public safety, their disgust for marginalized communities is better understood as emerging directly from state-sanctioned violence. NIMBY-like expressions necessarily unfold from the legitimized violence of the police, which normalizes the displacement, imprisonment, and deaths of marginalized populations. Although we are disturbed by individual bigots who engage in poor-bashing, we do not see them as exceptional—they are merely embodiments of a broader State violence that criminalizes people and ejects them from public spaces for not obeying the sensibilities of capitalist production.

Public safety discourse: sanitizing space through exclusion

Public safety discourse decides which bodies are entitled to feeling safe in public. Bodies that are superfluous or threatening to capitalism and colonialism, and therefore already targeted by structural violences, are condemned to go “elsewhere”, which amounts to public or literal death. Within the hierarchy of power expressed through public safety concerns, “theft” is only recognizable when it targets the property of middle and upper class people. The thefts that lie at the heart of our political economy—the stolen Indigenous land, resources, children, women, language, and culture that produce colonialism, and the stolen labour and resources, especially from the global south and the bodies of people of colour that produce capitalism—remain unrecognized, as does the confiscation of poor people’s property by police and bylaw officers. Despite its ostensibly neutral veneer, “public safety” serves to reinforce the colonial-capitalist supremacy of personal property and ownership, and promotes criminalization as a way to control public space and ensure that it remains inhospitable and dehumanizing for people who are already excluded from mainstream society.

Broadening how we understand violence

If we are to combat violence, we must broaden our understanding of it to include its most devastating iteration: as naturalized and structural, travelling from the upper strata of State power to the most vulnerable members of our society. When business owners in Maple Ridge rationalize their desire to displace the Anita Place tent city by claiming that it harms their profits, they embody the structural violences that uphold colonialism and capitalism. Within their logic, the right to make a profit through owning private property is more important than the material and political empowerment of poor and homeless people. When residents in Marpole reason that a modular housing development doesn’t belong next to a school, they rely on a construction of public safety that paints marginalized others as dangerous. Obsessions with public space as the site where middle class people should be most concerned about facing danger masks two realities: firstly, that people are far more likely to experience domestic violence rather than attacks by strangers, and secondly, that the carceral apparatus of the state (police, prisons) is far more destructive and harmful than the acts of survival it targets. Confronting both these realities requires us to ignore the red herrings that insist on individualizing violence, and instead examine how the dispossessing foundations of our society suffuse both public and private spaces. Violence permeates all classes and social groups, yet it is disproportionately weaponized as an accusation against those who are most outside the logics of colonialism and capitalism. Structural violence intervenes in public spaces not through the presence of criminalized bodies, but through their enforced absence.

AAD insists on understanding violence and crime through a revolutionary anti-colonial and anti-capitalist lens. This is not to deny that individuals enact violence and crime—rather, we understand that all individuals exist within violent systems of power and respond to the conditions of material and ethical scarcity those systems create. For communities that are already marginalized, accusations of violence and ongoing criminalization serve to beat back their claims to space, political power, and visibility. We must see these accusations as part and parcel of State controlled systems that normalize the control and demonization of the poor. Tent cities and other community spaces for poor, racialized, and criminalized people serve as sites of resistance, against the State’s material violences as well as the dominant norms and values those violences engender. We will not be forced back into the margins because our very presence interrupts the sham of colonist bourgeois respectability that Canada hides its acts of violence behind.