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Martin Luther King Jr. was an extremely committed proponent of nonviolent and nondestructive methods of protest. In his private strategic manifesto inside the Southern Christian Leadership Conference, A New Sense of Direction,* he advocated “militant” and “defiant” action to dislocate the function of American cities and enforce a popular demand for economic redistribution, but he did not deviate on this tactical direction. He even declared, “I, Martin Luther King, take thee, Non-violence, to be my wedded wife, for better or for worse, for richer or for poorer—this isn’t a bargaining experience—for richer or for poorer, in sickness and in health, until death do us part.”
Still, the King of 1967 and 1968 would hardly be at home among some of the critics of property destruction who often revere him. First, he draws a strong moral distinction between “violence against property” and “violence against persons.” And second, rather than prioritizing rooting out property destroyers for obscuring his message, he tries to explain their message. Third, he is careful to emphasize police responsibility for most violence against people during the riots. I quote him here at length describing the Black urban riots of summer 1967, the third consecutive summer of riot waves, largely touched off by local police violence. The following was first published in The Trumpet of Conscience (1967).
This bloodlust interpretation ignores one of the most striking features of the city riots. Violent they certainly were. But the violence, to a startling degree, was focused against property rather than against people. There were very few cases of injury to persons, and the vast majority of the rioters were not involved at all in attacking people. The much publicized “death toll” that marked the riots, and the many injuries, were overwhelmingly inflicted on the rioters by the military. It is clear that the riots were exacerbated by police action that was designed to injure or even to kill people. As for the snipers, no account of the riots claims that more than one or two dozen people were involved in sniping. From the facts, and unmistakable pattern emerges: a handful of Negroes used gunfire substantially to intimidate, not to kill; and all of the other participants had a different target—property.
I am aware that there are many who wince at a distinction between property and persons—who hold both sacrosanct. My views are not so rigid. A life is sacred. Property is intended to serve life, and no matter how much we surround it with rights and respect, it has no personal being. It is part of the earth man walks on; it is not man.
The focus on property in the 1967 riots is not accidental. It has a message; it is saying something.
If hostility to whites were ever going to dominate a Negro’s attitude and reach murderous proportions, surely it would be during a riot. But this rare opportunity for bloodletting was sublimated into arson, or turned into a kind of stormy carnival of free-merchandise distribution. Why did the rioters avoid personal attacks? The explanation cannot be fear of retribution, because the physical risks incurred in the attacks on property were no less than for personal assaults. The military forces were treating acts of petty larceny as equal to murder. Far more rioters took chances with their own lives, in their attacks on property, than threatened the life of anyone else. Why were they so violent with property then? Because property represents the white power structure, which they were attacking and trying to destroy. A curious proof of the symbolic aspect of the looting for some who took part in it is the fact that, after the riots, police received hundreds of calls from Negroes trying to return merchandise they had taken. Those people wanted the experience of taking, of redressing the power imbalance that property represents. Possession, afterward, was secondary.
A deeper level of hostility came out in arson, which was far more dangerous than the looting. But it, too, was a demonstration and a warning. It was designed to express the depth of anger in the community.
King was not an proponent of these tactics, but he was a prominent voice (at times, the most prominent voice) of his community when they were carried out. Rather than devote attention to their ”obscuring the message,” he sought to analyze their message, even as he argued such tactics would not prove victorious. I wish those who follow in his strategic footsteps on these tactical choices, would also follow him in prioritizing such explanations.
* “A New Sense of Direction” was one of King’s last overall strategic reflections before his assassination. It was delivered at a SCLC staff meeting and its private audience allowed for additional candor. It should be required reading for people seeking to understand King’s strategic vision. For more on King’s late political evolution, see Michael Eric Dyson’s I May Not Get There With You.
