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.

 

 

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.

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.

 

 

 

Clinton emails and the coup in Honduras

So I’ve been poking around the Hillary Clinton emails released by Wikileaks. Though the most recent dump pertains to wars in the Middle East, I’ve used to occasion to dive into earlier content about Honduras specifically.

 

Honduran troops clash with Zelaya supporters (by Roberto Breve; CC BY-SA 2.0 license)

While popular media focuses on Benghazi, it is clear that the worst event that is definitely connected to Clinton is the 2009 military coup in Honduras against democratically-elected President Manuel Zelaya. Clinton has openly admitted her role in backing the military, under false pretenses concerning Zelaya setting himself up as a dictator. The story linked:

The question of Zelaya was anything but moot. Latin American leaders, the United Nations General Assemblyand other international bodies vehemently demanded his immediate return to office. Clinton’s defiant and anti-democratic stance spurred a downward slide in U.S. relations with several Latin American countries, which has continued. It eroded the warm welcome and benefit of the doubt that even the leftist governments in region offered to the newly installed Obama administration a few months earlier.

Clinton’s false testimony is even more revealing. She reports that Zelaya was arrested amid “fears that he was preparing to circumvent the constitution and extend his term in office.” This is simply not true. As Clinton must know, when Zelaya was kidnapped by the military and flown out of the country in his pajamas on June 28, 2009, he was trying to put a consultative, nonbinding poll on the ballot to ask voters whether they wanted to have a real referendum on reforming the constitution during the scheduled election in November. It is important to note that Zelaya was not eligible to run in that election. Even if he had gotten everything he wanted, it was impossible for Zelaya to extend his term in office. But this did not stop the extreme right in Honduras and the United States from using false charges of tampering with the constitution to justify the coup.

Not surprisingly, allowing the military to seize power has led to a Honduras that is substantially more violent, unsafe for women and LGBT+, and perpetuated the centuries-long cycle of civilian-turned-military rule in Latin America. If generals can seize power and face no lasting sanction from the United States, then every democratic government is perpetually on the edge. As we have seen all over the world, democratization is shallow when all policy is subject to a de facto veto by the military. There is a very real limit to how much progress can be made in the Americas if the State Department continues to sanction militarization.

Central American refugees flee violence.

I thought this passage from Hugo Llorens, the US ambassador, was very telling of how America really thought of Zelaya.

We found him unyielding in his position. He says that he is unwilling to return to the talks with the M [ed: interim president Roberto Micheletti] regime since he doesn’t believe they are acting in good faith.

He insisted that M was not interested in stepping down and would do everything in his power to ensure that he (Z) would never be restored. He stressed that if he was not restored the elections would not be legitimate and those involved in the coup would not be able to free themselves from the stigma of their actions. Z seemed totally out of touch and seemed completely focused on himself and that the future of Honduras and the future of democracy in the entire region hinged on his restoration to power prior to the elections. He predicted that if he was not restored that Honduras faced a bleak future led by a weak and discredited government and with a high probability of violence and civil conflict. I attempted to make him see the obligation he and M had in creating conditions for a workable step-by-step process that would allow for the regime to step down, ensure the holding of free and fair elections, and the smooth transfer of power, hopefully from the legitimate head of state to the newly elected president.

I will report the details on the high side, but at this moment I see no probability that Z will seek to go back to the table under the TSJA framework. He may be gaming it in order to put maximum pressure on M prior to the elections.

While on the surface the State Department backed the restoration, they saw no issue with a transition period that did not reverse the coup. As we can see in 2016, Zelaya was totally, totally right about how the coup affected Honduran democracy and a move towards violence and civil strife. Instead of seeing the fundamental legitimacy crisis caused when the peaceful transfer of power between administrations is interrupted, Clinton’s team saw vanity and pride.

This attitude has cost many lives. The unaccompanied minors surge across the southern border included many from a dysfunction post-coup Honduras. Central American stability can never be lasting if there is an exodus from some countries rife with murder, kidnapping, and sexual assault.

I don’t support Hillary Clinton. There are many reasons why, but it goes beyond her image, words, and political party. Her actions have hurt many. Honduras is a situation of her creation; it’s not something we paint by association with her husband’s presidency. Instead of Benghazi hysteria, citizens should remember something that is not only real, but that she publicly admits to.

Is the anti-abortion movement truly non-violent?

