Wednesday, February 1, 2012

NonviolentTactics Are Weapons

In Oakland, a significant minority of activists do not consider these men to be sacred relics of Nonviolent Resistance to be worshiped as if Divine. How rude! Indeed, when one man stood up at an Occupy Oakland General Assembly and denounced Gandhi in no uncertain terms (which I will not repeat because the terms were so rude... eek) it caused a minor firestorm among the multitude. How dare he!? Well, he did, and it had the effect of breaking a kind of spell that is cast on Americans with the mention of Mahatma Gandhi or Martin Luther King, Jr.

A spell that has proved very useful tamping down and keeping at bay any effective resistance to the triumph of America's real class warriors for decades on end.

"Gandhi wouldn't do that!" "Martin Luther King would be embarrassed to hear you say that!"

Be like Gandhi and King! That's the only way to win!

Gandhi led campaigns for simple justice in South Africa and Independence from the British Raj for India from the 1890's until his unfortunate assassination in 1948. King led campaigns for basic civil rights, justice and dignity for African Americans in the United States from the 1950's to his unfortunate assassination in 1968.

Gandhi failed to win his campaign for simple justice in South Africa; that would not come for generations under other leadership, and some would say it hasn't arrived yet. He ultimately saw victory in his campaign to free India from British rule, but not his dream of a free India. When he was shot and killed, India was still in the throes of assembling itself into a nation, a very bloody and dispiriting process as it happened.

King lived to see the "mountaintop" as he called it, but he did not get to the "Promised Land" before a rifleman's bullet caught up to him in Memphis. For the "Promised Land" wasn't just the right to vote and to sit at a lunch counter in the South, far from it. He was in Memphis to press for economic justice for garbage men, and since the success of the Civil Rights Movement, he'd been pressing more and more insistently to end the War in Vietnam, and to raise up Americans of all colors from poverty and economic despair. He would not live to see either goal accomplished, nor can Americans today see any end to global warfare against... something... and every year since the Endless Recession began the poverty rate goes up; it's higher now than it was in 1968. (12.8% in 1968 vs 15.1% in 2011.)

Both Gandhi and King are rightly praised and celebrated for their triumphs and for their similar approach to their struggles. Both got partway to their goals before they were killed. Though their legacies live on -- and have had astonishing results a generation or two after their deaths -- it's not at all clear that conditions now, in India or the United States, would please them. There has been much backsliding or sidestepping. Progress in the United States seemed to halt sometime around 1982; in India, the material record may be somewhat better, but what of the spirit that was so essential to Gandhi -- and King for that matter?

We have come so far, yet we have so far to go.

And it is widely claimed that the only way forward is on the nonviolent paths laid for us by Mahatma Gandhi and Martin Luther King. Anything else leads to madness, suffering, and failure.

What is nonviolence?

I argue that nonviolent tactics are weapons. When well employed, they can be extraordinarily effective. But Americans seem to have lost sight of what nonviolent tactics are, often confusing them with passivity, and too few have any idea how to use them effectively let alone who they should be used against and why.

Gandhi and King had very profound insights into the nature of their struggles and the nature of nonviolence in the context of their struggles, and I feel confident in saying that insight was a direct result of their essentially "holy" status.

Gandhi may have been a lawyer -- there's nothing particularly "holy" about that! -- but he was informed by his extraordinary spiritual life that kept him personally centered and free no matter what was going on around him -- which included some of the most dreadful and poignant events in the history of India. We forget that the British were almost inconceivably cruel in their rule of India using famine, genocide, murder, dispossession, bribery and immense levels of brutality to control the restive Natives. What the British did to the Indians makes their impositions on the American Colonists that led to the Revolution seem like a walk in the park.

And all of Britain's heavy handed atrocities were utilized in suppressing the Indian self-determination and self-rule during Gandhi's decades long campaign for Independence.

The struggle wasn't solely a against British cruelty and violence toward their dusky charges. No, half the sub-continent was ill-ruled through native Maharajahs who functioned as British lackeys almost to the very end. They were paid handsomely for their service in suppressing the native revolts, and if they didn't suppress revolts smartly enough, they were deposed... so what did they have to complain about?