An article by George Lakey is circulating around the Internet* under the headline, “The More Violence, The Less Revolution.” While title is a quotation from 1930s radical Bart de Ligt, the thrust of the piece is to read Erica Chenoweth and Maria Stephan’s large-scale study Why Civil Resistance Works (website) under this headline. Chenoweth and Stephan do make a serious and wide-ranging attempt to measure the outcomes of tactical choices made by movements, and both their data and conclusions should be read widely among people interested in changing their societies. Chenoweth and Stephan’s expansive category of civil resistance is actually one that spans across existing internal debates in the Occupy Movement (and earlier generations of tactical debates in the global justice movement and elsewhere). Vitally, their analysis of what conditions make civil resistance successful can help us focus our tactical conversations in a very productive direction.**
George Lakey, while an opponent of both violent tactics and property destruction, issued a strong rejoinder to Chris Hedges’ The Cancer in Occupy, arguing: “The issue of the appropriateness of property destruction and/or violence is, like any other aspect of community organizing, not settled by blanket statements or posturing but by getting in there and dialoguing, over and over again. Advocates of nonviolent action need to learn from the Civil Rights movement and the field of community organizing in this way—there really aren’t any shortcuts.” Lakey has developed a nuanced, historically informed position on nonviolence. His strategic approach to thinking about nonviolence that has been surprisingly contagious internationally. And Lakey is willing to have difficult conversations with people who profoundly disagree with him, to his credit.
However, Lakey’s headline and overall argument are a misreading of Chenoweth and Stephan. This rankles me both as a social scientist (quibble ahead) and as a student of/participant in freedom struggles. First, the quibble: Why Civil Resistance Works and related studies divide all struggles into “nonviolent” (like the first Intifada, Lavalas against the Duvaliers in Haiti, the Velvet Revolution in Czechoslovakia, and the Defiance Campaign in South Africa) and “violent” (like the Mexican, Chinese, Algerian, and Iranian Revolutions). 0 for “nonviolent,” 1 for “violent.” (Incidentally, I think my four examples on each side of the “nonviolent”/”violent” categorization is a fairly good representation of successful cases, biased towards things anyone reading this blog would probably recognize. A complete list is in the Methodological Appendix [pdf] they posted online.) A dichotomous variable (definition) cannot be used to produce the more x, the less y statements. Ever.
Okay, so the real problem here is the made plain by the wide, wide variety of things crammed into the nonviolent category,‡ including nearly all of the tactical patterns Lakey and those citing this study through him are most likely to rail against inside of movements: confronting police with bricks and stones (Intifada), building burning barricades in the streets (Defiance campaign), yielding the moral high ground by defending against violence rather than showcasing differences in suffering. Both such militant, but ultimately civil revolutions and nearly pacifist mobilizations like Solidarity in Poland or the Velvet Revolution have much to teach us about how to resist.
Our tactical debates should solve protesters’ problems, instead of dividing movements
In the midst of Yet Another Tactical Debrief, this time on the recent Move-In-Day–turned—street-semibattle—then—mass-arrest at Occupy Oakland, I ended up tossing out on Twitter a cluster of successful movement moments, some of which involved fighting back against cops—Stonewall, Cochabamba Water War, anti-apartheid defiance campaign, Tahrir Square 2011—and others of which involved a calculated refusal to fight back, even to the point of enduring direct state violence: anti-nuclear demos, the 1980s Central America solidarity movement, Gandhian salt march. In my estimation, every single one of these was successful, which raises the question of what they had in common.
What these moments do not share in common is their achievement of a universally correct balance of nonviolence and forcefulness, self-sacrifice and safety, or daring and accessibility, but rather their solution to an immediate and tangible tactical problem which had been totally disabling to their movements. Without these solutions, the trajectories of their movements were towards frustration with the possibilities of action, and thereby to spirals of apathy and spurts of ineffective outrage. With them in mind, the trajectories shifted to hopeful emulation, contagious optimism, and surges in new participation, leading to a whole new scale for participation.
