As protests continue to rage across parts of the US in response to centuries of racial inequality and decades of police brutality against black citizens, the Democratic nominees for President and Vice President, Joe Biden and Kamala Harris, have repeatedly condemned the violence as “unacceptable”. Across the pond, in France, Emmanuel Macron’s pseudo-centrist government were also quick to denounce the violence of the gilets jaunes protests back in 2018, amid calls from conservatives to demonstrate state authority. Political pundit Meghan McCain called out CNN for “trying to downplay” the violence of BLM protests and political scientist Xavier Crettiez warned gilets jaunes protesters against welcoming “violent ultras” into their movement if they wanted to keep public approval. All in all, it is safe to say the civilised world is unequivocally against violence. Wrong. When violence is aimed at the bodies of women and girls, society is reluctant to express its outrage with the same speed and unanimity. There are calls to first review the evidence, to presume the innocence of the accused or, better yet, institutions simply ignore the violence altogether.
Our hypocritical stance on violence is indicative of the capitalist, patriarchal institutions that have regulated our discourse since time immemorial. Violent protesters threaten the stability required to uphold an oppressive hierarchy of sex and class. Violent men who attack women do not pose such a threat. Even more shameful than this mutual understanding between society’s institutions and its predators is how readily many of us have absorbed this discourse. Having lodged it into the lower echelons of our subconscious, every time a woman steps forward to denounce her attacker there are always a few of our brains cells instructing us to ‘reserve judgement.’ This automated response to attacks on women and girls magically disappears the moment we see the first glimpse of violence from protesters.
Our hypocritical stance on violence is indicative of the capitalist, patriarchal institutions that have regulated our discourse since time immemorial. Violent protesters threaten the stability required to uphold an oppressive hierarchy of sex and class. Violent men who attack women do not pose such a threat. Even more shameful than this mutual understanding between society’s institutions and its predators is how readily many of us have absorbed this discourse.
Reactions to violence against female bodies
“Goddamn it! I told him to stop doing that,” Ben Affleck said to Rose McGowan, when she told him Harvey Weinstein had raped her. The Hollywood actress claims she was forced to go to a press conference the day after Weinstein attacked her. Affleck refused to confirm or deny this version of events.
“And the César for the Best Directed Film goes to… Roman Polanski for J’accuse,” was uttered on French television during the César 2020 awards. Roman Polanski was convicted for raping and sodomising a 13-year-old girl in 1977, after drugging her champagne. In 2017 he faced a fifth accusation of sexually assaulting a minor after Californian artist Marianne Barnard came forward to speak of the attack.
“There is also a relationship of trust, man to man,” French President, Emmanuel Macron, announced during his 14th July TV interview in defence of the newly-promoted Home Secretary, Gérald Darmanin. The promotion came just weeks after the reopening of an investigation against Darmanin for allegedly raping a citizen who needed help erasing a criminal record.
I could add to this list the whistleblower report on the forced hysterectomies of migrant women in US detention centres by ICE officials, or the Vlina Vlas spa hotel in Višegrad, Bosnia, which was used as a detention centre for Bosniak women to be raped and tortured by Serb soldiers in the Bosnian War of 1991-1995.
In just over two hundred words I have listed five well-documented examples of the most savage violence committed against the bodies of women and girls. In every case, this violence – far from sparking condemnation and outrage like the BLM protests – was belittled, dismissed or even glorified. Society’s institutions are incapable of demonstrating solidarity with a demographic that is frankly disposable to a capitalist society made for and by patriarchs who only support one another, “man to man”.
Delegitimising protest movements
If violence against women’s bodies is acceptable, protester violence aimed at the state sounds every alarm to society’s ruling class. The cheek of the oppressed to actually lose their cool!
The slightest whiff of anything other than composed protesting is enough to trigger a familiar script from the mouths of the state. That’s when law enforcement doesn’t instigate violence themselves, which has become common practice in countries like France (liberté, égalité, fraternité!).
“We will relieve you of this scum,” announced then Home Secretary, Nicolas Sarkozy, in response to the ongoing riots of the banlieues. The riots, led predominantly by ethnic minority communities, had erupted following prolonged police brutality and racial inequality across the country. Sarkozy’s slur was, of course, matched with a crack-down on immigrants including an order to deport all ‘foreigners’ within the protests (the number of which was, predictably, grossly overestimated by the government). These measures were lauded by no other than Holocaust denier and leader of the then Front National, Jean-Marie Le Pen. Instead of reforming the police system and striving to correct racial inequality, the state opted for punishing their own suffering citizens for daring to express their rage. Vive la République.
“A symbol of hate”, was how President Trump described the Black Lives Matter slogan. A month before that statement, the White House threatened to use the military to crush protesters. Instead of dealing with the consequences of four hundred years of African-American oppression, the state has opted to demonise and brutalise the very citizens whose lives have been rendered intolerable. This is what Reagan must have meant by “a shining city on a hill”.
The examples of this kind of rhetoric from the state in response to angry or violent protests are endless – how could we forget the Conservatives’ token BAME Home Secretary, Priti Patel, who had the audacity to use the words “thugs and criminals” to describe the protesters who pulled down the statue of slave trafficker and profiteer, Edward Colston. Her remarks were backed by Labour leader, Keir Starmer, (*audience gasps*) who deemed the removal of the statue “totally wrong”. Bristol’s constituents had been signing petitions for years to have the statue removed, to no avail. If both civil and uncivil avenues to reform are blocked, how does the ruling class expect change to ever occur? Spoiler: they are not interested.
No – society’s institutions, including the government, are rarely committed to meaningful change.
You see, while hashtags and pledges come and go to make the privileged feel good about themselves and pacify the oppressed, those in charge have no intention of realising structural reform. It would simply be too costly to those who have a vested interest in maintaining the status quo. The desired outcome is to engender popular apathy, which is the greatest killer of mass movement and the power of protest. And yet, somehow, like a recurring nightmare, citizens keep protesting. Alongside their fellow people of colour, workers, women and other members of the oppressed, they stand. The key to affecting the change that those at the top do not wish to see lies in enough citizens (oppressed and non-oppressed) accepting the following truth: as long as society is willing to protect and glorify patriarchal violence against the bodies of women and others, public violence against the state is fair game. Indeed, to evoke the adage engraved on the tongues of the privileged, violence will beget violence.
Indeed, to evoke the adage engraved on the tongues of the privileged, violence will beget violence.