What nonviolence is, and is not

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.


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.



T+5: A Time Long Thought Past

(these posts will be dated based on days since the 2016 Election. Tuesday, Nov 8 is T-0.)

It is a huge mistake to think that the election marked the birth of a new era in American politics. In the past two years there have been arson attacks on black churches (including one at the beginning of November in Mississippi). Police violence against protesters in particular, and people of color in general have never died down. But the election is still an important line of demarcation.

This series, the Trump Era (TE), is devoted to how the climate is changing. In particular, how the election has provided a de facto justification for white supremacy. The Obama administration had many incidents of vigilante and police violence against unarmed civilians. But the administration did establish that such things were not okay, and there should be consequences to violating the human rights of others.

Since Tuesday, friends of mine have been arrested. One was beaten up by police. Two men have been arrested and charged with attempted murder after a shooting on the Morrison Bridge in Portland. Swastika graffiti is ever-present: schools, religious buildings, dorms, sidewalks. Given that the Trump campaign has often encouraged harassment and the use of force against dissent, these situations can always escalate. And communities should be prepared for that.

Of course, there are still people alive who remember a time when national leaders were proudly fascist. The hope for a progressive era- in which society continues to improve from the nadir near World War II, may now be increasingly naive. Things can always go backwards. The core of Trump supporters once had superior status and power to people of color. They lost this, and to regain this they necessarily have to take the country back in time. When someone says they “want their country back” they mean so in a possessive sense. This means marginalization and regression.

David Neiwert published a book in 2009, The Eliminationists: How Hate Talk Radicalized the American RightIts thesis is that conservative media and politicians were moving supporters in a dangerous direction. Opponents were not only wrong, but an existential threat to the American way of life. Vigilante attacks are a symptom that eliminationism is becoming an increasingly mainstream ideology. Donald Trump will be the first modern eliminationist President.

“Wait and see” or “giving him a chance” is a white privileged luxury. For people of color, the costs of being unprepared are total. Liberals who castigated Trump for a year and a half are hypocritical if they stop now. In this situation, unity means submission, since the Trumpists have preached us vs. them.

Trump will not  become president until January 20, 2017. But his era has already begun in full. His supporters will not wait for legal sanction. They will attack because they can. And communities must consider to what degree to they respond.

Criticism of safe spaces unmasks white supremacy

The debate about campus free speech, safe spaces, trigger warnings, and related topics in schools and universities is very old. Indeed, modern campus activism traces to the Free Speech Movement at UC Berkeley, where the student body fought against an administration that wanted complete control of conduct.

Though safe spaces have been placed in direct opposition to campus free speech in many discussions, I will point out that the University of Chicago’s stance against safe spaces is the same sort of administration power play that free speech coalitions have fought against. Issues differ, but it is all rooted in the same power dynamic

Well, the University of Chicago has always embodied the Slowpoke meme. Always relishing its anachronisms. Thus, it’s not surprising that they take fairly regressive stances on campus issues. Students and former students like Cameron Okeke have criticized the university’s stance, saying it has no appreciation of how safe spaces can improve campus function and dialogue, not hinder it. They’re right.

Within education there is a bizarre, unresolved contradiction. Schools, especially universities, are supposed to be about open exchange and freedom. Yet these institutions often serve to bolster white supremacy and obscure historical injustice. Whatever your age, if you were born and raised in the United States, what was the first thing you ever learned about the indigenous people of the Americas? Probably the first Thanksgiving, which occurred over a century after contact. We are told there was harmony, while the systematic extinction of the original inhabitants starting with Columbus is taught much later. Humans tend to believe the first thing they are told about a subject, even if it is later proven to be false (in psychology this is called anchoring). Thus many people think Thanksgiving, not the forced mining or Trail of Tears. If you grew up in California, you spent a whole half-year talking about the mission system. I’ll bet subjugation of natives to serve as labor was probably glossed over. Same with focusing on the Founding Fathers crafting a republican form of government, rather than how it excluded anyone who wasn’t white and wealthy.

So if primary and secondary education fail us, universities have to serve as the counterpoint. But eliminating safe spaces doesn’t make the discussion better, it makes it worse. In most elite schools, black and Latino/a students are under-represented. The strain of often being the only black or brown student in a class, or on the floor of a dorm, is huge. Universities that historically had no people of color (or women, for that matter) are not welcoming, especially if no effort is made to change. Safe spaces, trigger warning, etc. are an effort. U of Chicago is nailing its feet to a place between the beginning of the civil rights movement, and now. It can only fall further behind.

Cal State Los Angeles has recently gotten attention for offering campus housing that is designed for students interested in black culture and issues. This has been called segregation (it’s not), but this all seems to be about comfort. Namely, sacrificing the comfort and safety of students of color in favor of the comfort of white people, who would rather not be reminded of how the university works for them but not for others. That lofty concepts like academic freedom are being dragged down is distressing, as it’s just a fig leaf. Administration wants control, nothing more and nothing less.


Clinton-Sanders and the Great Unfriending

In my decade on social media, there has been no reaction like this. As the Democratic primaries finished, and especially since the first day of the DNC last week, the battle over voting Clinton versus an alternative has never been addressed by more of my friends, for a longer sustained period of time with such emotion. I have no doubt that there has been a Great Unfriending, much like there is after a mass shooting or a young black person killed by police. The zeitgeist gets encapsulated in one particular event or process, and usually friendly individuals tear themselves into pieces.

Great Unfriendings are not always bad. They can help flush bigoted and ignorant people to the forefront, and it allows us to match our perceptions of friends, co-workers, and allies to their behavior. Social media, being so casual, also helps us understand privilege, and who we are when we don’t wear such a complex mask.