In contrast to this routine violence on the part of the British and their client rulers, Gandhi's struggle was conducted through a process of nonviolent resistance, the sharpest weapon available to his largely impoverished followers under the circumstances. Of course using it meant much sacrifice on the part of the Indian masses, sacrifice which Gandhi himself was ever cognizant of and frequently recognized through word and deed. Many thousands of Indians paid for independence from Britain with their lives; and if you add in the famine casualties, the death toll was in the millions.

Throughout Gandhi's nonviolent campaigns there were parallel campaigns against the British that utilized violent tactics like kidnapping, sabotage, murder and other forms of violence as well as frequent civil disturbances. Never let it be forgotten that Gandhian nonviolent campaigns were taking place in a context that was sometimes extraordinarily violent.

It was partly because of that contrast the nonviolent campaigns of Gandhi and his followers and the violence of some other Indian rebel factions that the British essentially adopted Gandhi as the one spokesperson for India that they would deal with. So many of the other Natives were just too eager to slit British throats. Which they cheerfully did any chance they got.

But Gandhi was wise enough to use nonviolence as a weapon, too. One that in the end proved more effective than all the murders, kidnappings, sabotage and worse that were taking place while his nonviolent campaigns were going on.

For through nonviolence, Gandhi was able to shame on British, as they had never felt shame before, for their intolerable Imperial conduct.

Of course there was more to the victory of the Independence campaign than merely shaming the British or conducting nonviolent demonstrations. After the horrors and destruction of World War II, no European power could afford an overseas Empire any more. Better to cut one's losses while one could than to try to continue to assert power that wasn't viable -- or affordable -- any more. So the Brits finally packed up and left, India and Pakistan descended into chaos for a while, and India re-emerged -- without Gandhi -- as if it were a phoenix rising. From that day till this, it has been a hard road, but a nonstop march forward, resulting today in an India that I doubt Gandhi could have imagined.

Nonviolence was the weapon that eventually won Indian freedom from British rapine and rule, but it took decades of relentless driving home the point. I believe Gandhi started his campaign in India in 1915. It would be over thirty years -- and two world wars -- before British rule ended.

The British Raj in India and its client states (the Princely States) were effectively ruled by approximately 1000 British civil servants under the authority of the Viceroy on behalf of the Crown 8000 miles away in London. There were of course thousands more British civilians and military officers in India during the period of the British Raj, but their number was always vastly fewer than that of the Indian People. The intrinsic injustice of the situation could not be avoided, and Gandhi took full advantage of it. Because there were so few British ruling over so many Indians, finding the weak spots and using the weapon of nonviolence to expose the shame of its injustice to Indians and the world helped destabilize the whole system -- until by 1947, it collapsed and the British Raj came to an ignominious end.

That's quite a different situation than Martin Luther King faced in shepherding the Civil Rights Movement primarily in the American South. The goal was something else entirely: the inclusion of Negroes in the American social, political and economic system as opposed to their continued segregation and exclusion. Whereas Gandhi was focused on getting the British to quit India, King had the task of focusing America -- particularly in the South -- on including all of its people instead of segregating and excluding a significant minority of them.

In most of the South, Blacks were not the majority of the population. Segregation and Black disempowerment was the custom after the end of Reconstruction. White rule was considered natural. Thanks to the legacy of slavery and Jim Crow, there was a very limited educated and well-off Black population. The customs of the South tended to keep it that way.

The struggle against Black oppression was not new when Martin Luther King founded the SCLC. It was not new when the Little Rock Nine integrated Central High School in Little Rock, AR with the assistance of the 101st Airborne. It was not new when Rosa Parks disobeyed a Montgomery, AL, bus driver. It was not new when Emmett Till was lynched outside of Money, MS. It was not new when the Supreme Court decided Brown vs Board of Education. It was not new when the black Navy munitions loaders mutinied at Port Chicago, CA after an explosion that killed over 300 of their number. The struggle against Black oppression was not new when the Scottsboro Boys were falsely accused, nor was it new when the white citizens of Tulsa went on a riotous rampage through the colored section of town killing over 300, leaving over 10,000 homeless, and burning the entire district.