(very long post follows the break)
The two most compelling comments on the flotilla tragedy I’ve read came from very different sources. One is an Israeli Jew, Udi Adoni, writing on the Israeli online news service Ynetnews. The other is from IHH, the Turkish aid group that sponsored the MV Mavi Marmara, the ship that saw at least nine of its passengers shot dead. At a time when the Israeli state is eagerly telling the world that flotilla, and especially IHH, is Hamas, Iran, al-Qaeda and terrorists; and that the passengers who fought back were a terrorist ambush, the coincidence of these two voices is striking, and critical to hear. (everything that follows is their words0
Udi Adoni, “A view from the Left”: It is not true that among the participants of the flotilla there are proponents of peace and proponents of war. Its beauty lies in the seemingly impossible coalition of contrasts of men and women, homosexuals and clergymen, Muslims and Jews, Christians and communists, anarchists and Hanin Zoabi and Dror Feiler. They all agreed to unite for an unarmed action. They all decided to act for freedom without a fight.
IHH press conference (I’m fairly sure the speaker is Bülent Yıldırım, its president, but it’s not indicated on the page), June 4: Our group was made up of all sorts of people, including leftists, rightists, liberals, conservatives, atheists, muslims, christians, jews, buddhists…Ours was a civil and pacifist initiative created by conscientious, civilian, unarmed people who carried with them nothing but humanitarian aid.
And we set sail to prove to the people of Gaza, who have been under a siege for years which is not unlike an imprisonment in a castle, that human kindness has not yet died.
Keeping our faith in the spirit of civil power, our Freedom Flotilla did not take any orders or any kind of support from any government during its organization. Our power came solely from the conscience of humanity and the courage of our rightfulness. We wanted to be a source of invigoration for the people of Gaza on whom many states turn a blind eye.
Adoni: But I was afraid to stand on board a ship that carries food and hope to Gaza, and to find myself confronting the men of the corps which I had served loyally 30 years ago. Looking back, it is a pity I did not join. I am asked, “Surely you would not have beaten IDF soldiers?” True. I suppose that I would have tied myself to a post and screamed with fear and faith. However, the question is not at all how I would have behaved but whether one has the right to self-defense against maritime terror applied by a state.
IHH: Ours was self-defense. And self defense is legitimate. It has always been legitimate in all systems of law and throughout history. I am a lawyer. I should know this better than anyone. However, we did not defend ourselves with firearms against these terrorists that attacked us with firearms, we did not have such means anyway
Adoni: There were no firearms on board the ship. There were no suicide bombers. On the practical level, opposing worlds, united against the occupation and for the people of Gaza, to a struggle which was not supposed to bring death…but life.
IHH: Now some people are asking, “Why did you go there?”
We did, because we are humans. We went out there because we are humans. The conscience of humanity has not yet died, this we wanted to prove to humanity itself. For this, we went out there.
We went and we will go again.
This past Friday afternoon, my friend and comrade Tristan Anderson was shot in the forehead by Israeli occupation forces at a demonstration against the wall they are building across the West Bank. The International Solidarity Movement reports,
Another resident from Ni’lin was shot in the leg with live ammunition. Four Ni’lin residents have been killed during demonstrations against the confiscation of their land.
Ahmed Mousa (10) was shot in the forehead with live ammunition on 29th July 2008. The following day, Yousef Amira (17) was shot twice with rubber-coated steel bullets, leaving him brain dead. He died a week later on 4 August 2008. Arafat Rateb Khawaje (22), was the third Ni’lin resident to be killed by Israeli forces. He was shot in the back with live ammunition on 28 December 2008. That same day, Mohammed Khawaje (20), was shot in the head with live ammunition, leaving him brain dead. He died three days in a Ramallah hospital.
Residents in the village of Ni’lin have been demonstrating against the construction of the Apartheid Wall, deemed illegal by the International Court of Justice in 2004. Ni’lin will lose approximately 2500 dunums of agricultural land when the construction of the Wall is completed. Ni’lin was 57,000 dunums in 1948, reduced to 33,000 dunums in 1967, currently is 10,000 dunums and will be 7,500 dunums after the construction of the Wall.