The DNC was a pivot point. The options and opinions have shifted. For all of Sen. Sanders and his talk of “political revolution”, the question until recently was about picking one of two people to be the Democratic Party nominee. The rhetoric had always been that Sanders supporters were part of a social movement rather than a straightforward election campaign. But that had never been tested. I personally thought that many Sanders movement activists spent far too much time on the primaries, if a grassroots revolution on all levels of government is the idea. And I wondered if people would stay together as this movement, or would they either get discouraged or shift to campaigning for Clinton.

Now the question is much bigger than the individual people will vote for in November. It’s about how much each of us is willing to follow political custom, or stand in opposition. It’s not the primary coming up on Tuesday. Now it’s about what our democracy should be. How a vote for Clinton, or Jill Stein, or Gary Johnson, or Donald Trump changes the status quo. It’s a much harder conversation to have, and many people have never had it before. Previously it was “Issue X: is Clinton or Sanders better?” Now there are no straightforward comparisons. Stein and Clinton have very different foreign policy agendas, but only one belongs to a party struggling to get on the ballot. It’s irrelevant whether Clinton gets 271 electoral votes or 350, but what Stein and Johnson receive determines whether voters in dozens of states will have alternatives to vote for. Ballot access through the Presidential vote is crucial, because third parties spend so much of their limited money and people tied up in litigation. Access, plus the millions of federal funds available to those that poll at least 5%, changes the entire dynamic of party politics going forward.

There have been deep questions about privilege and identity. Is supporting Hillary an act of privilege. Or is rejecting Clinton ridiculous, and a luxury for those who have little to lose from President Donald Trump? I’ve seen friends of color take both stances, and I’ve seen friends, both white and not, denounce them. Ultimately, I’m not certain. I have my own personal plan, but I really don’t wish to invalidate the opinions of people who, it is true, have much more to lose in November than I do.

This new stage is more radical and open-ended. And we learn more about those around us. This should be a positive. I’m not asking for civility for civility’s sake. But this moment should be appreciated as one of the most open periods of political discourse in recent history. Presidential elections make even apathetic people care about politics for a little while, and the Democratic primary battle, along with the rise of Trump. It’s a golden moment for organizers and social change. And it would be a shame if this moment were underutilized because we talk when we should listen.

Dallas and symptoms of injustice

The details of what happened in Dallas are sketchy right now. It seems that people have jumped to conclusions and then retracted them just as fast. That there is ever-more brutality between police and civilians should not be surprising in America. Continuing injustice will always cause an escalation in violence. The conflict between Israelis and Palestinians comes because there has been no solution at the root. No healing. Everything is in retaliation to actions of the present, and the cycle repeats.

Last November white men opened fire on a Black Lives Matter protest in Minnesota. The vast majority of casualties in the past few years have been people of color (in initial killings) and in the subsequent protests. There will be a fight going forward, and I think the two major arguments- “not all protestors” and “BLM wants to kill police” that will show up are both flawed. National injustice creates a social movement, and these marches and events are symptoms of injustice. Protestors, both in San Diego and everywhere, chant “no justice, no peace.” That can be interpreted (and often is), but it’s more of a statement about the present. As long as injustice exists- and is rarely punished- there will be a space for further violence.

So it’s not that I reject or endorse violence against police officers. I personally use nonviolence in my activism. But we should not be shocked that something like the Dallas shooting happens, just as we should not be shocked at the Minnesota shooting. The system is rotten, and the aggregate will be rotten as well.

I wish safety going forward, as future protests will grow even tenser. Take care.




Our American baggage: a July 4 reflection

Today marks the 240 years since an arbitrary point in time, one of several associated with the Declaration of Independence. It’s also a time to reflect on how irrelevant the Declaration is in the 21st century, despite constant references in political culture. Present American policy the antithesis of the right of revolution. The dismemberment of Occupy shows that even talking about revolution is taboo. This is to be expected- what kind of self-sustaining regime would ever recognize the right to be overthrown?

So even though it was created eleven years later, when we discuss our origins we speak, directly or indirectly, of the Constitution. Unlike almost every state with a written constitution, the US Constitution has undergone comparatively mild revision, even though it predates the French Revolution, and thus modern politics as we know it. In the past, I’ve talked about our origins as dead people’s baggage, and the problem of a pre-democratic Constitution. Consider this a third take on the same theme.

Taken from Library of Congress website.

Here’s a strange thing to consider. At this point, it is generally established that all-white clubs clash with civil rights law. This year, Harvard cracked down on single-sex clubs, indicating that even in bastions of privilege like the Ivy League, integration is now expected.

Were the Constitutional Convention assemble today, July 4, 2016, it would be a pariah. An all-white, all-male clique, who generally speaking despised the working class, and did not think of women or populations of color as citizens. Yet most people are okay with how the Constitution was created. This slides into the problematic “the times were different” defense, which has always been used to justify atrocity and injustice. All the institutions surrounding the Constitution have integrated in some sense- legislatures, courts, school boards, the Cabinet. But the roots remain the same. And when the three current female Supreme Court justices interpret the law, they wrestle with a legal history that women had no input on until a few decades ago.

The end result is a Constitution that is incredibly vague, which inherently supports existing privilege and white male supremacy. There are no protections for marginalized groups, because they were never thought to have political and social rights. In fact, one can say that constitutional change in American history is a story of turning universal rights into enforceable protections.

One reason a second Convention has never been called, despite Framers asking future generations to do so, is that the leap will be so dramatic. Can we imagine a Constitution ten times longer? Twenty? Can we imagine the Second Amendment remade? Can we imagine centuries of case law overruled?

So on this July 4th, we triumph the Declaration, as it remains pure, frozen in time. There is no sense of obligation to change it. On this day, we can travel to the past, and not bring its baggage on the return trip.