From Structural to Stochastic Violence

By Karina Biondi and Jennifer Curtis

Editorial Introduction 2
Speaking Justice to Power III: Confinement, Cauterization, and Antipolitics in the Americas

This Speaking Justice to Power installment focuses on the Americas, North and South, to foreground the divergent historical roots of the region’s new authoritarianism, now being enacted through confinement practices in numerous states. A multi-part PoLAR conversation with Karina Biondi (APLA Book Prize winner 2017), Catherine Besteman (President Emeritus, APLA) and Orisanmi Burton, complements this Speaking Justice installment’s focus on authoritarian practices of confinement and cauterization.

Close-up of homemade decals on van of Cesar Sayoc, alleged MAGA bomber. Freelance journalist tweeted a full photo of Sayoc’s van when her husband noticed it on November 1, 2017. Full image:

Last spring, Karina Biondi, 2017 APLA Book Prize winner, approached us to develop a Speaking Justice to Power series on incarceration and confinement in the Americas, their role in authoritarian political movements and government, and how contemporary authoritarianisms in the Americas emerge from shared histories of conquest and captivity. Conceived in the early days of the summer, as the Trump administration was separating immigrant families and detaining children, and political violence in Brazil was increasing, the series focused on authoritarian state practices of confinement and cauterization, while exploring strategies for dissent. However, as autumn elections neared in both Brazil and the United States, escalating violence in support of authoritarian politicians became another shared crisis, stemming not only from state actors directly, but from authoritarian political movements and individual citizens. Non-state actors and lone wolf terrorists are tactically useful for authoritarian movements, and working in synergy with politicians and political parties, their violent actions extend the repression of authoritarianism beyond the prison and border to the quotidian spaces of synagogues and supermarkets.

Former U.K. Independence Party leader Nigel Farage posing in front of the anti-EU “Breaking Point” ad during Brexit campaigning. Philip Toscano/PA Wire.

Often, anthropologists approach the dynamic between political violence and political rhetoric from a legal frame of incitement; for example, in the wake of the October 27, 2018 lone wolf attack on the Tree of Life synagogue in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, our colleague Richard Ashby Wilson analyzed the relationship of political rhetoric, particularly that of Trump, and violence in legal terms for the Washington Post. However, for political theorists, historians of authoritarianism, and scholars of political violence, from non-state actors to formal wars, the legal dimensions of incitement are merely one part of this situation; and for the targets of such violence, whether or not incitement creates legal culpability is painfully irrelevant. In the weeks before the 2018 midterm elections, it is a fact that Donald J. Trump intensified his anti-immigrant rhetoric, repeatedly invoking the danger of a caravan of Central American migrants attempting to reach the U.S. border—despite the caravan’s distance of hundreds of miles from the U.S. Trump’s caravan rhetoric contained no recognition of the despair driving these refugees, the U.S.’ active role in Latin America’s political economic crises, or the sharp rise in the validity of Central American asylum claims. Trump’s dishonest and dehumanizing characterizations of desperate people struggling to make a dangerous journey evoke other rhetorical invocations of national purity and anti-immigrant threat, such as the U.K. Independence Party’s pro-Brexit campaign messages, which themselves echoed earlier Nazi propaganda films.

Still image from Nazi propaganda film. Tweeted by Anthony Oliveira in comparison of White House tweets with Nazi propaganda. This image was also cited in criminal complaints of the UKIP “Breaking Point” poster.

Recognizing the relationship between political rhetoric and violence leads us to another dimension of how authoritarian politics work—the role of non-state actors, ie, our fellow citizens—in confining and repressing not just abstract Others, but concretely vulnerable people whose number is ever-expanding. In the U.S., the role of political rhetoric in the strategies of white nationalists has been well-known for decades. U.S. domestic terrorists have long embraced a conscious strategy of “stochastic” violence—a strategy refined as “leaderless resistance” by white nationalists like Louis Beam, helping bridge differences between traditional white supremacists like the KKK, militia movements, neo-Nazis, and Christian Identity groups. [1] Stochastic violence emphasizes rhetoric that inspires small cells or individuals (“lone wolves”) to commit acts of violence, while retaining deniability for “respectable” leaders and groups (Southern Poverty Law Center 2015).

