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  • Writer's pictureJoscelyn Transpiring

Non-Violence and Thrown Bricks

(Edited and republished on: 2023 November 18; Originally published on Mastodon on 2023 March 05:

CW: Police violence, “riots,” physical violence, homophobia, transphobia, out-dated LGBTQ terms

Transpiring Influences: Judith Butler’s “The Force of Non-Violence”

NOTE: DO NOT THROW BRICKS AT PEOPLE. Nothing I write here should be considered endorsing physical harm against anybody.

A sign in black and white saying "This is a raided premises. Police Department, City of New York.


Once upon a time...

Let me set the scene: There’s this run-down bar that’s operating illegally in the city. It’s owned by the mob and is a well-known hub of criminal activity. Usually, the mafia bribes the police to look the other way. On this night though, a group of cops that won’t take bribes are preparing a bust. When they get the signal from their undercover agent inside, they storm the place and begin arresting the criminals inside.

What happens next though catches them by surprise. Due to the large number of people they arrest in this sting, they have to wait outside for other squad cars to show up to take everyone to jail. A crowd of onlookers begins to form, and its then that one of the people that was arrested decides to resist and hits a cop. The crowd begins throwing objects, including empty beer bottles at the cops. The cops escape back into the bar to wait for back-up.

The crowd continues throwing things at the cops as they barricade themselves inside the bar. Then, people light garbage on fire and toss it in through the windows, and the building begins to catch on fire. As back-up finally arrives, the cops shove their way out of the burning building, getting the crowd to back off by pulling their guns out, and bring their remaining prisoners to jail. The newspapers report on the riot the next morning.

In this story, who has done violence? What counts as violence? Obviously, a crowd that riots and tries to burn down a building is violent, right? And before the cops did anything, the mafia was running a criminal enterprise, and they are well known for causing violence. So, while the cops may have used some violence in fighting the crowd, it started with the mafia beforehand and it's the fault of the people in the crowd who escalated the fight with the police, right?

In Butler’s “The Force of Non-Violence,” they invite us to think about who decides what is violence and why. As they argue, it would be great to have a simple, objective definition of violence, but we are “in a political situation where the power to attribute violence to the opposition itself becomes an instrument by which to enhance state power, to discredit the aims of the opposition, or even to justify their radical disenfranchisement, imprisonment, and murder.”

That is to say, when living in a world where being able to call something violence allows you to justify your power and actions like imprisonment and killing, it’s not as simple as just creating a basic definition you can apply to all situations to measure violence. Instead, we need a way to think about violence that can account for systems of power and authority.

Once more upon a time...

So now I’m going to tell a different version of the same event. The year was 1969 and it was just a bit past 1 am on another night in New York City. The police are outside waiting for the signal from their undercover agent. And what’s the name of this notorious den of villainy that’s owned by the mob? You may have already guessed: It’s the Stonewall Inn.

There are many different versions of events from that night. The earlier one is closer to how police and the media described it – a spontaneous “riot” by violent criminals. This version is built from the eyewitness testimony of civilians who were there.

As mentioned before, the people inside were considered criminals. What was their crime? Well, this was the Public Morals squad of the police, so the crimes they were concerned with were cross-dressing and sodomy.

That night, the Stonewall Inn is reported to have had 205 people there. Most were gay men, but there were also lesbians, trans folks, drag queens, and queer sex workers. When the police dragged all of them out into the street to wait for the squad cars, they insisted on frisking the queer women and femmes despite their refusal. It is reported that one of the queens hit a cop with her purse when he groped and attempted to sexually assault her.

The first fight is said to have broken out when a butch lesbian, Stormé DeLarverie, was assaulted while being shoved into a cop car. She fought back, striking at the cops. This shifted the mood of the crowd. People had been coming over from the other gay bars and neighborhood haunts to see what the commotion was. Rumor was that the cops did this because they wanted a bigger bribe, so people began throwing pennies at them in a “there’s your money” gesture.

Soon, this escalated as beer bottles and other objects were thrown. And, notoriously, there was a nearby construction zone where it is said a queen or a trans woman picked up a brick and lobbed it at the police (the myth has become that it was Marsha P. Johnson, but she had said she didn't arrive until a bit later in the night when things were already going - though witness reports do support that she smashed in a cop car with a bag of bricks during the riot the next night). As the crowd turned on them, the police ducked back into the bar and barricaded it. There are conflicting reports, but several do point to the crowd starting the fire at the Stonewall that drove the police out.

