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Your Liberation is Bound Up With Mine: Reflections on Exploring Nonviolence

Director’s Report by Liz Moore

Reprinted from the March-April Handful of Salt

I’m so glad we were able to offer this second series on Exploring Nonviolence in January and February. Nonviolence is often misunderstood as a way of avoiding conflict. On the contrary, active nonviolence—militant nonviolence, as Cesar Chavez termed it—is a way of engaging in conflict in order to resolve an interpersonal situation or a structural injustice. It’s no wonder active nonviolence is so misunderstood, so stereotyped, so derided. The writer Colman McCarthy quotes a student’s response to the question “Why are we violent but not illiterate?” The student answered, “Because we are taught to read.”

The first series, in summer 2010, focused on personal and interpersonal violence and nonviolence, exploring potential responses to personal danger based on a philosophy of nonviolence. It was challenging and thought-provoking. I learned that it is a fact that surprise, wonder or humor cannot exist at the same time as aggression in the human brain.

This second series, which just completed in February, focused on structural and institutional violence—forms of violence based on the systematic ways in which a social structure or social institution harms people by preventing them from meeting their basic needs. Institutionalized elitism, ethnocentrism, class advantage and class exploitation, racist oppression and white privilege, sexist oppression and male privilege, nationalism, heterosexism and ageism are some examples of structural violence. Structural violence and direct violence are highly interdependent. These definitions are based on the work of Johan Galtung.

What does structural violence look like in Spokane? It looks like disproportionately low high school graduation rates of kids of color. It looks like tasers disproportionately used against African American men. It looks like families struggling to live on retail wages. It looks like 400 families with children getting a 100% cut in TANF benefits as of February 1st. It looks like $2.2 billion of taxes from Eastern Washington families being sucked into the pockets of military contractors.

To respond to structural violence requires a movement dedicated to affirming “the radical interconnectedness of all life” and “relentlessly challenging, resisting and dismantling any form of structural violence and oppression that distorts or undermines this oneness,” as writes Ken Butigan. Butigan calls for us to reach a stage of what he calls heart-unity: “a fundamental orientation that can alter one’s relationship to both oppressors and the oppressed: opening us to the humanity of all while sharpening (not diminishing) our will to take steps to challenge and transform structural violence….” This call echoes the demand put forward by Lilla Watson, an Aboriginal Australian poet: “If you have come to help me, you are wasting your time. But if you have come because your liberation is bound up with mine, then let us work together.”

I really enjoyed watching “A Force More Powerful,” which explores how popular movements battled entrenched regimes and military forces with unconventional, nonviolent tactics like boycotts, strikes, and demonstrations. Acts of civil resistance helped subvert the operations of government, and direct intervention in the form of sit-ins, nonviolent sabotage, and blockades frustrated many rulers’ efforts to suppress people. The historical results were massive: tyrants toppled, governments overthrown, occupying armies impeded, and political systems shattered. Entire societies were transformed, suddenly or gradually, as nonviolent resistance destroyed the repressor’s ability to control events. We learned about the Danish resistance to the Nazis in World War II, the rise of Solidarity in Poland, and the momentous victory for democracy in Chile. I felt so inspired about our movement-building work for peace, economic justice, and human rights.

Margaret Mead’s quote is often bandied about: “Never doubt that a small group of thoughtful, committed citizens can change the world. Indeed, it is the only thing that ever has.” These videos plainly show that she’s not quite right. In fact, mass movements are critical to making change on a large scale, making it last, and transforming the consciousness of the most people, who come to believe in their own power to withhold obedience to power and to challenge structures of power. In his “Letter from Delano,” Cesar Chavez wrote:

“We advocate militant nonviolence as our means for social revolution and to achieve justice for our people, but we are not blind or deaf to the desperate and moody winds of human frustration, impatience, and rage that blow among us. Gandhi himself admitted that if his only choice were cowardice or violence, he would choose violence. Men are not angels, and time and tide wait for no man [sic]. Precisely because of these powerful human emotions, we have tried to involve masses people in their own struggle. Participation and self-determination remain the best experience of freedom, and free men instinctively prefer democratic change and even protect the rights guaranteed to seek it. Only the enslaved in despair have need of violent overthrow.” (Emphasis added)

Watching “A Force More Powerful,” I was struck by the patterns I noticed in these profiles of successful movements. The mass movements portrayed almost always included unions as key coalition players who had the structure and resources to mobilize huge numbers of people to take collective action and to reach beyond their members to include members’ families and neighbors. Today, the US labor movement is battered by off-shoring of manufacturing jobs and by weak and poorly-enforced laws protecting workers’ rights to organize. But the lesson is clear: a small group alone won’t cut it. We need to grow a movement of individuals, families, neighbors, and organizations working together.

Also, none of the movements relied on corporate or state media for communication. There is much to complain about when we look at institutions of media in our society—but the Solidarity movement certainly didn’t rely on the state newspaper to build its movement. When Nazis destroyed the Danish presses, alternatives were created. The inspiring Egyptian movement for democracy was largely organized through blogs and Facebook. This reminds us we can never measure our own effectiveness based on quantity or quality of mainstream media coverage and that we have to create and strengthen our own means of communication. (On that note, go to pjals.org/sign-up to join our Action Alert list!)

Writers Bob Irwin and Gordon Faison discuss three main ways nonviolent movements may attain their goals: converting the opponent, who then comes to agree with and work toward the activists’ goal; nonviolent coercion, where the activists have it directly in their power to frustrate the opponent’s will; and accommodation, where the opponents given in because it seems a lesser evil than any other alternative, sometimes as a strategic move to “halt the consciousness-raising process of struggle that would lead people to discover how much power they really have.”

In the profiled movements, conversion of opponents was rare. Opponents attempted accommodation in Poland by agreeing to all the demands except independent trade unions—the key to real change. Organizers of each of the profiled justice movements successfully used nonviolent coercion to exert their power not to cooperate with business as usual: sit-down strikes inside factories in Poland, the “go home from work at 1 pm because I need to work in my garden” tactic when Denmark was under Nazi curfew, and street rallies that lasted for days (sound familiar?) in Chile, to name a few instances.

Activists must move various forces in order to influence decision-makers.Rarely is any policy or structure changed through any one action. Once a campaign is launched, it requires a series of mini-campaigns, each with its own peak of pressure on decision-makers, as a method to escalate the cumulative pressure, increase involvement, and move undecided individuals and institutions to take one side or the other. We must be persistent and plan to be in it for the long haul. It takes years, many actions, and many campaigns to build a movement, with steps forward and back along the way.

During those efforts, we need to sustain ourselves and each other, be consistent and committed (though we probably never can be perfect) in acting as allies to those more directly impacted by structures of violence and oppression, reflect and inform our practice of militant nonviolent movement-building with the fruits of our reflection, and persist forward. Struggle builds strength, because we learn what have the capacity to withstand, which directly informs what we have the capacity to accomplish. The most important thing is that we persist, maintain our commitment as allies to others, keep involving more people, and keep finding new ways to exert our own collective power.

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