Wednesday, February 1, 2012

On the Use and Misuse of the Nonviolence Meme

March on the Pentagon, October 1967. How much more nonviolent could a protest be?

From the opening bell of Occupy Wall Street on September 17, 2011, to the shockingly brutal repression and mass arrests of Occupy Oakland activists on January 28, 2012, the Occupy Movement has wrestled with the question of "Nonviolence."

For all intents and purposes, the Movement has been overtly nonviolent from the beginning, but it has been met with increasingly intense official violence in many locations around the country, starting with the infamous pepper spraying of non-resisting activists in New York on September 24, 2011, by DI Anthony Bologna, the supervising NYPD officer for Lower Manhattan. His unprovoked act shocked the conscience of the nation. It was to be the first of many WTF moments in the history of the Occupy Movement.

Officer Bologna's act appeared to be one of official but mindless cruelty. There would be many more such incidents associated with Occupy. Mindless cruelty and brutality toward certain police targets are institutionalized in the United States, as just about anyone from minority communities can testify.

The litany of the incidents to date is long and disheartening.

And these incidents of mindless official cruelty and brutality continued over the weekend in Oakland, California.

Yet the Movement has remained nonviolent. Nonviolent, yes, but not to the point of passivity.

Many of the critics of the Occupy Movement and Occupy Oakland specifically have made much of the fact that Occupy Oakland has not "officially" denounced diversity of tactics and "officially" expelled anyone who has advocated diversity of tactics or who has committed acts of vandalism -- acts which have been declared to be "violence" by the authorities. Just as linking arms and refusing to budge when ordered to do so has been declared "not nonviolence" at UC Berkeley and UC Davis (and I'm sure at other places as well.)

See this post for further discussion of "diversity of tactics" and how those who employ diversity of tactics define "violence."

I read an op-ed in my local newswipe this morning written by a retired journalist I have long respected who referred to Occupy Oakland activists as "thugs" and to their actions over the weekend as "rioting." It was deeply disappointing to me, because I can only assume that he, like so many others, has no real knowledge of what happened in Oakland over the weekend at all. The only things he knows about it is what was on the teevee and the lies -- yes, they were lies -- put out by the City of Oakland Emergency Operations Center (pdf). The facts may take a little digging, but they are easily available. The lies, however, are everywhere.

The way Peter Schrag characterized the participants in the weekend activities of Occupy Oakland was very evocative to me, as I assume it would be to anyone who has studied nonviolence, been an activist who believes in its value, and who lived through the Civil Rights Era, the anti-Vietnam War Era, or who may have any knowledge of the Independence Movement in India or the anti-Apartheid efforts in South Africa, or as may be, has any familiarity with the Palestinian cause.

In every case mentioned, the activists/rebels, no matter what they did or didn't do, were characterized by authority as "violent" and "thugs" and their actions were called "rioting." ALWAYS.

Whether or not the activists are practicing nonviolence is irrelevant when authority wishes to crush a rebellion, as anyone who has been involved in nonviolent resistance for any length of time knows full well.

When authorities feel threatened by activist rebellions, as they clearly feel threatened by the Occupy Movement, they will go to any length to suppress and destroy the rebellion and to discredit those associated with it. They will insist that participants are committing acts of "violence" no matter what the activists do -- as UC administrators did in Berkeley and Davis and as some civic authorities have done all over the country, but most especially in Oakland, where at least one of the city council members has asserted that Occupy Oakland activists are engaged in acts of "domestic terrorism."

It should be noted that many of those arrested at the political conventions in 2008 were charged with "domestic terrorism" though they had committed no terroristic acts whatsoever. It doesn't matter. The act of public protest -- or even planning such a thing -- is, in certain cases in this country, considered chargeable as "domestic terrorism" though eventually (at least in most cases) the charges don't stand up in court.

Professing or practicing nonviolence does not protect you; in fact, it can have just the opposite effect. So many people have chanted "Peaceful Protest!" during Occupy events while they're being beaten senseless, gassed and dragged away to some detention site.

Anyone who has been in a nonviolent resistance situation in which Authority demanded obedience knows full well that nonviolent tactics will not protect you from police brutality, detention, injury or death.

"Peaceful Protest!" is not a protective mantra.

And anyone who's been in that situation knows that nonviolent tactics will not prevent Authority from lying about what happened -- as has long been the case in Oakland. They lie all the time; it is their official culture.

That said, is it wise to adopt diversity of tactics or overtly violent tactics? Under the conditions Americans live in -- a virtual police state -- the answer is almost always no. Not only is it not wise, it's not necessary.

A police state is a brittle state, very weak in many respects. Violence on the part of police state victims almost always has the ironic effect of strengthening the oppressor and weakening the victim. Nonviolent tactics, on the other hand, can have an increasingly weakening effect on the police state while strengthening the victims.

Nonviolence, however, should not be confused with passivity. And passivity is not the same as Passive Resistance. One of the problems Americans have in talking about -- let alone sorting through -- these issues is that most Americans have no idea what the terms really mean and how to practice nonviolent tactics effectively.

They have had no experience, there is very little training available, and they don't know what to do. All they know are the names of Mahatma Gandhi and Martin Luther King. "Do thou likewise!"

But what did Gandhi and King do? And just as important, where, when and why?

Next: Nonviolent tactics are weapons.

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