Political violence and democracyMonday, April 12, 2021
The spread of political unrest in countries across the world has prompted fears about the growth of political violence in democratic societies. There is a theory that political violence is the sort of thing democracy is supposed to prevent, and if it accrues it will be remedied by the exercise of voting and the protection of individual rights by the courts or by civil disobedience. But examples in Jamaica and the US dispel this proposition.
Since the 1980s there has been a long-standing feud between right-wing and left-wing elements in Jamaica often escalating into violence. Successive governments have used states of emergency to combat the problem because, according to National Security Minister Dr Horace Chang, unless Jamaica becomes a police state, states of emergency are necessary. A police state is one in which excess power is exercised through the power of the police force.
Democracy is still intact, but the costs have been high. Jamaica was listed in a recent report as having the highest rate of homicides in the Americas and the Caribbean, including killings by the police.
In the US, the summer of 2020 saw protests and sporadic violence in a number of cities following the killings by police of African Americans George Floyd and Breonna Taylor. Some people, including many who are now protesting in the streets, argue that American policing is incompatible with democratic ideals. The new president was installed in a celebration surrounded by a sea of barbed wire and 26,000 heavily armed soldiers. Military soldiers parade the streets as police officers, SWAT teams execute nightly no-knock warrants particularly in communities of colour, while people from these communities are disproportionately absorbed by the world's largest prison system.
To stop the exacerbation of Trumpism some on the left recommend Internet censorship, regulations on the media, new dramatic terror laws, and even policies to deprogram the minds of Trumpists.
It remains to be seen if the 2020 demonstrations will resolve the long-standing issues of racial injustice or escalate into a civil war. Two factors indicate that history favours the former. Firstly, today's protesters are more interracial than those of the past, comprising African Americans, Latinos and whites. Secondly, the geography of the violence is different today, as wealthy downtown malls and global chains are under attack and not just low-income neighbourhoods.
Armed militias, censorship, and acts of police brutality carry associated costs such as loss of life, damage to property, and accelerated violence. To mitigate these costs politicians are tempted to invoke emergency powers, but these are necessarily short-term solutions. What is needed are more investments targeted towards communities that promote democracy and build community resilience.
Boynton Beach, Florida
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