What nonviolence is, and is not

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The nonviolent People Power Revolution of 1986, Philippines

The events in Charlottesville have reignited a long-standing debate about the use of force to create social change. There is an immense amount of rage, and impatience. Violence is becoming more accepted as a legitimate way forward. I see it every day on my Facebook- that’s in fact why I wrote this post.

To begin with, I have no deep moral opposition to violence to achieve liberation. I acknowledge a diversity of tactics is useful and that people will disagree on the way forward. However, the advocates of armed resistance have been characterizing nonviolent resistance in an unfair, narrow manner that I’m sure would tick them off if it were applied to their ideas. So this post aims to call attention to the basics- what nonviolence is, what it is not, and to rescue the practice from the strawman heap and put it in its full complexity.

So here are six theses on nonviolence.

Nonviolence is not the same as pacifism. Pacifism is a very long and complex tradition, but in common parlance it has been equated with being peaceful above all else, and not resisting force. One can be a pacifist and practice nonviolent action, but many practitioners are not morally opposed to violence. Nonviolence can be a pragmatic choice, which it is for me.

Nonviolence is not passive. In October 2000, hundreds of thousands of people flooded Belgrade from all over Serbia, intent on overthrowing Slobodan Milosevic. Vastly outnumbered, security forces stepped aside and the people seized the federal parliament building. Paired with mass strikes and grassroots organizing, Milosevic stepped aside, doing what a brutal NATO bombing campaign had been unable to. The Bulldozer Revolution, named because activists brought heavy machinery to break up checkpoints and barricades, was nonviolent. Nobody would call the actions of the Serbian people passive. They took the initiative, dictated terms of surrender, and defeated a regime that had survived violent attacks from the world’s most advanced militaries. Most of them had no moral opposition to violence. They used nonviolence because it worked.

Nonviolence can be, and often is, radical. A misleading line has been drawn connecting nonviolence (a very large, complex idea) to current methods of achieving social change. Nonviolence equals the status quo, the status quo is no change, nonviolence doesn’t work, Q.E.D. But rallies and Change.org petitions are a very small subset of nonviolent action, and it disingenuous to narrow the definition that much.

Gene Sharp lists 198 methods of nonviolent action, in a flyer that is circulated at certain activist events. I first saw it in Occupy in 2011. Other lists exist, Sharp’s is unusually exhaustive. But we can see that symbolic actions like petitions are a small part of the overall range of activity. The strike is fundamentally a nonviolent action- while it may involve violence in some cases, it is about using economic rather than physical weapons to seize political and social power. The difference between a Charge.org petition and hartal, a type of total general strike used in South Asia, is vast.

As Mark Kurlansky points out in Nonviolence: The History of a Dangerous Ideanonviolence is such a radical concept that there is no English word for it. We simply define it by what it is not rather than what it is. Mahatma Gandhi invented the term satyagraha in part because in order to advocate for nonviolence, one has to create a new mental framework.

Nonviolence is not just an appeal to an enemy’s conscience. This Stokely Carmichael (Kwame Ture) quote has been circulating recently.

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You can here the excerpt of this speech in the Black Power Mixtape here (video).

The thing is, as intuitive as that sounds, appealing to the conscience of one’s opponents is a very small part of nonviolent action. Gene Sharp admits that this strategy usually does not work:

Nonviolent struggle produces change in four ways. The first mechanism is the least likely, though it has occurred. When members of the opponent group are emotionally moved by the suffering of repression imposed on courageous nonviolent resisters or are rationally persuaded that the resisters’ cause is just, they may come to accept the resisters’ aims. This mechanism is called conversion. Though cases of conversion in nonviolent action do sometimes happen, they are rare, and in most conflicts this does not occur at all or at least not on a significant scale. (From Dictatorship to Democracyp. 35) (emphasis mine)

Put simply, the fact that nonviolent action proponents admit this straight up indicates that nonviolence is not just about converting enemies. Because that doesn’t work.

Nonviolence is effective. In 2012, Erica Chenoweth and Maria J. Stephan published a book, Why Civil Resistance Works, which is perhaps the most detailed study of both violent and nonviolent campaigns in the modern era. Their conclusions are clear:

For more than a century, from 1900 to 2006, campaigns of nonviolent resistance were more than twice as effective as their violent counterparts in achieving their stated goals. By attracting impressive support from citizens, whose activism takes the form of protests, boycotts, civil disobedience, and other forms of nonviolent noncooperation, these efforts help separate regimes from their main sources of power and produce remarkable results, even in Iran, Burma, the Philippines, and the Palestinian Territories . . .

