The tension between non-violence and solidarity

The new issue of Street Spirit, a paper put together by a group of Quakers and sold by homeless people throughout the Bay Area, is mostly made up of articles on non-violence. In an astonishing (in a bad way) interview, George Lakey, “longtime nonviolent activist and trainer” manages to outdo Berkeley Chancellor Birgeneau’s infamous claim that protesters linking arms is “not non-violent”:

Lakey: Running does not heighten the contrast between the activists and the purveyors of violence. The running, to a T.V. or a news photographer or a bystander just looks like a riot and it gets reported in the news, that black people rioted on the streets of Birmingham or whatever. So sometimes you need to heighten the contrasts in order to make your point, and if that means getting people on their knees so they won’t run, great.

A good example of the movement not understanding that was Chicago in 1968 in the Democratic National Convention, where demonstrators coming from all over the country were set upon by the police. They started to run away and the police chased them and bloodied them even in the lobby of the Hilton Hotel, where the police finally caught up with some of the demonstrators and beat them to a pulp inside the lobby on the expensive carpet. But the way it was covered in the media was: Activists Riot in Chicago. It took a national investigation to determine it was actually the police who rioted; it wasn’t the students who rioted. There’s no reason for Occupy people to make all of these same mistakes again.

Street Spirit: Something very similar to that occurred in Oakland. The police attacked marchers on January 28 and were terribly violent to them. But when they ran, and escaped through the YMCA, it looked to the public like they were at fault when they were just trying to escape the violence.

Lakey: Exactly.

So, a nonviolence expert assures us that running away from the police when they are beating you to a pulp is “not non-violent.” This passage is a great illustration of the problem with what “strategic non-violence,” the fairly unified theory of political change promoted by various trainers and NGOs, of which the most well known exponent is probably Gene Sharp. Of course, the tactics of non-violent civil disobedience, sit-ins, courting mass arrests, and so on, are perfectly legitimate tactics which may well be useful in many cases, and many non-violent activists are doubtless sincere people, but this personal goodness is in tension with the fact that, as a strategy, non-violence is fundamentally hostile to solidarity. The problem is that calling yourself a “non-violent” activist casts anyone who doesn’t adopt your strategies as violent; indeed, that’s the point, because you are supposed to “heighten the contrast between the activists and the purveyors of violence.” Worse, because the point is to be perceived as non-violent, non-violent activists cede the ability to define what counts as violence to the state and its ideological apparatuses. Hence the absurd situation where “non-violence” apparently requires forcing people to kneel down so that the police can beat them more effectively.

“Non-violence” takes a distinction created by the state (between violence and non-violence) and then applies this moralistically to the tactics of the movement, such that any stepping outside of these boundaries becomes, not a disagreement about tactics, but an occasion for condemnation (this reminds me of re-reading King’s “Letter From Birmingham Jail” recently, and being struck by the way in which King puts forward a clearly moral position without seeming to me to be moralistic; I’m interested in tring to figure out exactly where the distinction lies). The situation where “non-violent” activists cooperate with the state in condemning their supposed comrades is not accidental, but flows directly from their philosophy; it is to the credit of those non-violent activists who refuse to do this that they put solidarity ahead of their philosophy.

The alternative is not necessarily to advocate “violence” (although there are arguments worth paying attention to here, particularly Fanon’s) but to stop defining oneself dogmatically in terms of a spurious distinction between violence and non-violence; or perhaps to insist on a definition of non-violence which is responsive to the needs of the movement rather than the tastes of an imagined audience, as did this Egyptian activist quoted by David Graeber:

I remember my surprise and amusement, the first time I met activists from the April 6 Youth Movement from Egypt, when the issue of non-violence came up. “Of course we were non-violent,” said one of the original organizers, a young man of liberal politics who actually worked at a bank. “No one ever used firearms, or anything like that. We never did anything more militant than throwing rocks!”

9 thoughts on “The tension between non-violence and solidarity

  1. i like what you’re saying. One of the “positive principles” that emerged in the Egyptian protests was that of “silmayya”, “peacefulness”, which isn’t quite the same as nonviolence. As Graeber says in the piece you linked to, it did involve certain forms of violence, particularly in response to state thugs, the army, etc. But more generally it was also really effective in allowing the protesters to exploit contradictions within the state apparatus.

  2. I wonder if this kind of attitude may reflect the Christian influence on the ideology of non-violence — insofar as “The Powers” have to be regarded as somehow legitimate, even if they’re unjust. The strategy, if it can really be called that, becomes one of “radical submission” that will presumably somehow change the situation — but if not, you’ve shown yourself to be morally superior and your suffering is considered redemptive. Dan discusses this in On Diaspora, for those who followed the recent book event.

  3. The Christian influence is probably important, but it seems to have taken a particularly problematic turn in recent years. This is why I find the comparison with King so interesting, as he was obviously a Christian who had no trouble using moral language, but I guess is less concerned about the perception of moral superiority than people like Lakey.

  4. insist on a definition of non-violence which is responsive to the needs of the movement rather than the tastes of an imagined audience

    I like this, and I think it’s a valuable addition to the discussion, as is the goal of denying the state the opportunity to define what is and is not violence.

    Keep in mind, though, that “the tastes of an imagined audience” have always been critical to non-violent civil disobedience — many nonviolent confrontations are explicitly designed to lay bare the viciousness of the system. The “situation where ‘non-violence’ apparently requires forcing people to kneel down so that the police can beat them more effectively” is one that has happened. The absurdity is the reaction from the system, and in many successful non-violent actions, it has been noted with worldview-changin revulsion by “the imagined audience.”

    And I continue to note that while there’s useful criticism to be made of the policing of non-violence, I’ve seen very little straightforward advocacy for expanding the scope of permissible confrontational behavior. Tactics should be weighed on their own merits. But what exactly are the merits of breaking windows at Whole Foods?

    I’ve been arrested in acts of civil disobedience seven times, all in union disputes. (I’ve also done press work for slightly less organized Direct Action Network actions.) In most of those, the police were alerted beforehand, and while once we were arrested they let us know their displeasure, they allowed a certain leeway in the offing. If they hadn’t — if they had decided to clear the various streets violently — I wouldn’t want anyone saying I was “nonviolent” because I had tried to get myself or my comrades out from under a baton. But it was also important to be acting in the tradition of non-violent civil disobedience, of peaceful, non-disruptive protest. I think it’s possible to create a big tent for non-violence while still having an edge to it.

  5. As I’ve thought about this further, the problem with the quotation seems to be not so much a poor description of non-violent resistence — it is, from a certain point of view, basically a performance piece for the “general public” and hence has to take their tastes into account — as a slippage between non-violence as a strategy and as a moral imperative. Saying, “if you want to do a certain type of protest action, you have to stay and take your beating” is one thing, but saying “you must always and only stay and take your beating” is quite another.

  6. I wonder what kind of agency protesters who permit themselves to be voluntarily beaten by cops imagine the “public” have to change their situation and realise their cause by virtue of their outrage. The most brutal events imaginable occur in this world, many of them are common knowledge and most of them extreme “over-reactions” by the powers that be. But tactically, an over-reaction by the authorities changes very little – it might bring a few more people to the cause, but what then? Are they too going to have to face truncheons until, well, when? This leads into a perverse and pathological form of thinking whereby the more physical danger an activist puts themselves into and the more physical injury enacted on them to cause better press images to the “public” the better. One of the problems of civil disobedience is just how ritual it is, even up to arrest. How is this effective other than bringing piety and jail to those who participate?

    I find it odd that you Josh speak of “non-disruptive” protest. I can’t imagine any protest worthy of that name being ‘non-disruptive’ – indeed the purpose of protest is disruption of the current state of things. “You can protest, as long as you aren’t disruptive to others” is the line I’ve heard countless police bark into my face, and that of my friends, it is tantamount to saying “you can protest, as long as you don’t materially effect anything”.

    Moreover Josh tactics of property destruction are believed to have merits by those who participate in them. Among these might be economically disrupting stores (yes even Whole Foods, well know for their union busting tactics and attacked by the IWW and IWA), spectacular propaganda of the deed. Simply pretending that the people who participate in them don’t have any idea but are “mindless” is precisely the kind of moralising that this post is alluding to. We can only discuss their effectiveness, and weigh them on their merits once this attitude is dropped.

  7. I particularly like the nonviolent-for-the-cameras approach’s reliance on the corporate, capitalist media to report accurately on a potentially revolutionary movement (although there are calls for tax reform and such in Occupy, the roots and vibe of it are certainly other, which is why it matters).

    To be nonviolent you must evidently achieve such a level of submission to violence that even the media, if it chooses to report on it, will have no choice but to report on it semi-accurately.

    We have seen that even video evidence from multiple angles that directly contradicts the cops’ version of events is not enough to get the media to report accurately.

    Obviously, “What will the media say?” cannot be first on our minds. Might as well worry what the cops will say, and adjust accordingly to please them.

  8. Adam: And that slippage is built into the position, right? The strategy depends on appearing morally righteous, so the strategy itself had to be moralized.

    Graeber makes an interesting claim about the attempt to “lay bare the viciousness of the system” in the piece I linked to:

    Gandhian strategies have not historically worked in the US; in fact, they haven’t really worked on a mass scale since the civil rights movement. This is because the US media is simply constitutionally incapable of reporting acts of police repression as “violence.” (One reason the civil rights movement was an exception is so many Americans at the time didn’t view the Deep South as part of the same country.)

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