Last week, my campus was the site of the Genocide Awareness Project, a traveling display of graphic images about abortion. At two stories high, and long as a large bus, it was by far the most elaborate monument to anti-abortion thinking I had ever seen. It occupied prime space on Library Walk, the main artery of UC San Diego campus. Very few people knew it was coming, so the first day it was met by an ad-hoc group of women’s resource center people and activists.

The second day was much more organized, with close to a hundred people at its peak. The number ebbed and flowed over several hours as people left for class and returned. People chanted “My body! My choice!”; one student protested topless, feeling anti-abortion crusades are only one of several movements that want to dictate what women can do with their bodies.

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Pro-choice counter-protest, Library Walk, UC San Diego (1/20/2016)

There are a lot of things wrong with the Genocide Awareness Project, besides the usual shock-value pictures and culture of intimidation. Posters equated abortion to the Holocaust. Another had a picture of Eric Garner captioned “I Can’t Breathe” alongside an aborted fetus. As you can see in the above image, the trope of abortion being ‘black genocide’ was invoked. The entire display rests on problematic (and often offensive) connections being drawn to link abortion (which American society is split on) to the Holocaust, a self-evident mass injustice. In the end, I found last week troubling. In particular, there’s no evidence that the Genocide Awareness Project was invited by a student or student group. Looking through the online space reservation system, the space was allocated to the group behind the Project- the Center for Bio-Ethical Reform.

Traditionally, Library Walk is divided between the central portion, for student groups or canvassers (for Southern Poverty Law Center or Save the Children usually), and the two ends, which are free speech zones for anyone. Non-student anti-abortion protestors last year were allowed to set up on one end of the Walk by the library, but this year had six slots worth of space front-and-center. This, along with a lack of due notice to students- who may have wanted to avoid that part of campus for personal reasons, or allowed time to organize the larger counter-protest, made the whole experience feel uncomfortable.

That said, I would like to dive into a related conversation that came about during the counter-protest. There were sign-making materials on site on Wednesday, so I took advantage and made this sign:

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I felt it necessary to go beyond talk of a right to choose and deal with the most disturbing part of the anti-abortion movement to me. Namely, how militant the rhetoric of groups have become, and how violence against patients, doctors, staff, and security in one form or another is common. Claims that abortion is an ongoing Holocaust, if believed sincerely, justify murder as righteous action. Right-wing hate crimes, including incidents like the 2008 shooting at a Unitarian Universalist church in Knoxville, Tennessee, show how extreme speech can convince certain kinds of individuals that they have a God-given duty to kill.

At one point, I was told that my poster was unfair to tie these murders by to the movement as a whole. A majority of activists practice non-violent struggle.

To some degree, I agree with that critique. It is unfair to assign an entire movement moral complicity in murder (and more numerous lesser crimes, like assault and vandalism). However, I also think that claiming non-violent methods does not mean a lack of connection to any violent acts automatically. In the modern developed world, almost every civil society groups will espouse non-violence. That does not mean that they are equal  What follows is a few things that should be considered when evaluating the anti-abortion movement as nonviolent.

Activists claiming to be non-violent may condone violent acts done by others. Many individuals against abortion praise killings and assault of doctors and patients. After last year’s shooting that killed 3 and wounded 9 in Colorado, many took to social media in support of the crime. Randall Terry, founder of Operation Rescue and long-time leader of the movement, stated the following when Dr. George Tiller was shot and killed at his church in 2009:

“George Tiller was a mass-murderer. We grieve for him that he did not have time to properly prepare his soul to face God. I am more concerned that the Obama Administration will use Tiller’s killing to intimidate pro-lifers into surrendering our most effective rhetoric and actions. Abortion is still murder. And we still must call abortion by its proper name; murder.

“Those men and women who slaughter the unborn are murderers according to the Law of God. We must continue to expose them in our communities and peacefully protest them at their offices and homes, and yes, even their churches.” (source)

I don’t see this as a statement endorsing non-violence. Instead, I see it as using non-violence to deny responsibility, but still support violent action. This strategy devalues peaceful strategy by connecting it to the use of force.

The tactics of the movement are fundamentally violating. Since 1973, the anti-abortion movement has taken two paths. The first is political, including the passage of the Hyde Amendment and restrictions on abortion clinics. The second, which we all think of when picturing the conflict, are attempts to block, intimidate, and trick women from entering clinics.

