This weekend in Selma, Alabama, people have gathered to remember the 50th anniversary of “Bloody Sunday”. On March 7, 1965 -- in an extreme act of state violence -- Alabama state troopers brutally attacked civil rights marchers as they attempted to cross the Edmund Pettus Bridge in an expression of solidarity to secure equal voting rights.
It’s significant to me in light of this collective remembering that by far the strongest connection I made in my reading of An Indigenous People's History of the United States (Roxanne Dunbar-Ortiz) and The Cross and the Lynching Tree (James H. Cone) was to violence. From the beginning, violence pervaded colonizers' relationships not only to the land, but with Native Americans, Black people uprooted and brought here as slaves, and, later, any others perceived as a threatening in some way. This behavior – in one form or another – has been carried on against other “enemies” by colonialist descendants.
According to military historian John Grenier, American settlers created a fighting tradition that featured destruction of noncombatants, villages, and agricultural resources. For successive generations of Americans soldiers and civilians, the killing of Indian men, women, and children became a defining element of their first military tradition and thus part of a shared American identity.[i]
Though this first way of war lost its centrality after 1814, Grenier stresses that Americans must not forget that it has remained part of US military heritage. In similar ways, the Civil War, strategic bombing of Nazi Germany and Japan in World War II, and the Vietnam War, represent other military campaigns in which the United States “blurred or even erased the boundaries between combatants and noncombatants”.[ii]
There is another point made by Grenier that I find especially interesting in light of the pervasive shadow (and not-so-shadow) culture of violence that exists in the United States today.
It’s significant, says Grenier, that in the 1790s, settlers tired of what they saw as governmental and Army incompetence to secure the frontier, and so focused on destroying Indian villages and food supplies themselves:
They were unabashed in declaring that their intentions were to drive the Indians from lands on the western side of the Appalachian range and claim those lands as their own, whether the nation-state of the United States wanted them to do so or not.[iii]
Reading this, I thought about how this vigilante mentality evolved later into lynching of Black people and, to some extent, other minorities. I believe the same shadow of violence found expression through Jim Crow laws, segregation, attacks on voting rights, and, more recently, mass incarceration. Violence (and genocide) against Native Americans continued through the system of reservations, boarding schools, corporate land grabs and broken treaties.
I think it’s likely that many other kinds of both subtle and overt bullying and violence trace back to the same foundations. I think it’s all present anytime institutions or individuals try to make objects out of subjects. In my own profession, for example, I came to understand that diagnosing so-called mental illness by imposing a label based on a DSM checklist is an act of violence. It has nothing to do with life as any person actually lives and experiences it. It is attempted soul murder.
This culture of violence will continue to fragment people, communities and social institutions until we – the collective of US citizenry -- acknowledge the violence that operated beneath the ideals of freedom and brotherhood that we continue to tell ourselves is what America is all about. As a nation, we need to bring our history of violence into the light. Until we can do this, we need to remember all of our bloody Sundays.
[i] John Grenier. The First Way of War: American War Making on the Frontier, 1607–1814 (Kindle Edition Locations 185-186, 203-205).
[ii] Grenier, Kindle Edition Locations 251-254).
[iii] Grenier, Kindle Edition Locations 240-245).
Burying Vietnam, Launching Perpetual War (Christian Appy, 2/8/15)
Race and Revolution: Reckoning with racial injustice past and present (Goodman, 3/5/15)
March 7, 1965: ‘Bloody Sunday’ in Selma, Alabama (Richard Kreitner, 3/7/15)
It's a Non-Stop Land Grab From the American Indians (Bill Moyers, 12/26/14)
I'll be writing more about collective shadows and shadow work later; here's a great article in the meantime:
How We Contribute to the Collective Shadow (Diane Hancox, MA; 11/17/11)
In this presentation to the US Army War College, John Grenier reads from his book, The First Way of War: