With the future of America’s cities hanging in the balance, one’s initial approval or disapproval of violent uprisings or confrontations becomes irrelevant. Hiding behind a facade of moralism it is all too easy to prescribe shallow solutions to problems of civil disorder, and then attribute failure of the incorrigibility of the violent rather than to one’s own superficiality.
In 2013 I found myself standing among piles of books in a store called The International Book Mine. It was in an old warehouse and inside smelled of dust, mildew and cat litter—the owner took in stray cats, keeping them fed and warm, despite their aversion to human affection. For a while there was a hand-drawn sign stapled to the telephone pole outside that read: INTERGALACTIC LIBRARY.
I stepped carefully through piles of books, having to avoid some aisles entirely because the stacks blocked the floor between shelves. I made my way to the American History section and, on some crowded shelf, perched above more stacks of unsorted volumes, a title jumped out at me.
Rebels in Eden, the spine (what was left of it) read. And, living in the state where Trayvon Martin had just been murdered, knowing what I knew of the Black Power movement decades earlier, of the Civil Rights Movement before that, an excerpt printed on the back of the tattered cover was all I needed to buy the book:
The road to massive suppression is paved with strategic hamlets and reservations, more livable ghettos and cleaner jails, counterinsurgency forces and riot control squads. Witnessing the arming of police departments with sophisticated weaponry, the increase in paramilitary activity among white citizens, the infiltration of political groups by security police, the attempts to disarm street gangs and the arrest or assassination of militant black leaders, many blacks have begun to see both increased suppression and ineffective reformism as part of a single genocidal plan.
When I was younger, the warehouses along that corridor were often empty and home to makeshift skateboard ramps and squatters. I was 16 and happy to walk miles in Florida’s summer heat to skate in these old warehouses with my friends for an hour before the cops showed up to run us off. This corridor was old, dirty. Buildings were in bad shape, those occupied were barely up to code, if at all. The local skate shop was at the top of the hill, and the shop’s owner had resorted to fixing the building’s wiring on his own, checking out home repair books from the library (the county library, as the street wasn’t home to the intergalactic library yet). The property owner was aggressively opposed to putting any money into making the building safe.
Later, as an adult, I would befriend someone who ran a shop in the very same building and she would provide horrific accounts of text message exchanges with the property owner wherein he expressed a complete lack of concern at the condition of the building, insisting that if it burned down he could just sell the property to developers for more than he could make in rent.
Whether in the White House, Congress or the street, reactions to recent riots and demonstrations reveal a widely held belief that such episodes are “un-American”—rare occurrences in American life bearing little relationship to the way other domestic groups succeeded in advancing themselves.
The city had a plan to “revitalize” the corridor. To tear up the two-lane road and the roadside parking along it, widening the road and adding wider sidewalks from downtown to the university. Along the southern section of the road sat all the old warehouses. Just up the hill, though, were shops and restaurants and a couple bars and a big, empty, overgrown lot filled with improbable pine trees. In the city’s plan, all of that would be gone. Not just the decrepit warehouses but also the buildings housing the shops and bars and restaurants and, by extension, the businesses that had been there for a decade or more, sustained by cheap rent and a resilient art community just a few blocks away. I should mention, here, that this corridor, a former industrial district, sat very close to the lower-income, predominantly black side of town. This is the side of town where the county jail is. The side of town with the newer industrial district. The side of town where off-campus student housing gets built. Where new development pushes those lower income residents further and further away from the city center.
The businesses in and residents near that corridor fought the plan. Petitions were signed. Initially the city modified their plan, but the university announced they would be buying the property along the corridor and developing it in line with the original plan. After all, the plan existed because such a “blighted” area couldn’t be allowed to exist as the university became more expensive and wanted to present the area around the campus as fun, exciting and—most importantly—safe while parents came for tours.
Despite initial resistance from occupants, property owners slowly sold off chunks of land along the corridor. The city moved forward with reconstruction on the road itself. And as I continued to walk and ride my bicycle through the area, warehouses were replaced by apartments. I saw fliers for the cost of the apartments and balked at how a student could afford such monthly rates. After all, I was working full time and struggled to pay rent at two-thirds that price. My friends struggled to pay similar rents.
Violence, for us, includes threats, coercion and physical damage to persons or property; political violence is violence resorted to by or on behalf of groups, involving collective action, and related to competition for political or economic power.
Rebels in Eden: Mass Political Violence in the United States fit into a blank piece in my understanding of political struggle in the United States. A blank piece I knew was there but had no idea what to fill it with. Richard E. Rubenstein peeled back the myth of peaceful progress in this country. He went back to the earliest political conflicts in the United States history and demonstrated that no group, previously relegated to the margins of society, earned a position of political or economic power without collective violence. And that they hastily adopted the myth of peaceful progress into their own story.
But in their zeal to liberate themselves from racist stereotypes, groups which have now “arrived” are inclined to forget that in America, freedom, prosperity and social status are not handed over politely to newcomers, nor are they simply earned by individual effort.