Chenoweth and Stephan conclude that successful nonviolent resistance ushers in more durable and internally peaceful democracies, which are less likely to regress into civil war. Presenting a rich, evidentiary argument, they originally and systematically compare violent and nonviolent outcomes in different historical periods and geographical contexts, debunking the myth that violence occurs because of structural and environmental factors and that it is necessary to achieve certain political goals. Instead, the authors discover, violent insurgency is rarely justifiable on strategic grounds.

If nonviolence didn’t work, it would have died out a long time ago. Its continued presence is a testament to its ability to win victories for people, who may face enemies with significantly more guns and money.

Nonviolence sets a tactically superior battlefield. Nonviolence often uses similar language and concepts to violent action. In this case, a significant (and often unacknowledged) disadvantage that comes with violence is that it chooses a field of battle in which the enemy has every advantage. So you want to arm up and take on neo-Nazis? Then the police? The National Guard? Marines? Not only are all of these groups armed to the teeth, they all want to use violence. It’s what they’re good at. Choosing violence plays into their hands. You know what all these groups aren’t good at? Dealing with mass resistance. Strikes, boycotts, noncooperation. If they use violence in this context, it just creates more resistance. We already know this in practice- violence against communities in the War on Terror has created more opposition to U.S policy, not less.

Going forward, each activist has to make fundamental decisions. Part of making an educated decision is to see each option in its full depth. Advocates of armed struggle are tired of being mischaracterized and stereotyped, but can turn around and do the same things to advocates of civil resistance. This accomplishes nothing. And as both sides can agree, something must be accomplished, now and forever.

 

 

Resistance: if not now, when?

CNN reported a few hours ago the following:

Senate Democrats are weighing whether to avoid an all-out war to block President Donald Trump’s upcoming Supreme Court pick, instead considering delaying that battle for a future nomination that could shift the ideological balance of the court, sources say.

Democrats privately discussed their tactics during a closed-door retreat in West Virginia last week. And a number of Democrats are trying to persuade liberal firebrands to essentially let Republicans confirm Trump’s pick after a vigorous confirmation process — since Trump is likely to name a conservative to replace the late conservative Justice Antonin Scalia.

After a full year of Republicans blocking any Supreme Court nominee, the Democratic minority is considering doing none of that, in order to preserve the filibuster for some fight down the line.

This is all deeply troubling whether you are moderate, liberal, or leftist. The idea that this is different because Scalia is a conservative justice is absurd, considering that Justices Breyer and Ginsburg are well over 75 at this point. Deciding to cement the 5-4 split for an indefinite amount of time (years? decades?) while mass protests are already far beyond small concessions certainly shows the side of the Democratic Party that explains their inability to defeat the most unelectable person in living memory last November.

It’s the underlying sentiment, though, that bothers me. Politician or protester, it is a dangerous assumption to think that there are further opportunities down the road. A few uncomfortable truths establishment liberals aren’t going to tell you, but are on the table:

  • Republicans control all of Congress, the Presidency, and a large majority of state legislatures and governorships.
State legislature party control, post-2016 elections (NCSL)
  • This includes almost all the key swing states that Clinton lost (Wisconsin, Michigan, Ohio, Pennsylvania, North Carolina, Florida). These states also had competitive Senate elections, which are also state-wide and have the same voting infrastructure as presidential elections.
  • It is clear that voter suppression was a huge factor in races at all levels in 2016, and states that wish to increase such efforts are not going to face Justice Department scrutiny anymore.
  • Thus, 2018 and especially 2020 could very well be, in the absence of strong resistance, basically unwinnable for anyone not right-wing- independent, Democratic, or otherwise.

The idea that everyone should wait out Trump’s first term, which was a big idea on Jan. 20, is pretty much dead by now. It’s clear that nobody really knows what the US political structure will be in Nov. 2020.

So we reach the familiar Hillel quote:

“If I am not for myself, who will be for me? But if I am only for myself, who am I? If not now, when?” Ethics of the Fathers, 1:14

The resistance has already begun. Don’t assume the future will be what you want or need it to be. Fascism of any type and degree has never respected democracy, and used it as a weapon to silence opposition. If you don’t like what’s being implemented now, stopping its enactment is a far better idea than waiting for some point down the line when it can all be repealed.

Resistance v. Collaboration in the Trump Era

Since the election of Donald Trump this past November, the term “resistance” has been everywhere. His policies must be disrupted and a new, stronger opposition must coalesce. While Democratic political leadership pledge resistance, the facts state otherwise.

When an oppressive force takes over a country, the opposition gravitates towards two ends of a continuum. On one side stands resistance, the other, collaboration. Erik Loomis correctly points out that building trade unions want to collaborate with Trump, despite the existential threat to the environment and unions themselves. It’s as if the Reagan administration never existed.