When the riot squad arrived, armed with helmets and batons, they formed a phalanx and forced their way through, beating people as they marched. In protest, a group of queens and trans women formed a chorus kick line, dancing in formation to mock the police marching upon them. This sight repeated itself in police confrontations the next few nights, riot police beating unarmed people and queens mocking them with flamboyant resistance and dance.

Who decides what is violence?

Like many “riots,” when these events were reported, property damage and police injuries were emphasized, while the ongoing violence to LGBTQ+ folks was neglected. This brings me to how Butler conceives violence:

“And yet, in this world, as we know, lives are not equally valued; their claim against being injured or killed is not always registered. And one reason for this is that their lives are not considered worthy of grief, or grievable”

This is to say, when one group experiences harm or loss, it is grieved as a loss, but for other groups, the harms they suffer are invisible, dismissed, or minimized. All too common example: when a man sexually assaults a woman, there is chorus of voices that grieve how this will destroy HIS career, as if it was a greater loss than the trauma and violation suffered by the woman. The man’s loss is treated as grievable, the woman’s is not.

Grievability is the fault line that divides territories of lives valued and lives disposable. The lives on this side of the border of grievability are “safeguarded from violence” and know their lives matter within the interdependent relationships of society. For those on the other side, no effort is given to prevent them being left in a state of precarity, never certain that what they need to live and thrive will not be removed from them.

Butler argues that non-violence as an ethos demands equality in grievability

“When equality is understood as an individual right…it is separated from the social obligations we bear toward one another…whatever claims of equality [should be] then formulated, they emerge from the relations between people, in the name of those relations and those bonds.”

That is to say, non-violence is a practice that “not only stops a violent act or violent process,” but involves a sustained demand for ways of interacting that recognize equal grievability of the losses all involved could suffer. Simply put, if you attack me and have more power, and I respond by pushing you away, I am saying that the harm you are doing is harm, but not attacking you back, merely disrupting your violent act.

At Stonewall, when police attempted to re-enact over a century of harm, trans women, street queens, butch lesbians, and queer men refused to accept the unequal harm being done to them. They did not reciprocate police violence in kind – after all, no one threatened an officer with a gun or beat them with a baton. Instead, they engaged in aggressive resistance towards a violent process invading and destroying one of the few safe places for gay folks in the city.

Demanding Equal Grievability

When we look at contemporary civil rights movements, we see the police describe these actions as violent for damaging property or resisting arrest. The injuries suffered by businesses or police are registered and punished as losses, while the loss of life suffered by the Black folks the police murder and the loss of freedom and safety of protestors are treated as not mattering.

Butler themselves highlights abortion as a useful illustration of this understanding of non-violence. The anti-abortion “pro-life” movement creates policies that actively prioritize potential grievable loss suffered by an embryo over the actual life, autonomy, and well-being of a living person who can get pregnant. Violence sits in such structures of inequitable grief.

When facing anti-trans rhetoric, unequal grievability is helpful as a tool for revealing the violent relations involved. The potential loss suffered by a hypothetical detransitioner is often prioritized in this rhetoric over the actual loss of well-being, security, and life of trans people, with the latter rarely registered as a loss. The hypothetical discomfort of parents is raised over the loss experienced by trans people to access and appear in public or to move through the world safely.

Importantly, acting for equal grievability does not mean we enact equal grief. Going back to that night at Stonewall, queer people did not go to the homes of police officers and assault their families. Instead, that night, they disrupted violence being done to themselves that made their grievability undeniable and impossible to ignore, all without causing much lasting harm to the police or straight society.

It's hard to escape asking the question then: Is it non-violent to throw a brick? In isolation, as an individual act, throwing a brick at someone is violent, of course. Do not throw bricks at people. PLEASE!

But Butler’s analysis is not about individual actions. Instead, it's about how we relate to one another.

Non-violence does not mean to be passive in the sense of “let something happen.” If, like me, you are committed to non-violence, you have placed an obligation on yourself to act aggressively to stop violent acts and processes, without enacting a new imbalance of grievability upon others. Collective action that stops police in their tracks and drives them back can and should be understood on the spectrum of non-violence.

As the tactics of anti-queer violence change, we must be ready to extend ways of thinking on non-violence beyond what we have become comfortable with and relied upon. Simply protesting is insufficient when it can be described as violent by those in power yet fail to stop the grief that is visited upon us. How do we ensure we are not eradicated? How do we throw a wrench in the gears of a violent machine? How do we drive them back and make our grief undeniable?


NOTE: Picture at the top of piece is a sign at the Stonewall Inn shared under creative commons license from

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