It was not new when Paul Laurence Dunbar wrote his Poems. It was not new when W.E.B. DuBois and others formulated the Niagara Declaration.

The struggle against Black oppression had been going on in one way or another in the United States since Colonial times, and it continues to this day.

The goals of the Civil Rights Movement were to empower Blacks politically and socially and to end segregation laws. There was no thought of removing the government and substituting another. It was not, in other words, a Revolution, nor was it an Independence movement. It was about realizing the equality promise of the Declaration and Constitution and beginning the process of redemption from the original sin of chattel slavery.

Nonviolence patterned after Gandhi's model was the chosen path of Dr. King and the SCLC.

The nonviolent program of the Dr. King nevertheless still led to dozens of deaths of civil rights workers through the 1950's and into the 1960's. As Frederick Douglass said, "Power concedes nothing without a demand." And in the early days of the civil rights struggle, it was apparent that Power wasn't about to concede anything, demand or no.

But the Montgomery Bus Boycott and the shame brought on the South from the Emmett Till murder and the violent resistance to school integration showed that Power in the South was very brittle, and thus in many ways weak.

There were ways, nonviolent ways, to alter the power relationships that were thought to be permanently designed by God Himself. And so, from 1955 to 1965 an increasingly disciplined and visible Civil Rights Movement took to the streets of many cities in the South as well as the North to advocate for Civil Rights and Constitutional protections for everyone. There were hundreds of marches, sit ins, teach ins, and acts of civil disobedience, some of them met with extreme violence and brutality by the authorities, other not so much; there were rallies and assemblies and voter registration drives. Dozens of people were killed, hundreds or thousands were injured or arrested and jailed, but bit by bit the restrictions and impediments of segregation were rolled back, to the point where, by 1965, Blacks had restored to them almost the level of rights and protections they had enjoyed after the Civil War in 1865. That's a bit of hyperbole, but the success of the Civil Rights Movement was almost a restoration of Reconstruction rights.

King and his followers used nonviolence tactics as weapons to undermine the authority of the iconic "big bellied Southern Sheriffs," and this in turn helped more and more Americans in general to understand just what a monstrous evil the Southern Jim Crow segregation laws and restrictions on basic civil rights were. That realization and the overt and constant brutality of the oppression of the Civil Rights Movement eventually helped change the laws.

But none of this happened in a vacuum. The nonviolent Civil Rights Movement that Dr. King led was paralleled by many other individuals and groups fighting for civil rights in America, some of them a good deal more militant. There was the Nation of Islam, Malcolm X, Black Panthers, Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee and many others, each with a different interpretation of nonviolent resistance and its utility in the struggle against oppression.

But let it be said that nearly all the violence that was perpetrated during the Civil Rights struggle up to 1965 was perpetrated by whites under color of authority -- or otherwise -- against Blacks and other civil rights workers.

Nonviolent tactics were successfully used as weapons in the struggle against oppression in both India and the United States. They were used to weaken and expose the very brittle structures of Power in the British Raj and in the American South, and they were used to bring shame on the perpetrators of violence against nonviolent demonstrations, protests and rallies.

Laws were changed in the United States and changed attitudes eventually followed. The British Empire eventually dissolved as if it had never been.

India achieved independence in 1947; Gandhi was assassinated in 1948; the crucial Civil Rights Act was passed in 1964, and the Voting Rights Act was passed in 1965. Martin Luther King was assassinated in 1968, by which time almost all segregation and racial discrimination laws had been overturned, though Americans are still not at the point of full equality.

Nonviolence tactics worked and worked very well to accomplish specific goals that were set -- though they took a long time to become effective -- under the circumstances.

There were many lessons learned from the experience, and among the questions we ought to be asking now are "What were those lessons, and what exactly was learned? By whom?"

Next: The Lessons of Nonviolent Resistance and Who They Benefit


  1. Che,

    It's so hard to keep repeating "non-violence" in the face of the brute stupidity and force of the people who carry out the orders of the oligarchy. How can they not see that their homes, earnings, public areas, etc. are being sold out from under them, too? That the cops (and soon, the military) are willing to attack peaceful protesters is sickening. Yet, it isn't just them. It is also the masses of Americans who think that the protesters are terrorists - anti-American dirt. They will not mind if we get locked away any more than the thugs who do the taking away and guarding will.