Stochastic Violence and Political Rhetoric in the U.S.
Tree of Life Synagogue – Memorials to Victims. A memorial outside the Tree of Life Congregation Synagogue in Pittsburgh is seen during the visit of President Donald J. Trump and First Lady Melania Trump Tuesday, Oct. 30, 2018, to remember the victims of Saturday’s mass shooting. (Official White House Photo by Andrea Hanks).

During 2015 and 2016, the Southern Poverty Law Center documented significant rises in hate crimes and the formation of hate groups in the U.S., correlated with Donald Trump’s legitimation of white nationalist rhetoric, as well as the far right’s infiltration of mainstream politics.[2] Despite the greater threat posed by domestic right-wing violence in the United States, with the election of Donald Trump, intelligence agencies were directed to focus attention on Muslim radicals (Kurzman 2017), and are now ill-prepared for dealing with white nationalist terrorism.[3] More recently, in both the United States and Brazil, Trump, Bolsonaro, and their online armies of supporters (and bots) have intensified dehumanizing and provocative rhetoric, and their supporters have mobilized to commit ever more grotesque acts of violence. These actions follow the U.S. model of stochastic terrorism and Brazil’s longer history of both military and paramilitary repression.[4]

As Trump embraced the label of “nationalism,” despite its association with white nationalism in the U.S., a white man from Florida named Cesar Sayoc allegedly mailed more than a dozen pipe bombs to multiple political figures attacked verbally by Trump, including former President Obama, Hillary Clinton, George Soros, and former U.S. Attorney General Eric Holder.  Sayoc, it is reported by the Washington Post, was allegedly inspired by Trump; Sayoc’s former attorney reports, “Along came the presidential campaign of Donald Trump, who welcomed all extremists, all outsiders, all outliers, and he felt that somebody was finally talking to him.” October 12th, a week before the pipe bomb plot was discovered, a far-right group calling itself the Proud Boys marauded and attacked their fellow citizens on Manhattan’s East Side. Before Sayoc was even arrested, on October 25, a lone white gunman murdered two black senior citizens at a Kroger supermarket in Louisville, Kentucky. The alleged perpetrator, Gregory Bush, had initially attempted to enter an African American church—but parishioners had wisely locked the doors. And on October 27, after a week of pipe bomb news, a new atrocity took place in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania when a white gunman named Robert Bowers fatally shot 11 people in a synagogue, in the worst attack on American Jews to date. Bowers posted on social media about the caravan Trump fixated upon in the last weeks of the midterm campaign, calling the refugees “invaders;” he was also apparently fixated on the Hebrew Immigrant Aid Society, which supports refugees fleeing persecution.

Now-deleted post on the Gab social network platform by Robert Bowers, the alleged perpetrator of the Tree of Life massacre in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania. HIAS is the Hebrew Immigrant Aid Society, an organization that supports refugee resettlement and frequent target of right-wing demagoguery.

In addition to the administration’s increasingly draconian immigration policies, ongoing mass incarceration, and vile political rhetoric, hate crimes in Trump’s America continue to rise; according the Anti-Defamation League’s latest reports, anti-Semitic incidents rose by 57% in 2017. A recent survey by ABC news found 17 ongoing cases in which white defendants invoked Trump’s rhetoric as mitigation of their violent acts. Recently, three Kansas militia men convicted for a conspiracy to bomb Somalian refugees in Garden City, Kansas asked a federal judge to consider Trump’s rhetoric as the context for their actions–and as a reason to impose a more lenient sentence.