But it’s not just the conservative unions with memberships that swung towards Trump in the Rust Belt. Progressive champions are also guilty. Sens. Sherrod Brown and Elizabeth Warren, who liberals usually speak fondly of, both say they support the utterly unqualified Ben Carson for Housing and Urban Development (HUD) Secretary. All but one Democratic senator confirmed Gen. James “Mad Dog” Mattis for Secretary of Defense. This despite Mattis having what can only be called bloodlust; a military man who can’t wait to kill foreigners. These same senators will in a year’s time decry what Mattis does in office, but they chose to approve him. This is not resistance, not even close.

When the Germans invaded France in 1940, every person had a choice to make. Many rejected the Nazi occupation. They banded together to undermine enemy control, through intelligence gathering, noncooperation, and sabotage. The French Resistance was integral to Allied victory and the end of the Nazi state.

Others decided to seek peace and coexist with the occupation. Philippe Pétain, perhaps France’s greatest living military hero, turned the destroyed republic into a puppet regime based in the city of Vichy. Some collaborators were authoritarians eager for the chance. But others thought they were doing noble work, shielding France from the world of the Nazis. They were willing to work with a power that history knows was irredeemable.

Because the middle ground is treacherous between resistance and collaboration, accommodation, whatever you want to call it. For the last half century, activists have been trying to change the Democratic Party from within. This strategy failed in the past, and some Bernie supporters and Black Lives Matter activists are trying again today. But today’s activist can easily be tomorrow’s apologist, as social movements are co-opted. Given how much progressive work and resources went into campaigns like Warren’s senate run, it is disturbing to see her choice to work with Trump. If there is widespread belief that Trump is an illegitimate, dangerous precedent, confirming his extremist nominees and having chummy meetings to talk about pipeline jobs is not the way to go.

Those in the streets, blocking streetcars and shutting down intersections, they see Trump for what he is. To have a “wait and see” approach is a privilege many do not have. Women, people of color, LGBTQ+, indigenous peoples, they are under attack now. Accepting Trump as legitimate is to sanction their oppression. Green card holders and dual nationals are being denied entry to the US, creating international chaos and showing that whatever promises were made prior to Jan 20, they should be considered null and void. The progressives in Congress have rolled over and confirmed the officials who will defend the refugee ban. They had no problem spotting the neo-fascists an administration, and then maybe trying to fight that once it was built.

Total resistance is the only way forward. But the front lines need dedicated people. And as much as the Women’s March was a show of opposition, it seems to be headed towards more symbolic resistance that colors within the lines and plays friendly with authority. The economic and political structures that hold Trump and his ideology up are never under threat.

Just after the election, the Daily Beast, a ‘progressive’ media outlet tied to Chelsea Clinton, wrote this:

But if he is our next president, we will not question his legitimacy or hope he fails.

Instead, we will count ourselves members of the loyal opposition—loyal to the United States of America and opposed to the policies proposed by the president-elect during his campaign. And we will reflect on what has led so many of our fellow Americans to embrace such a messenger.

How does that strategy look today?

 

Police ignore own mental health policies in killing of Alfred Olango

The police have released cell phone and surveillance footage of the Alfred Olango shooting by El Cajon, CA police. It’s obviously disturbing, but CNN is hosting it here.

The video also has a very good picture of what Olango was holding- it looks pretty much like what I described in my last post.

From CNN video.
From CNN video.

Police say their job is very hard and dangerous. It’s not the most dangerous occupation, and these shootings continue to show the very low expectations society and the justice system have for police officers.

If I was telling you that we were going to help someone who’s having some mental health trouble, when we arrived you would be prepared for certain behavior. You might expect that this person may be agitated, not want to be approached, and would not respond well to escalation. You would know that this would not be a typical conversation.

In the death of Alfred Olango, the police were called on a 5150. That’s the same thing as me briefing you in the above scenario. It’s a mental health call. Quoting Christopher Rice-Wilson:

“The PERT Team [Psychiatric Emergency Response Teams] should have been the ones responding to this. The police were aware of his mental illness: this was a 5150 call and they should have dispatched officers trained to deal with this and de-escalate the situation. El Cajon police didn’t do this; they didn’t follow their own policy.” (SD Reader, 9/28, “Police killing of Alfred Olango protested”)

This is the issue with the argument that bodycams would have saved Alfred Olango’s life. El Cajon PD has policies about mental health. They didn’t follow them, barged right into a delicate situation, and an unarmed black man is now dead. If bodycams become policy, just like the PERT Team, why do people expect that they will be used as needed? Going back to low expectations, the police rarely are rebuked for not following their own protocol. Who’s going to force them?

