Rioting in America – GILIE (CSS)

GILIE, Paul A. Rioting in America. Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1996. 248p. JAMES, Joy. Resisting State Violence: Radicalism, Gender and Race in U.S. Culture. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 1996. 280p. Resenha de: LEWIS, Magda. Canadian Social Studies, v.35, n.4, 2001.

I have thought a lot about the two books under examination in this short review: Rioting in America by Paul A. Gilje and Resisting State Violence by Joy James. I have read both of them more than once and have used them in my teaching in graduate courses in Cultural Studies. The critical frameworks by which both Gilje and James approach their topic, the first through a critical historical reading and the second by way of critical race and feminist theory, is essential to the understanding of the possibilities, as well a the impossibilities, of popular movements for social transformation. This is a timely question not only from a global perspective but in the local Canadian context as well.

Both texts are eminently readable and compelling. Although they have significantly different agendas and purposes, I found each text to be an interesting and important contribution toward an understanding of, what I have come to call, the globalization of the impotence of popular political action and what one might do about it.

Rioting in America is a studied and well researched history of popular political action in the United States from its beginnings as a British Colony to the 1990s. Although its attention is focused entirely on the history of the United States, offered sometimes in great detail, I find the book useful in a Canadian context. This is particularly so in regard to my current interest in understanding the dissonance between those who are popularly called the people and those who, as a result of apparently democratic processes, claim to govern on our behalf.

Rioting is not a political form that has a significant history in contemporary Canadian popular politics. For example, when, in the fall of 1996, Mike Harris’ Conservative government began its systematic dismantling of Ontario’s public education system in preparation for what he is hoping, still, to achieve through the privatization of large segments of it, almost 300,000 people, many of them teachers, many of whom voted for Harris, marched on the Ontario Legislature. I was there. Intriguingly, the positively carnivalesque atmosphere of the event, including beclowned entertainers, had the effect of masking the seriousness of the consequences to the public education system of the proposed legislation, Bill 160.

That same fall, there were protests in the streets of Paris for similar reasons: the colonizing forces of economic globalization fuelled by neo-conservative ideologies revealed in the bureaucratic dismantling of public schooling; the pricing out of range, for the children of the disappearing average family, of post secondary education; the undermining of the health care system; and the destruction of the social infrastructure that had heretofore provided at least minimum levels of subsistence for the most economically and socially disadvantaged.

As I reflect on that day of protest and recall a carefully paced walk along the lovely boulevard avenue that leads to the seat of government, where, having arrived, we settled in for a picnic while we heard carefully worded speeches delivered from platforms erected the day before (because this was a planned for event), and which Mike Harris never heard because he wasn’t there that day (equally planned for). Police in riot gear were discreetly out of sight.

That same month, over-turned cars burned in the streets of Paris. University students, my daughter among them, and some of their professors blockaded the university buildings, angry protestors marched with fists clenched and raised, and police in Darth Vadaresque riot gear, forming a human chain complete with one-way-view face shields, blocked every side street for the entire route of the protest. Unlike my day of protest, for these demonstrators, there was no way out. Yet, ironically at the end of the day, whether in Paris or in Toronto, we all quietly went home.

Gilje’s historical accounting within a well analyzed context calls me to think about popular movements: riots, revolutions, demonstrations. What compelled me about this book is the way it raised questions for me, about the effectiveness of popular movements at a time, when, not politics, but the hidden structures of the global economy, drive political decisions and possibilities. Rioting in America makes me question the implications of the dissonance between how individuals in democratically elected governments come to occupy their positions of power, on the one hand, and, on the other hand, how these individuals come to articulate their loyalties (most often, it seems, in these days of the Multilateral Agreement on Investments (MAI) and global conservatism, not always in the best interests of those who elected them).

In Canada, the peculiarities of Euro-American democratic processes are well demonstrated at the level of the everyday where the hegemony of conservatism, also known as corporate interest, at all levels of public institution, takes precedence over the interests of individuals who, nonetheless, believe themselves to be participating in democratic processes, apparently guaranteed by the vote. Given such a peculiar turn of democratic events, it seems that history has not yet decided at what gruesome cost the fragile gains of American democracy have come (Gilje, p. xi).

In this regard, Resisting State Violence, Joy James’ brilliant, engagingly autobiographical volume, is a perfect companion piece. Through a conceptual examination of the processes of racism and sexism, she uncovers the invisible underside of democracy, as we know it. The transformation of Euro-American democracy into state violence is thus revealed. Drawing on the personal/political engagement of the intellectual/activist, James accomplishes her stated agenda: to draw together, on the one hand, critique of, and on the other hand, confrontation with state violence (James, p. 4). For the former, she provides complex conceptual frames and, for the latter, she offers suggestions for and examples of practice.

As with Gilje, what I value in James’ work is the questions she moves me to ask and the conceptual tools she offers for exploration of these questions. Ultimately I ask, what are the possibilities and impossibilities, at the turn of the millennium, of popular movements aimed at effecting collective/state practices that support the best interests of the people, set against the logic of a democratic process dependant for its success, on the participation of an uninformed or partially informed population? And what are the implications of this for what we are able or allowed to do in schools, Academic Freedom notwithstanding.

For me, as an intellectual in present day Ontario, these are not academic questions even as they are pedagogical ones. How I resolve some sense of these questions will ultimately guide strategies not only for political participation but for what we do with students at all levels of the schooling enterprise. For helping me ask these questions I thank Gilje and James.

Magda Lewis – Associate Professor, Queen’s University. Kingston, Ontario.

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