While many of us feel like reality is on hold, for some that is not the case. Particularly, black people have been disproportionately hit harder from the coronavirus, something that was entirely expected, due to systemic racism. That is, the existing social, political, and economic institutions and situations exist in a way that they affect black people consistently in worse ways than other demographics. If you doubt this theory, then you need to explain why the theory is so accurate at explaining and predicting things such as the economic and health impact of coronavirus.
Systemic racism means life or death. Generally speaking, the media and white Americans forget like goldfish everytime an innocent black person is murdered, especially by the state. At least for right now, no one can forget George Floyd, not even the media and white Americans. We are stuck to social media and the news and have nothing to talk about besides the outside world, so for now it will be on all our minds. Coming so quickly after the Central Park incident, during a pandemic, during the second Great Depression, the murder of George Floyd as if it was a mundane, banal occurance in broad daylight seemed to be too much to sit down and do nothing.
Now that people are protesting, the ever so classic debate of “but what about the violent protesters?” and “yes the murder of George Floyd was bad, but does not warrant this type of reaction” comes out. Both sides are the usual left versus right divide, adding another data point for some future PhD political scientist to analyze twitter arguments with some NLP python script. Why is it that the divide is strong here? How can one side feel morally justified in protesting with force, while the other condemns this and says they should just stay home and take it through the courts?
The point of this post is to analyze this problem: when is active resistance against the state justified? Active resistance is the use of force against the state in some way as a means of protesting. Passive resistance is anything that is not forceful, which could be writing a letter, condemnation in the public, or civil disobedience. This seems to be the crux of this ever raging debate anytime anyone, especially black people in the US, use violence. If we see active resistance as morally justified, it seems that we typically call it a protest. Otherwise, we usually call it a riot.
To do this, I think it is necessary to discuss the theory of political philosophy that I think is the best at the moment, which is Kant. Using principles of freedom, I will first discuss the need for a state and the legitimacy of the state, as interpreted by people like Arthur Ripstein. I will present two possible ways in this Kantian system we can interpret the active resistance in Minnesota, either justified or not, while concluding that active resistance is justified in this case.
We can distinguish between what is right and what is ethical with an example. If you of your own choice decide to give some money to someone else, this we usually call charity. If you are forced by the state to give up some money, we usually call it taxes. Charity is tied to the fact that ethics in Kant is related to internal freedom, similar to the more commonly known Christian ethics that argues to be a good person is to come from within ourselves, no one can make us good. Kant’s writings on political philosophy is not about virtue or internal freedom, but right and external freedom.
At the basis of Kant’s theory of right is the “Universal Principle of Right” and the innate right to freedom. These concepts are what Kant takes to help solve the problem of legal-political systems, which is about the types of restrictions that can be rightly placed on our freedom. The Universal Principle of Right tells us that “any action is right if it can coexist with everyone’s freedom in accordance with universal law, or if on its maxim the freedom of choice of each can coexist with everyone’s freedom in accordance with a universal law”. For an action to be wrong, the Universal Principle Right tells us that it is something that cannot coexist with someone else’s freedom of choice. This concept of right is connected to the authorization to use coercion. Coercing someone is wrong in that it is a hindrance to freedom. However, a “hindering of a hindrance to freedom” is consistent with right by the principle of contradiction. This is why Kant says that there is only one innate right, the innate right to freedom. Kant defines this as “Freedom (independence from being constrained by another’s choice), insofar as it can coexist with the freedom of every other in accordance with a universal law” . So, right is concerned with the ways in which we can limit the 4 actions of ourselves and the people we interact with such that we can live together under universal law.
One interpretation of Kant’s political philosophy is that there are ideal reasons for the necessity of a state, in contrast to prudential reasons or because a state is more convenient. Without a government, the state of nature, there can not be any conclusive rights. There are three types of private right, property, contract, and status Kant thinks. To have a right to some property is not to possess it merely empirically, for example, to hold it in your hand. To have a right to some property, we must have a claim to it as ours even if we do not possess it physically, this is what Kant calls intelligible possession. In the state of nature, I could make some claim that I own some private property, but this claim does not enforce a duty on anyone else to obey it. In the state of nature, at most people can agree to respect each other’s private property claims. But I do not have an enforceable right to this property I claim as mine. To have a right to property, there would need to be a public “us” that backs up all the property claims. The sovereign authority represents the general will of the people and because of this, it can rightfully use coercion to protect people’s private property. To have this public authority is the only way that there can be any rightful uses of coercion and any conclusive rights, rights that are consistent with our innate right to freedom.
Ripstein argues that this important because it determines the legitimacy of some authority to even be called a state. A state must meet the condition of representing the general will of the people to be even called a state. If something looks like a state, it has “police” and “courts” and “legislators” and a “leader” does not mean it is a legitimate legal authority. He calls this the postulate of public right. In a way it makes sense, that to be called a state you need to solve the problems that the state is actually supposed to solve. To a certain degree, you need to solve the problems of private right in the state of nature by establishing a public authority. To do this at the minimum, Ripstein thinks that there should be “freedom of the pen” and freedom of speech. Without this, it could hardly be argued that the state represents the people if they stifle speech and thought. Additionally, people’s private right must be secured. That is, the state should enforce your property, contract, and status rights, to some degree.
