The Voice of Violence: Performative Violence as Protest in the Vietnam Era

The Voice of Violence: Performative Violence as Protest in the Vietnam Era

The Voice of Violence: Performative Violence as Protest in the Vietnam Era

The Voice of Violence: Performative Violence as Protest in the Vietnam Era


The tide of 1960s political upheaval, while mistaken at the time by some as a unified assault against America carried out by revolutionaries at home and abroad, was actually hundreds of locally constructed expressions of political discourse, reflecting the influences of race, class, gender, and local conditions on each unique group of practitioners. This is a comparative study of how radicals at the local level staged, displayed, and ultimately narrated symbolic acts of performative violence against the symbols of the American system. The term performative violence refers to a method of public protest whereby participants create the conditions in which their violent actions become a political text, a powerful symbol with a strong historical precedent.

Recognizing the textuality of history, this interdisciplinary examination deconstructs the performative violence within its historically specific and socially constructed contexts using four representative case histories of late 1960s and early 1970s activism. These are the African-American rioters in Kansas City, the Black Panther Party in Detroit, campus radicals at Kansas State University, and activists at the University of Kansas. Rather than focusing on the major clashes of the Vietnam era, this book contributes to recent scholarship on the 1960s which has attempted to offer a more textured analysis of the era's activism, particularly its political violence, based on more local studies.


Maybe we just have to admit that the day of violence is here, and maybe
we have to just give up and let violence take its course. The nation won’t
listen to our voice – maybe it’ll heed the voice of violence.

– Martin Luther King, Jr. March 1968

One of the hallmarks of the late 1960s is conflict: between war and peace, national interests and individual rights, social justice and racism, young and old, straight and freak, custodial liberalism and participatory democracy, us and them. Across the nation, a general rejection of the existing systems of authority and disobedience to previously respected “superiors” in all their forms spread like wildfire in the Vietnam era, dividing the nation as it had not been since the 1860s. As the nation grew increasingly polarized on these and other issues, many social activists who chose to take a stand on the Left staged an “endless pageant of political and cultural protest” as a means of communication with the dominant institutions of American postwar society. Those who enlisted in this battle, within what is loosely referred to as “the movement” sought to resolve the era’s conflicts with productions of public protest, specifically produced to debate, persuade, and ultimately educate the nation. These symbolic actions took many forms: petitioning, rock throwing, canvassing, letter writing, vigils, sit-ins, freedom rides, lobbying, arson, draft resistance, desertion, fragging, assault, hair growing, nonviolent civil disobedience, operating a free store, rioting, confrontations with cops, consciousness raising, screaming obscenities, singing, hurling shit, marching, raising a clinched fist, bodily assault, tax refusal, guerrilla theater, campaigning, looting, sniping, living theater, rallies, smoking pot, destroying draft records, blowing up ROTC buildings, court trials, murder, immolation, strikes, and writing various manifestoes or platforms.

Scholarship on the 1960s seems to be as extensive as the expressions of activism themselves. The proliferation of works on the decade, both scholarly and popular, continues to come at such a rapid pace that to keep up is a task worthy of . . .

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