When I bought it, the book’s spine was almost completely gone. The front cover was torn, the back cover barely attached. By the time I had finished reading it, packing tape held the covers together. By the time I finished reading it the second time, I had glued the spine back into the tape. I lent the book to a few people and eventually had no choice but to buy another copy.
It’s hard to draw a line around the way this book changed and expanded and influenced my politics. I was already staunchly leftist, well-versed in power relations and anarchist theory. There was no doubt of my support and appreciation for the rising Black Lives Matter movement, but still Rebels in Eden feels a necessary piece of that for me. At the time, it felt monumental, though I had, and have, trouble articulating precisely why.
Therefore, when he talks about “violent men,” he does not refer to the decent, respectable, middle-class white folk, but to the unruly, obstreperous mob of criminals, students, juvenile delinquents, Negroes, poor people, and psychopaths who are now lumped together as lacking respect for law and order. Those automatically excluded from this category include government officials, policemen and generals.
Standing in this visual disaster of a book store in 2013, two things struck me: first, the inside of the store seemed to perfectly encapsulate my memories of the corridor from a decade before; second, I found myself preemptively missing the store, and all the haphazard little shops that still occupied the old buildings left in the area. I didn’t go in more than half a dozen other times before moving to Houston. The store became an oddity on the block, slowly at first but then, suddenly, it was apparent: It was the one remaining hold-out. The owner of the store unwilling to accept an early termination of the lease.
One night in late 2017, a couple months after I left Florida for Texas, the International Book Mine burned down. I was right to have missed the store even as I entered it for the first time years ago. I knew—somehow intrinsically—that it ran counter to what the city, university, and private developers wanted for the area. It could not last. Like many of my favorite shops from when I was younger and places where I made friends and learned about a fraction of the violence police were all too willing to wield, I knew the book store would be destroyed.
Official reports were inconclusive as to the cause of the fire. Arson was officially ruled out. The most likely culprit was poorly maintained wiring. An employee, one of three living in the back of the store, reported what sounded like an explosion on one wall. The owner of the store has said he complained to the landlord many times about the condition of the decades-old wiring. The landlord told the local paper that he had checked on it and didn’t find anything that caused him concern.
Shall we merely remark (as is now the fashion) that America has been “a violent society,” or is there something more that can be said […] it is difficult to escape the conclusion that patterns of violence exist… although separated in time and place, share certain common characteristics.
When my dad sent me a picture of the rubble a few days after the store burned, I thought again of the book I bought on my first visit. I dug out my copy and reread it. And I thought about the 100,000 books lost, the business lost, the jobs of the employees lost, and the home for three people—not to mention the countless stray cats—that went up in flames. I remembered the text messages from a landlord who owned two buildings less than a mile away. I thought of the owner of the skate shop, repairing dangerous wiring because the landlord was less concerned with the risk of fire than he was with spending extra money.
This pattern is the violence of the status quo, hidden behind a myth of peaceful progress. It denies that many groups throughout our history have had to assert, through their own violence, the ability to control their own affairs. It denies that that the status quo is kept in place by violence. The myth of peaceful progress obfuscates the violence done to those who have yet to “progress,” those who have not yet “arrived.” The myth hides that often, progress of any kind is not peaceful.
The loss of the International Book Mine—the livelihood of one man, the home of three others, and the last symbol of a community—happened through a violence we have all accepted. A calculation based on political or economic power. A political violence perpetrated by the economic institution that determines some lives are worth less than others. That some businesses deserve to burn through negligence while others are granted multi-million dollar investments. A political violence that prefers a warehouse be empty of skaters and squatters, no matter the harm that may befall either group in the process or as a result.
This violence is so common it is often unseen, shrouded by the myths of peaceful progress or at the very least not seen as violence. It is the violence that allows lead into public water supplies. That makes it legal to seize property by quietly paying the property tax on others’ property. That destroys buildings, divides lots and constructs larger developments on the edges of poor neighborhoods, forcing long-time residents further and further away from the city center.
It is a political violence that allows people to die due to lack of medical care access. That sees people freeze to death or starve in the streets because they cannot afford shelter or food. It is the political violence of police murdering innocent and unarmed black people. A political violence that hangs all of that over a people’s heads as a threat for what happens when the status quo is not followed.
Wounded by riots, America may begin to understand how the richest and most powerful society in the world can produce so many poor and powerless communities. […]she may uncover a connection between the politics of the Center and the proliferation of groups on the “lunatic fringe.” […] A nation armed with such understanding might then do battle against all violence—not just the violence of the forsaken, but that which inheres in great power illegitimately used.
All excerpts from Rebels in Eden: Mass Political Violence in the United States © 1970 by Richard E. Rubenstein.
About the Writer: Adam grew up in Florida and moved to Houston in 2017. He revels in time spent working on motorcycles, cooking, camping and trying new hobbies.