The campaign against the construction of an apartheid wall across the West Bank is a crucial part of changing the dynamics of occupation in Palestine. The wall is the greatest manifestation of the policies of confiscating land, turning the occupation into annexation, and maintaining a logic of social separation between Jews and non-Jews in the occupied West Bank. It is also the key place where international law, solidarity from around the world, Palestinian civil society cooperation, and nonviolent direct action are being experimented with as tools for liberation. It does not surprise me, but does make me proud that Tristan placed himself in this crucial location.
Gabrielle Silverman, an activist, eyewitness and Tristan’s girlfriend, described the scene:
We were at a demonstration against the wall, against the Israeli apartheid wall in the West Bank village of Ni’lin, which is about twenty-six kilometers west of Ramallah. I was very close to him when he was shot. I was only a few feet away. The demonstration had been going for several hours. It was wrapping up; it was almost over. Most people had already gone home.
We were standing on some grass nearby a village mosque, and Tristan was taking pictures. He likes to take pictures and post them on Indymedia, sometimes under assumed names. And he was taking pictures, and he was shot in the head with the extended range tear gas canister. He fell to—nothing was happening immediately around us, by the way, I should mention. No one was throwing rocks around us. Nothing was happening. We were standing there.
He fell to the ground, and immediately medics from the Palestinian Red Crescent responded, came running over. And more people came running over. It was very clear that he was—that there was a seriously injured person on the ground. The medics are impossible to mistake. They wear neon uniforms. They have bright yellow stretchers. The medics were working on him, were getting him onto the stretcher, and as we’re doing so, the army continues to tear gas all around us. As we’re carrying him off on the stretcher, there’s tear gas falling, tear gas canister after tear gas canister falling at our feet.
Finally, we get him to the ambulance. The ambulance is very good. The Palestinian medics were excellent. And we get into the ambulance. We drive in the ambulance to the checkpoint at the beginning of town, and we are stopped there at the checkpoint for about fifteen minutes. For about fifteen minutes, the army, the Israeli army, refuses to let us through, even though we have a critically injured person in the ambulance. And the reason why is because under no circumstances are Palestinian ambulances ever allowed to enter Israel from the West Bank. And so, with Tristan being critically injured and getting worse and worse and worse and worse and falling deeper into this abyss, the soldiers are holding us up and waiting—we had to wait there for an Israeli ambulance to come from who knows where and then transfer him into that ambulance. All of this is taking precious time.
Finally, we drive to the hospital in Tel Aviv. I should add also, once the Israeli ambulance did finally show up, there was a soldier who stood in the doorway smirking and wouldn’t move and wouldn’t let the ambulance through until finally another international activist grabbed this soldier and we slammed the door shut, and then the ambulance was first able to start moving towards the hospital. When he got to the hospital, they started doing surgeries on him. (Democracy Now!, March 16)
Solidarity demonstrations have been held in London and San Francisco. A demonstration will be held in New York on Friday. It will be at the Israeli consulate, 800 2nd Ave, 4:00pm – 6:00pm. More than 4,000 people have joined “Solidarity with Tristan Anderson” on Facebook.
Tristan has been transferred to intensive care and his condition remains serious.
Tristan is unconscious, anesthetized and artificially respirated, has
sustained life-threatening injuries to his brain (as well as to his
right eye), and is expected to undergo several operations in the
Monday night, I went to the well known scholars group Comuna on their biweekly meeting/event in La Paz. Instead of the usual talk though, they were hosting a video screening of a new documentary (by Cesar Brie–his poorly translated take on the events) rushed to production on the events of late May in Sucre…
To take a step back, the rapid advance of a largely indigenous grassroots left in Bolivia has been met by a polarizing of the politics here. Region (the highland west/center vs. the lowland east “the Media Luna”), race (native vs. mestizo-white), and divisions that capture both (Kolla vs. Camba) have been key dividing lines that are suddenly more visible. This is in part a reaction to the biggest line crossing of all, the presence of an indigenous peasant union leader, Evo Morales, in the presidency, but it goes beyond that.