Protestors in El Cajon have been met with force, including bean bag rounds (video of someone hit by one here). From my own vantage point, with privilege, I can’t fully appreciate how it is to be a person of color in America, let alone a protestor of color. But as someone with a mental illness, and with friends who have very serious conditions, the Alfred Olango shooting is proof that rights on paper and in reality can be radically different.

The story of San Diego Black Lives Matter, and the lesson of radical inclusion

A good article by Thom Senzee about conflict within the San Diego Black Lives Matter movement.  The original group had older leaders who wanted to focus on the “black” aspect solely, to the exclusion of other identities like LGBT+. Given that LGBT+ people are especially vulnerable to hate crimes, any good group needs to deal with the intersectionality of black and other identities or labels. It also reminds us that the black community has its own issues with intolerance, particularly given the large population of evangelical Christians.

Homophobia and transphobia inside any Black Lives Matter local chapter is beyond ironic, according to Cat Mendonca (31) of San Diego. She points out that the movement itself was founded by three people who identify as queer women of color.

“There’s a lack of understanding that the Black Lives Matter movement, which they say they believe in and claim to serve, is and always was a queer-inclusive, queer-affirming movement,” says Mendonca, referring to a small but forceful group of leaders of the old BLM-SD chapter. “It was really disappointing and distracting.”

Social media messages obtained by San Diego LGBT Weekly purportedly shared among leaders of the old, now-dissolved local Black Lives Matter San Diego chapter reveal that the group may indeed have been tainted by homophobia and transphobic sentiments from at least one leader.

“The movement is supposed to be a safe space for all people regardless of their race, ethnicity, sexual orientation or gender,” says Mendonca.

 

Privilege in activism: avoiding white monopolization

Criminal is an eclectic, short-form true crime podcast, part of the Radiotopia network of eclectic, short-form podcasts. It’s genuinely a great listen, usually dealing with stories that are local, often in a historical context. The most recent episode, “The Finger”, deals with a white Oregon man who tested the limits of free speech protection by giving every cop he sees the bird.

This episode highlights something that I think is important, if we wish to have healthy social justice activism. The question of how white people fit into Black Lives Matter as a structure is not new- the White Panther Party is proof of that. What “The Finger” represents is a deep double-standard where authorities criminalize speech for marginalized groups, but are indifferent when coming from traditionally dominant ones.

If I decided to flip off every police officer I saw, there would be some consequences. My car would get pulled over more. Small infractions like jaywalking or speeding could get me fined. A cop might even yell at me and be confrontational. And though I can’t say this for sure, I’m relatively confident that I would not suffer bodily harm for my choices. This applies to acts of protest in general. The same action has a fundamentally different meaning depending on who does it. For me, the consequences are real, but limited. For a black person, someone LGBT-identified or undocumented, people have been killed for much less than The Finger.

Recently I read a 2010 paper titled “The achievement gap and the discipline gap: two sides of the same coin?” (PDF). A section talks about how white and black students are disciplined for different acts, despite similar levels of misbehavior.

reasons for referring White students tended to be for causes that were more objectively observable (smoking, vandalism, leaving without permission, obscene language), whereas office referrals for Black students were more likely to occur in response to behaviors (loitering, disrespect, threat, excessive noise) that appear to be more subjective in nature.

The arrest of Sandra Bland was similar to this– based on subjective judgement about “attitude” and “disrespect.” Her minor traffic offense was inflated- despite white drivers doing a similar maneuver all the time. Similar actions, but vastly different consequences.

So that gets back to privilege and protest. I have space that others do not- I can get away with more provocative and militant tactics. The police are more likely to issue warnings before physical confrontation. Authority figures divulge more information around me because they don’t automatically assume I oppose them. This means people with privilege can be the most provocative, visible members of the movement. In the process, it diverts attention away from communities that are under attack by the state.

That’s unfortunate and counterproductive, because one of the most powerful aspects of Black Lives Matter is how dangerous it is to publicly confront the police as a black person in the United States. I can flip The Finger and curse out a police officer, but it doesn’t carry the same meaning.

One line of thought is weaponizing privilege. That is, people with privilege should exploit it to fight for social justice. My critique of white supremacy, the theory assumes, has special meaning because it is a critique of one’s own identity. But at the same time, it feels like things are going in the wrong direction. Privilege used for noble purposes is still fundamentally unjust, and its use cements it within society.

A counter, which after a year and a half around BLM, is that white, male allies are taking leadership positions within the movement when they weaponize privilege. I think that does happen, and I have witnessed it.