Tactics of confinement and cauterization are state tools, but not exclusively; authoritarian movements rely on nonstate partisans to extend violence well beyond the state, into every facet of everyday life. Jim Crow was not just a legal system, but an order in which non-state actors could report African Americans for registering to vote—or organize a mob to murder African American activists. A range of actions by ordinary citizens privileged under an authoritarian order (or desperate to hold their places within it), including violence and intimidation, are part of how authoritarian movements advance and maintain their power. Today, from purges of voter rolls in Georgia to citizens reporting voters who “don’t look right,” authoritarian practices may emanate from the state and politicians, through both rhetoric and policy, but authority does not stop there. From Permit Patty to South Park Susan, pipe bomber to synagogue shooter, ordinary citizens feel authorized to harass, report, and even murder their fellow citizens. From 1920’s Germany to contemporary Brazil, we must remain conscious that a nexus of structural and stochastic violence is central to the rise of authoritarian political movements.

“Brazil above all; God above everybody”

In Brazil, Bolsonaro campaigned for president with the motto “Brazil above all; God above everybody”, defending the traditional family, Christian values, facilitating the sale of arms and an ultraliberal economic policy. Refusing to go to debates with his adversary, he established social media as the predominant way of communicating with his supporters. Through them he made intense criticisms of communism, cultural Marxism, activism, and the gender ideology that, according to him, were ruining Brazil. He promised to ban from all schools and carry out a project called “School without Party”.[5] This project aims to remove any so-called ideological bias in teaching. For example, the project seeks to end discussions of racial and sexual diversity while also banishing authors considered leftists from the curriculum. Under this project, schools must approach the military government in Brazil not as dictatorship, but as a revolution.

In one of the rallies, Bolsonaro simulated machine gun shots when he said he was going to shoot Work Party supporters. The machine gun gesture became a symbol of his campaign. In another rally, he reaffirmed: “This group, if they want to stay here, will have to put itself under the law of all of us. Leave or go to jail. These red marginals will be banished from our homeland”; “You, petralhada [a derogatory term for Workers’ Party supporters] will see a civilian and military police with a judicial rearguard to enforce the law on your backs.”

The aggressiveness of Bolsonaro’s speech extends especially against women, gays and blacks, and seems to stimulate the actions of his followers. It is significant that David Duke, a former Ku Klux Klan leader, endorsed Bolsonaro. Swastikas and words of hate were inscribed in public places, mainly in universities that participate in affirmative actions. Journalists were verbally threatened and physically assaulted. A well-known capoeira master was assassinated by a Bolsonaro supporter. Shots were fired against a rally supporting the opposing candidate, killing a young man. Two gay men were also murdered; according to witnesses, the killers shouted “Now it’s Bolsonaro!”. Dozens of people were beaten. Many were threatened.

 Several universities have risen up against the growing hatred. Some have written documents in defense of democracy. Others preferred to promote activities to discuss authoritarianism and fascism. Many students have mobilized and some of them erected a banner with the words “anti-fascist”. However, the Brazilian justice system prohibited these demonstrations and threatened with arrest those who did not obey. The argument is that anti-fascist demonstrations were references to the Bolsonaro candidate and that it is forbidden to campaign politically within public institutions. Although Supreme Court repealed this orders, the same judicial system sanctioned a criminal investigation into  Roger Waters (formerly of Pink Floyd). A judge even forbade Waters, who was touring Brazil, to speak out against fascism in his shows. On the same night that the results of the election were announced, a school and a health post located in an indigenous village were set on fire. Many environmental protectors and indigenous rights activists had already been threatened by farmers who, with the support of Bolsonaro, intend to expand their plantations in areas that are now environmental and indigenous reserves. In the same week, Bolsonaro invited the judge who sentenced Lula to prison, Sergio Moro, to serve as something of a super-minister in his administration, putting him in charge of issues related to justice and public safety.

In fact, both Brazilian justice and conservative voters seem already to be in tune with one of Bolsonaro’s promises: not to allow any form of activism.