The problem with this is that too strict an interpretation of the private right would mean that most states throughout history have never been legitimate even up till now, since a lot of minorities, religious and ethnic groups, women, LGBTQIA, etc., are denied the private right. Helga Varden argues in her book that this is still consistent with their being a legitimate authority even if there are “pockets of” this injustice.
Kant describes there being four different combinations of force, freedom, and law that we can find ourselves in. We can find ourselves in a condition of anarchy, which is freedom and law without force. This would be the situation in the state of nature where people just happen to agree to everyone else’s claims about private right, there is no force needed to settle any disagreements. However, Kant thinks and history as well would I think, that the state of nature is usually characterized by barbarism, which is force without freedom and law. There is no freedom or even law in barbarism, it is just force in all directions. In a civil condition, which is when the postulate of public right has been satisfied, there is either despotism or a republic. Despotism is force and law with no freedom, while republic is force with law and freedom. The republic is the highest ideal to strive for since all force is used as consistent with law and freedom. A despotic authority is one that satisfies the postulate of public right, but the laws do not.
Kant thinks that while we find ourselves under a despotic government, we must only engage in passive resistance. That is, at most we can petition the government to be more consistent with freedom. To use coercion or to even possibly claim that you are the legitimate authority and the despotic government is not would be a contradiction, since the government is the one that represents the people. The public authority is the only one who can use coercion that is consistent with right, not any private citizens. So any active resistance to the government would be illegal and unrightful. For example, resisting the Nazis would be considered acceptable since they were not a legitimate authority on this account. Similarly, the passive resistance of the civil rights movement and MLK would be acceptable as well.
Now, it seems that this theory would mean that the resistance in Minnesota is illegal and unrightful. However, I think that some of Helga Varden’s work in her new book Sex, Love, and Gender — A Kantian Theory might offer a different story. For Kant, the republic is something we strive for, it is an ideal. While in the civil condition, it seems entirely consistent that the shortcomings of it, since it is not a republic, will come in the form of either barbarism or anarchy. That is, while in a civil condition, certain people or groups of people may find themselves in “pockets of” barbarism or anarchy.
One example that I like is a long term gay couple, who live in a state where gay marriage is illegal, that is breaking up has to decide “who gets the couch”. They both bought the couch together, they both used it for about equal terms, and both love it equally as much. Part of the problem of the state of nature as well Kant thinks is that there is no answer to this, who gets the couch is up to the arbitrary will of these people. This is why if there is no agreement for married couples, they will settle their private property, contract rights, and even status right (who gets the kids) disputes in court. Since during a marriage, the spouses engage in owning private property as an “us”. Gay couples are just as much an “us” as non-gay couples, but if it is illegal in a state they have no legal way to settle this. Either the couple agrees to settle it without force (anarchy), or there is some force involved to settle the dispute (barbarism).
Many black Americans will find themselves in conditions where they face barbarism. Many black communities do not trust the police and for good reasons. Any problems they have, if they have to settle it on their own without going through the proper legal channels, it could be argued that they exist in a pocket of barbarism. Yes, the state should reform itself and people should petition for this change. It does come to a point where petitioning does not work, their voices are not heard, their pleas ignored. From blue to red president or governor or mayor, the violence does not end. Even during a pandemic, where we should be more caring and respectful of our fellow citizens, the police still murder black people. If there can be pockets of barbarism, this does seem to be a case.
If so, then there is no prohibition on active resistance against the state from the members of these communities. The civil rights movement has happened, the black lives matter movement is here, yet the change has not come. No presidential candidate for 2020, between Biden or Trump, has a specific black agenda, as Charlamagne tha God has gotten the national platform to say this due to his interview with Biden. For black people who are using active resistance against the state, they should not be punished for breaking some buildings or some cars. They are resisting against a history and future of state violence for their right to live equally as they deserve.
This also explains why so many white people look at this active resistance as a “riot”. White people do not live in the same pocket of barbarism when it comes to police, they do not see the police as enemies or as murderers because that is the relation they have with the police. From the point of view of many white conservatives, they agree that the murder of George Floyd was wrong, but they want black people to use passive resistance, to petition for change. This is what the response of someone should be if they are not in a pocket of barbarism, which is something many white people are not in. If a police officer assaults a white person, they will not need to use force to protest their injustice, they can go to court and will most likely be believed in court.
Despite the US being a legitimate public authority, it still has many flaws that we refuse to accept and reform. Part of these flaws are the ways in which systemic racism only gets worse as we ignore it. What it is like to live in a pocket of barbarism in the way many black Americans do is something white Americans have a hard time realizing. For many black Americans, this type of active resistance is one of the last ways to have their voice heard (which they did, there will be a federal investigation). This is not a protest against just one murder, it is a protest against all the past and future murders. It is a protest in hopes of changing the broken policing system that negatively affects people of color.