From Ferguson to Staten Island: A Primer on State Violence (Part 1)

A member of the St. Louis County Police Department points his weapon in the direction of a group of protesters in Ferguson, Missouri


As people around the world attempt to fathom what has recently taken place when US police officers shot and killed young, African American men, it is important to take a step back from the specifics of each situation and think a bit more broadly about what is involved. When the pictured is broadened, it is clear that what is at issue is not simply excessive force, police brutality, and racism but the very state itself.

It is commonly known that states are in part defined by their violence-wielding capabilities. They are the only actors that are allowed to hold a monopoly on violence (i.e., to actually build, compile as well as distribute to large numbers of affiliates) AND to use this power within a specified territory. But here is an important caveat: this power must be used “legitimately.” is important to take a step back from the specifics of each situation and think a bit more broadly about what is involved. When the pictured is broadened, it is clear that what is at issue is not simply excessive force, police brutality, and racism but the very state itself.

While there are different conceptions of what “legitimate” means, I will rely upon Thomas Hobbes who (paraphrased from Leviathan) suggests that legitimacy derives from the degree of proportionality found in state violence relative to non-state violence. In legitimate contexts, state violence would match or counter non-state violence. Here, there is a kind of tit for tat parity that is underway. In illegitimate contexts there are two different variants. On the one hand, governments provide much more violence than any other social actor. On the other hand, other social actors provide much more violence than governments. In both of these scenarios governments are illegitimate because the violence they engage in is not protecting human life and in these situations they should be replaced. Some scholars refer to this as the right of rebellion.

That states have such a close association with violence is revealed by the fact that violence is found with discussions of states at all levels of completion.

For example, under the label of “state-creating” or “state-building” violence is normally mentioned as that which vanquishes rival violence-wielding institutions/actors. This is key to establishing a state. Charles Tilly referred to this as “domestic pacification.”

Similarly, under label of “state-maintenance”, “political control” or “political order”, state use of violence is one of the means used to sustain the political, economic and social systems set up at the time. These are associated with different labels, derived from the behavior that is being countered: policing (to counter crime), protest policing, riot policing, counter-terrorism, counter-insurgency and counter-revolution.

Finally, under label of “state failure”, violence is again invoked because it is in this situation that the state’s ability and capacity to use violence deteriorates.

Now, what exactly do we mean by state violence? By this I am referring to behavior undertaken by agents of the state which results in harm (physical and/or mental) as well as death. Unfortunately, we are now quite familiar with the specific tactics associated with the relevant category: arrests, beating, pepper-spraying, choke-holds, tasering, charging with horses, attacking with dogs, shooting with water cannons, shooting with rubber bullets, waterboarding, removing finger nails, burying alive, electrifying genitals, killing in mass.

These tactics are frequently lumped together into repertoires of action (i.e., a group of tactics that are used together by a government against a specific target). For example, protest policing and counter-insurgency are comprised of numerous tactics being employed at the same time. Alternatively, one could view the tactics as part of two clusters.

First, there are violations of “First Amendment–type rights” which includes: 1) Freedom of speech, assembly, and travel; 2) Freedom of the press up to a very narrowly defined “clear and present danger” point, regardless of the views communicated; 3) Freedom of association and belief without governmental reprisal, obloquy, or investigation unless clearly connected with possible violations of existing laws; 4) The general freedom to boycott, peacefully picket, or strike without suffering criminal or civil penalties. Due process transgressions involve violations of “generally accepted standards of police action and judicial and administrative behavior related to the political beliefs of the person involved”.

Second, there are “personal integrity rights” are those concerned with individual survival and security, such as freedom from torture, “disappearance,” imprisonment, extrajudicial execution, and mass killing.

Who is involved with the use of state violence? Well, this involves a large number of actors. Of course, there are “the police,” but these represent the most obvious and frequently encountered government agents of coercion. There is also the military, the national guard, the secret police, the Presidential guard, militias, para-military organizations such as death squads, border patrol, prison officials at the federal, state and local levels.

[To be continued…]

davenport-hsChristian Davenport is Professor of Political Science & Faculty Associate in the Center for Political Studies at the University of Michigan.  His last book, Media Bias, Perspective, and State Repression: The Black Panther Party, won the award for best book in racial politics and social movements from the American Political Science Association.

Featured Image Photo Credit: AP Photo/Jeff Roberson.