Many of our anthropological colleagues have insight into the deep contemporary and historical connections among authoritarian movements in the Americas, including U.S. military, intelligence, and economic policies toward Latin America, and earlier practices of colonialism and enslavement.[link to part III of the PoLAR interview] In this installment of the series, Jorge Mattar Villela examines the how Brazil’s recent coup worked in tandem with the intensification of carceral policies—and lobbying by U.S. companies and prison privatization advocates. Brie Gettleson considers the Disappeared in Guatemala, concluding with the poignant reminder that this theft of children by the state is even now being reenacted against Central American migrants by the U.S. state. Alessandro Angelini considers the roles of billionaire benefactors in militarized policing and surveillance, in both Baltimore, Maryland, and Rio de Janeiro. Finally, Nicole M. Guidotti-Hernández extends our analysis of confinement and repression, considering how gender and race intersect in the biopolitics and necropolitics of U.S. immigration and asylum.

Incitement is not a legally actionable crime in the U.S., but it is an essential component of authoritarianism. Provocative rhetoric and stochastic violence devolve some of the work of  violence and repression to the citizenry, while state institutions and actors perpetuate and intensify structural violence. Although liberatory struggles depend upon solidarity, authoritarianism complicates the terrain of solidarity, enlisting our fellow citizens as combatants against liberation. To advocate for liberation under conditions of creeping authoritarianism, we must honestly acknowledge dire threats not just from state actors, but from our fellow humans and citizens—no matter how painful this recognition is.

Karina Biondi holds a bachelor’s degree in social sciences from University of Sao Paulo (USP) and a master’s and doctoral degree in Social Anthropology from Federal University of Sao Carlos (UFSCar). She is currently professor at the State University of Maranhão (UEMA), where she coordinates the Laboratory of Studies in Political Anthropology – LEAP. Karina is currently researching the technologies of mapping crime from the perspective of science studies. She wrote Junto e Misturado: uma etnografia do PCC, published in English by the University of North Carolina Press under the title Sharing This Walk: An Ethnography of Prison Life and the PCC in Brazil.

Jennifer Curtis is Honorary Fellow in Social Anthropology at the University of Edinburgh and Associate Editor of PoLAR: Political and Legal Anthropology Review. She is the author of Human Rights As War By Other Means: Peace Politics in Northern Ireland, published by the University of Pennsylvania Press. Her work focuses on grassroots social movements and human and civil rights politics and law. She is currently completing an ethnographic monograph on race, sexuality, and rights advocacy in red state America, based on fieldwork in Missouri. This book, Strange Fruit of Liberty: Race, Sexuality, and Rights in Red State America is under contract with University of Pennsylvania Press.


[1] Louis Beam, “Leaderless Resistance,” Central Michigan Regional Militia Manual, pp. 20-23 (1983). Republished in The Seditionist #12, February 1992. For historical analysis, see Barkun (1997).

[2] Mark Potok, “The Year in Hate and Extremism,” The Intelligence Report, February 15, 2017.  Southern Poverty Law Center, “Active Hate Groups 2016,” and “For the Record,” The Intelligence Report, February 15, 2017.

[3] Kurt Eichenwald, “Right-Wing Extremists Are a Bigger Threat to Than ISIS,” Newsweek, February 4, 2016.

[4] For example, ISIS, after losing a great deal territory, is now almost exclusively focused on motivating individual actors to violence through online communications and propaganda.

See also: Mark S. Hamm and Ramón Spaaij, 2017, The Age of Lone Wolf Terrorism. New York: Columbia University Press;

Cao, Zhenfeng and Zheng, Minzhang and Vorobyeva, Yulia and Song, Chaoming and Johnson, Neil, “Dynamical Patterns in Individual Trajectories Toward Extremism” (June 2, 2017). Available at SSRN: or;

F. Johnson et al. 2016. “New online ecology of adversarial aggregates: ISIS and beyond” Science  17 Jun 2016:Vol. 352, Issue 6292, pp. 1459-1463 DOI: 10.1126/science.aaf0675 Link:


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