Ultimately, I feel my actions should exist within the democratic framework of a movement. That is, not unilaterally using my advantages, but rather offering it as an option should others feel it can be used in some way. White people have a tendency to make decisions personally, and then seek retroactive approval. That’s dangerous and undermines social justice movements. Marginalized groups should have their autonomy acknowledged and respected.

So I choose not to give cops The Finger, because most people cannot. It is important to respect how dangerous activism can be for certain groups of people, and not casually antagonize just because I can get away with it.

The lone woman: standing outside the UU liberal consensus

SEVERAL years ago, I attended the “morning forum” at my local UU congregation. It was a current events discussion group that started a half-hour before the first service.

It was the end of the year, and by then a standard topic was a year-end review for President Obama. There were about twenty people in the room. Most of them were Kennedy-era liberals, with some of the older participants having grown up worshipping FDR.

The facilitator had developed a detailed handout, covering each aspect of the presidency. At the end of the session, each person gave a letter grade to the President- they were tallied on an easel.

Almost everyone gave Obama either an A or B on every segment- mostly A’s. Only one woman, along with myself, gave the President a failing grade in anything. We agreed that it was absurd to view the ever-lengthening Afghanistan conflict, or his deportation-heavy immigration policy as anything other than serious, systemic issues. Income inequality was getting worse, and the ‘recovery’ in effect at the time didn’t benefit people outside the top tax bracket.

Afterwards, it felt pretty awkward. Clearly I had intruded on people’s long-held worldviews. And as outspoken as I can be, I never dissent just to be shocking. The woman who joined my mini-protest came over. She was older than me, but a bit younger than the Kennedy-era liberals. Apparently she was often the lone critical voice in the forum, and she thanked me for keeping her company. It was clear that she was uncomfortable with the situation. But a forum is supposed to be a free discussion, and her contributions were both eloquent and well-grounded.

Two things Unitarian Universalism stands for are freedom of expression and against ignorance. But I felt a narrow political consensus gripping the forum that Sunday morning. This part of the congregation was so used to defending the president from conservative attack that they were uncomfortable with a progressive critique. Yet if the critique wasn’t there, the forum would have been fine living in a world where the President could do no wrong.

I never felt this way in a religious context. Atheist, agnostic, polytheistic, Eastern, ancient, contemporary. Congregants were always open to new religious concepts, and had often moved significantly from their previous beliefs. But there wasn’t much dynamism in politics. In many places, UUs come from well-off liberal families, and have held the same basic ideology since they were children. Like I said, the older members of the forum came from Roosevelt families, and still spoke of him in godlike terms.

Unitarian Universalism is a religion. But it wears its politics on its sleeve. I’ve written that UU politics and UU ideals do not link up. The ideals call for liberation. The politics call for institutions of injustice to behave themselves.

IN 2014, a couple of years after the forum, I gave a guest sermon at the same congregation (“And in Society at Large”, the text of which you can read here). My politics here were different, and my point of critique was systemic rather than focused on one man. But the same tension emerged. After the second service, a woman stood up during announcements. She applauded me for my sermon, but then tied it into her work she was doing- opening up the local Democratic Party office ahead of the 2014 midterm elections. At no point did I mention party politics as the solution- nor do they fit in a call for economic democracy. I felt being co-opted right in front of my eyes, in front of a group of people. I personally felt humiliated that my weeks of preparation had been twisted so quickly.

Afterwards, most people gave me pretty brief, nondescript feedback- good sermon, thought-provoking, the normal. A woman came up later, around my age, and thanked me for bringing up so many things- like cooperatives, corporate greed, and the need for workers to control their lives. She also noticed the lack of tact shown by the person advertising the Democratic Party (in a house of worship, additionally).

The woman at the forum, and the woman after the sermon were different. But they had a similarity: they were the only one. The liberal bubble was large, but there were UUs who wanted better political discourse within the church. How many people stopped attending services because of the narrow politics? How many people shut up when their fellow UUs praised an administration that had been at odds with communities of color on many occasions?

If diversity is an issue, and at every congregation I’ve been to oh god it is, politics is a real, tangible issue. I often see a politics that works and makes sense, assuming you’re white and financially stable. The Black Lives Matter resolution passed at General Assembly in Portland was fraught with conflict, essentially because the act called for prison abolition. Abolition is a step too far for mainstream liberals, but for people of color living in an age of mass incarceration, it is a cause for survival. It is great to have radical ministers and congregants offering a different way forward, but I’ve seen what happens if a church doesn’t have those people.

Or if they only have one. Always standing alone.