I don’t see tactics of intimidation, which includes things like the Genocide Awareness Project, as truly non-violent. If we take the narrow definition of violence, which it is the absence of force, then the movement describes itself accurately. However, it’s limiting and inaccurate to exclude actions that are violating by their nature. Yelling at a woman that she’s a murderer and waving a gory picture in her face is not non-violent action. The rhetoric is aggressive enough that those who commit crimes to stop abortions don’t need to do much ideological shifting.

Traditional examples of nonviolence are different from the characteristics of those against abortion. A big issue are ties made between those that oppose abortion and the campaigns of Nelson Mandela and Martin Luther King Jr. Both became known for non-violence, but their struggles were about the powerless against the tyrants. The relationship between activists and the system were inferior-superior. There is no great tyrant in the abortion debate- the principal population attacked are vulnerable women. Well-funded groups and conservative politicians are those with tyrannical power.

Ideologies and movements are never strictly violent or non-violent. They exist in a conversation between physical force and moral force. While the anti-abortion movement may adhere to non-violence at some surface level, it is built on a fundamentally violent premise.

The culture of ‘imminent threat’

 

In my current home of San Diego, a man named Fridoon Rawshan Nehad was shot this spring by a police officer. While there was a surveillance video of the shooting, its release was blocked by much of the political apparatus, most notably District Attorney Bonnie Dumanis.

The video is obviously graphic, and is available here. Officer Neal Browder arrives on scene around four minutes in, with him opening fire about 25 seconds later. In this screenshot Nehad is in the foreground, and the white flash is a gunshot.

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I won’t go into the details of the video itself, since it seems discussion of systemic state violence gets bogged down into a ‘was the victim threatening’ discussion for each case. What I will say is that Nehad did not have a knife (he actually had a pen), he was experiencing a mental health episode, he was not moving any faster than a casual walk, and though he was walking towards Browder he was not walking at Browder.

That this situation even happened is testament to how people fall through the cracks- Nehad suffered from serious mental illness and houselessness for many years prior to his death. Despite the prevalence of mood disorders and schizophrenia, most police departments have no understanding of how to deal with individuals who are unable to understand and comply with police demands.

District Attorney Dumanis and the police leadership are selling the same justification as usual- the idea that as the victim was an imminent threat, lethal force is justifiable.cjones11292014

This thinking ties the domestic to the international. Drone strikes, airstrikes, and the wholesale invasion of nations are all justified based on imminent threat ideology. With the militarization of the police, calculations about the use of lethal force by American institutions sound the same no matter where on Earth you happen to be.

But the thing is, the definition of an imminent threat can only be stretched so far. Nehad was erratic, but he was not in any sense threatening. Most of the body count from drone strikes had no connection to threats against the US or the West. The structures of power, at any level, want the maximum amount of autonomy and the minimum amount of accountability. Eliminating threats is only the stated purpose. Gaining power by setting precedent and pushing against any and all limitations is the key. With DA Dumanis (known for being corrupt) as an ally to prevent judicial oversight, the police rise above the law.

Many cases since Mike Brown throughout the United States were even more egregious than Nehad- they lacked even the foundation of a defense. But almost nobody goes to jail. Police security culture makes investigation and prosecution- even if the courts are willing, all but impossible.

The list of those killed by city and county police in San Diego is long. The answer to ‘who polices the police?’ is pretty simple- it’s you. Agitation at the grassroots level have made sweeping lethal police shootings under the rug far more difficult. Popular opinion since Ferguson has shifted radically. The idea that America is not a color-blind, egalitarian society is creeping into the mainstream. Police power grows best in the shadows, and the institution never expects dedicated resistance.

San Diego Sheriff hate mail II: activists take it to the media

Catherine Mendonca speaks to the media about hate mail traced to police computers.
Catherine Mendonca speaks to the media about hate mail traced to police computers. Credit- Birdie Gutierrez

A press conference was held outside a San Diego County Sheriff’s Department administrative building this morning, concerning the September 16 hate mail received by police watchdog group United Against Police Terror. The unsigned email had an IP address that matched a Sheriff’s Department building in San Diego. Full info and commentary at an earlier post here.

Five San Diego TV channels covered the rally, so check the local news tonight for coverage of an episode of appalling police behavior in San Diego.

Rafael Bautista speaks to Univision regarding police threats to San Diego activists. Credit- Birdie Gutierrez
Rafael Bautista speaks to Univision regarding police threats to San Diego activists. Credit- Birdie Gutierrez