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Violence as a Means of Change

Updated on November 12, 2013


There are many perspectives on the act of citizen uprising. Many ask the question, "When is it legitimate for citizens to act in defiance of the state?" They also ask how citizens can legitimately act in defiance of the state in order to successfully uprise. An uprising of a new nation can result from either a violent struggle of the people or from actions of colonized peoples (Fanon, 70).

But we must ask, under what conditions should subjects act as citizens, claiming their rights and responsibilities? When, and through what means, should they revolt against the state? I think many would contend that citizens should act in defiance of the state when it becomes destructive or oppressive towards them, and that the only way this can be achieved is through the means of violence and force.


Henry David Thoreau believes that the best government is one that’s not involved, and that government gets in the way of social and political transcendence. So our first question is, when is it legitimate for citizens to act in defiance of the state?

The Declaration of Independence states that when government becomes destructive, “it is the right of the people to alter or abolish it.” This means that when the government abuses their power, it is in the hands of the people to overthrow it. And when the government violates the rights of the people, the people are entitled to a violent uprising against this authority. The Declaration of Rights of Man and Citizen calls this a “sacred right.”

An example of an uprising against the state would be the Black Panther Party. The Black Panther Party, an African American revolutionary party, thrived on confrontation and socialism during its involvement in the Black Power Movement between 1967 and 1975. Their cause was to protect African American neighborhoods from police brutality, a form of abuse by an authority of power. The party contended that communities (the people) control empowerment, not the state, and that through force and confrontation by the masses can an uprising occur against this oppressive force. To put in more concrete terms, it is proper for citizens to act in defiance against the state when they are being wrongfully governed by the state or sovereign power.

Our next question is, through what means should citizens act in defiance of the state? What methods for revolution would work?

This is where the use of violence comes in. Colonialism, or sovereignty, gives in when it is confronted with a higher, stronger power. Some may contend that passive violence, or nonviolence, may suffice for citizens to be defiant.

Stokely Carmichael, who argues in The Black Power Mixtape that nonviolence does not work, says that in order for nonviolence to work, your opponent must have a conscious, and that the state (in his argument the United States) has none. Also, in Fanon’s view, decolonization (i.e. revolution) is inevitably a violent phenomenon (Fanon, 35). However, through this violence emerges the creation of new men, which in turn become free from inferiority.

Egyptian protests during the Arab Spring that eventually led to the overthrow of the Egyptian government.
Egyptian protests during the Arab Spring that eventually led to the overthrow of the Egyptian government. | Source

The nature of violence comes from force. The liberation of the masses can only be achieved through force. It is when this force becomes overpowering enough against the state that revolution can be achieved. In Fanon’s words, “colonialism is not a thinking machine [...]. It is violence in its natural state, and it will only yield when confronted with greater violence” (Fanon, 61).

Erykah Badu is also a contender for this argument in The Black Power Mixtape. Her ideology suggests that citizens are not choosing to kill, be violent, or be defiant. For example, in the context she uses, she says that black people do not uprise simply to invoke violence. She argues that they were not the ones who were first inflicted pain or kidnapped an entire culture for service work. Their revolt is not for violence; it is an uprise against the force of colonialism that was oppressing them for so long. In other words, their use of violence and force is their way of revolting against the oppression that they suffered. Therefore, the use of force and violence is an inevitable and necessary tool for citizens to act in defiance of the state.

The Black Power Mixtape: 1967-1975


Angela Davis comments in The Black Power Mixtape that the real content of any revolution lies in the principles and goals that are being strived for, not in the ways they are being reached. The ways these goals are being reached are a necessary component of revolution or uprising, but they are not the core of the purpose of revolution itself. It is the ideas and incentives that shape these revolutions, that must be enforced through forceful acts.

Citizens have the right to assert their rights and obligations. They have the right to revolution and the right to resist government. Whether the acts they commit are ethical, cultural, social, or violent, they are political acts of citizenship (Thoreau, 39). The real object of the struggle is to defeat a destructive sovereign power, because the real sovereignty lies in the people. According to the Declaration of the Rights of Man and Citizen, this sovereignty is “one and indivisible,” and the people should fight against any abusive or oppressive source that chooses to abuse its power, ignoring the rights of the people.


  • The Black Power Mixtape 1967-1975. Dir. Goran Olsson. Louverture Films, 2011.

  • "Declaration of Independence - Text Transcript." Declaration of Independence - Text Transcript. N.p., n.d. Web. 23 Aug. 2012. < declaration_transcript.html>.

  • "Declaration of the Rights of Man and Citizen." Liberty, Equality, Fraternity: Exploring the French Revolution. Ed. Frank Anderson. Minneapolis: H.W. Wilson, 1904. N. pag. Print.

  • Fanon, Frantz. "Concerning Violence." The Wretched of the Earth. New York: Grove Weidenfeld, n.d. N. pag. Print.

  • Thoreau, Henry David. On the Duty of Civil Disobedience. Bedford, MA: Applewood, 2000. Print.

© 2013 Ameera Nassir


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    • pmesler profile image

      Paul L Mesler 4 years ago

      I completely advocate the violent overthrow of any oppressive totalitarian government and I always will. Sometimes violence is the answer.

    • Earl Noah Bernsby profile image

      Earl Noah Bernsby 4 years ago from Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania

      I found your premise interesting, crreamm, though history has shown that the application of violence — whether reactionary or preemptive — invariably leads to more violence. Today's revolutionary is tomorrow's tyrant, as the saying goes.