In the east, particularly Santa Cruz, the white opposition has cottoned on to a long-running aspiration to autonomy for the department (think state in the US or province in Canada; provinces here are smaller divisions). This separatism has a youth wing, whose focus goes beyond separation to attacking and intimidating indigenous leaders and offices of the MAS party in national government. This wing, often with broader collaboration from the white opposition parties, have been threatening and carrying violence to disrupt what might otherwise be run-of-the-mill state functions involving Morales. This has reached the point where the President has been avoiding certain cities because regional governments are not guaranteeing his security.
So, back to the video. On May 24 in Sucre, Evo was set to preside over the awarding of ambulances to each province across the department of Chuquisaca, whose capital is Sucre. Right-wing youth and the anti-Morales mayor’s Inter-insitutional Committee urged Evo not to come, and threatened a confrontation. With local leaders from the countryside already on their way in, Evo backed down from attending. The rightists turned on the indigenous leaders, attacking with sticks and rocks. Several dozen fled to a house on the outskirts of town, only to be surrounded there.
They were escorted forcibly from there to Sucre’s main square, where a spectacle of public humiliation unfolded over the afternoon. Stripped to their underwear, forced to kneel, they had to endure insults, punches, and watch as their banners and the indigenous flag (or wiphala) was burned. The spectacle, captured by the mainstream media, continued for quite a long time.
In the judgment of the documentarian, the withdrawal of national police on the day happened because of a strategic decision to face and reveal what the rightists would do, rather than to confront them with force. If so, the price involved was paid by the indigenous leaders, whose pained after-the-fact interviews formed a key part of the documentary.
It was a hard film to watch, and left me in a pretty pensive mood Monday night. I had known that one in a series of racist outrages had happened in Sucre in May, and that the Women’s Summit would feature a public act dis-agression (desagravio) to repudiate it. But this was the first I had seen what was actually involved.
The whole situation strongly evokes what I’ve heard of the (US) Southern response to the Civil Rights Movement. How on front lawns, in jails, and with gunshots, the ugliest parts of a history of racism were revived to terrorize people organizing for equality.
As it happened, today’s desagravio was a complete success. Leaving from the ministadium where the summit is happening, a march of over 1,000 people traversed all over Sucre, including the plaza where local leaders were humiliated. As women filed through Sucre’s streets, wiphala and Bolivian flags in hand, shouting slogans for unity and against racism, scores of people came out in the streets: a few hostile but calmed by our numbers, and many visibly relieved and excited to have the march there–applauding as the march went past.
The act was a defiance of fear. For me, a little, and for the movement a great deal. It’s hoped that it can change the dynamic in the streets and in this department. The section I marched with had a frequent chant: “Viva la esperanza. Basta de racismo. [Long live hope. Enough of racism.]” For now, I just want to convey that it happened, and happened in peace and providing some inspiration.
The video collective Guerrilla News Network’s recent documentary on the Tibetan exile drive for independence asks some provocative questions, especially now that fighting back against the police has emerged as a tactic in recent days.
September 11th was a tragedy for the American people, but it was a boon for totalitarian regimes around the world. In the pursuit of its so-called “war on terror,” the United States has forged military alliances and inked trade deals with some of the world’s most repressive regimes. On September 13, 2001 China was quietly admitted to the World Trade Organization, and given Most Favored Nation status by U.S., despite the fact the country is one of the world’s worst human rights abusers.
With its economy booming, China has become desperate to exploit Tibet’s vast mineral and fuel reserves – and that has meant keeping a tight grip on any moves towards Tibetan autonomy. Arrests, torture and destruction of local culture continue despite the tireless work of Tibetan exiles and their high-profile western allies. In fact, the situation grows more dire by the day. Yet unlike an increasing number of indigenous liberation movements, Tibetans have not resorted to violence to achieve their goals.
In Faith in Exile, GNN asks, “Does the non-violent resistance of the Tibetan people provide a valuable lesson for a world in turmoil?”