As a white guy wading into the thicket of commentary related to Ferguson, I need to say one thing up front: The economic, political, and social structures of white supremacy that both overtly and covertly dehumanize people of color and lead to the kind of systematic state violence that kills young men like Michael Brown are textbook cases of sin and evil that cry out daily for just redress. My thoughts here are related to precisely this question of pursuing justice. From much of the social media and news commentary that has crossed my computer screen in the last few days, I’ve perceived a general misunderstanding of the tradition of nonviolent conflict as a means to social transformation.
Most importantly, nonviolence does not mean peaceful protest if by peaceful protest you mean people standing or marching quietly and orderly with their little signs and candles and in no way ruffling the feathers of the state or local communities. The Gandhian influenced tradition of nonviolence is ALL ABOUT consciously and purposefully creating and fomenting conflict. It is about the willingness to risk one’s own safety, and even one’s own life, in order to rock the boat in such a way that the full force of the system’s power is brought out into the open and exposed for the evil that it is. It is about channeling holy anger towards the systems of domination that relentlessly churn out victims.
Nonviolence is NOT about white bourgeois notions of propriety.
Indeed, when the white establishment that ignores the history of violence against black folks suddenly rises up to condemn reaction to that history by calling for “peace” (e.g., the white commentariat regarding certain reactions in Ferguson), they are not calling for nonviolent action, they are speaking about their desire for the absence of conflict.
The difference between violent and nonviolent means to pursue justice lies in the recognition that systems of domination are propped up in ways both material and spiritual. Indeed, that the material and spiritual are interdependent in their maintenance of power (both in its negative and positive forms). White supremacy, capitalism, exploitation, oppression, slavery, patriarchy, and so on, are comprised of both the material structures by which they produce and reproduce the social relations we call economy, politics, culture, and such, as well as and in concert with the spiritual relations that produce and reproduce the imaginative, conceptual, and affective dimensions by which worldviews are shaped and formed.
The problem with the violent approach to justice is that it reproduces the very logic of the material and spiritual – both structure and worldview – of all domination systems: the belief that violence is the best way to gain and maintain power, and is, as such, salvific.
However, as Audre Lorde famously wrote, “the master’s tools will never dismantle the master’s house.”
Nonviolence seeks to address both the material and spiritual aspects of domination by not losing sight of the end toward which it reaches. This end is a nonviolent society where all human beings are valued and cared for according to their inherent and inviolable dignity. Thus, anything that diminishes the humanity of another is not a proper means for achieving this end. Likewise, anything that perpetuates the spiral of violence is not a proper means for achieving this end.
This does not mean avoiding conflict and confrontation with the powers that be. Rather, it means finding ever more creative ways to foment conflict and bring about confrontation, but in such a way that everyone’s humanity is left intact and violence is not the basis for bringing about transformation. Ultimately this means, to reclaim a phrase that has so unfortunately been co-opted by the military, seeking to “change hearts and minds” as much as material structures.
In my view, one of the biggest failure of progressive social movements over the last forty or so years has been an utter lack of creativity. One can only attend so many “peaceful” marches, vigils, and rallies before these seem to be the only tactics of those advocating for nonviolence. Indeed, these tactics seem to have been “approved” by the systems of domination themselves, and it behooves these powers to continue to equate such tactics with the tradition of nonviolence as such. The powers that be erase the real history of nonviolence – the courageous risk to life and limb, the willingness to die for justice, the multiple creative and utterly ingenious ways that have been found to confront the system, and on and on – in favor of a sanitized and de-fanged “nonviolence” that uses false images and narratives of Martin Luther King, Jr. and Gandhi to sell computers and quash rebellion.
Not letting the radical and revolutionary potential of nonviolence fade from view is imperative. History is always written by the winners, and so we must not let the real history and tradition of nonviolence disappear into a cloud that conceals its explosiveness under the guise of “niceness” or “flower power,” or as the purview of the “polite” and “civilized.” Toward this end, below are listed some resources (and by no means comprehensive) that outline the history, theory, and practice of nonviolence.
May Michael Brown and all the murdered victims of systemic violence and injustice rest in peace, and may perpetual light shine upon them.
Remember: Organize; Create; Disrupt; Risk; Pray.