    Malcolm X said something to the effect of paying attention to the power of the media, because the media can make the innocent look guilty and the guilty look innocent. That's what we have now...and everyone falls for it, hook, line, and sinker. It's so appalling after Iraq, Afghanistan, Libya, the financial wreck (and everything else) that so few seem to see what is going on.

    Malcolm X also said to be peaceful, but when someone puts a hand on you, it's time to put him in the cemetery. I can see how he got to feeling that way.

    How do we stay non-violent when the PTB intend to use nothing BUT violence? In fact, are already using violence. Serious question. I am a flower child, but I have to tell you I am not sure non-violence will work in this decade, with these people. They have gained too much territory; almost the entire globe.

    I'm scared, but I am also walking around pissed off all the time, too. I don't know how you stay so patient.

    Maybe more will join the Occupies as the weather improves. At least the force of more numbers would be a help and make it more obvious that there are perhaps a few more of us than they expected to have to deal with.

    As you can see, I am having a mid-life moment. :) There is no reason to answer this - just venting a bit.


  2. Nice venting you do there. Good of you to mention Malcolm, too, because that's the kind of spirit direction I think this thing is moving toward.

    "Nonviolence" is being used as a weapon to keep the masses in line as well. I haven't got to that part of the series, there's still a bit of set-up yet to go, and I'm somewhat distracted with other things, but the point I'm getting to is that the Overclass learned all kinds of lessons from the success of nonviolent resistance against the powers that were.

    One of the things Overclass learned was to be (or pretend to be) nonviolent themselves, especially through the use of nonviolent communications -- which many of them excel at right now. "I hear what you're saying; it sounds like we need to work harder to make sure the bankers get what they deserve. I agree, I agree completely, and we will certainly do our best to make sure that happens. Thank you for sharing."


    That's what they do, that's how they talk to the rabble, when they talk to them at all.

    They're using nonviolent communications against us, and what I find is that almost nobody understands that's what they're doing. Even people who are trained in nonviolence.

    They also know how to utilize nonviolent resistant tactics against the rabble. The blank stare. Defiance of court orders and endless legal wrangling. The appeal to procedure and policy to keep from doing the right thing. Offloading responsibility or never letting on who is responsible for this or that. On and on it goes.

    Doing it so that it seems eminently "reasonable" is icing on the cake.

    Where the Overclass uses violence, as they are doing in Oakland and have done in many other cities, it's a sign of weakness -- in Oakland, terminal weakness.

    But I wonder how many realize that?

    And every time they insist that classic nonviolent tactics are "not nonviolence", they discredit themselves. Every time they demand "nonviolence" on the part of the demonstrators but won't adhere to it themselves, they discredit themselves.

    The Oakland demonstrators seem to me to be playing it just right in the face of increasing official violence. But where the Overclass is using nonviolent tactics against Occupy, something else is necessary. I'm not sure what.

    That's the challenge!

  3. Che, ami,

    I am in the middle of writing a post for my blog on the 2012 Defense Strategy. A few weeks ago, Oblahblah went to the Pentagon and gave a little speech to introduce this strategy paper. The reporters who covered it discussed how it was the first time a President had actually been in the Pentagon building to give a speech (is that so weird, or what? These guys are the Commanders-in-Chief, and none of them ever went into the building?). They also mentioned the O quip about what a "nice room" it was. A few of them gave an excerpt or two of Panetta's introductory speech. The whole thing was billed as a discussion about the Pentagon budget being "lowered". (The budget will increase at a slower rate than was asked for by the administration. That's decreasing the budget. I see how they did that. Heh.)

    In any case, I was not seeing much coverage - actually, I saw none - on what this whole meeting was about. So I looked it up. Turns out it was to introduce the Strategy Guide. Turns out that the thing is public; reporters just weren't interested in it and stopped at Panetta's "leaner, meaner" remark and O's "nice room" comment.

    Turns out the paper is a guideline for what the Pentagon and military see as their goals for the immediate future and a broad outline for achieving them. It is quite revealing. (Guess that's why the reporters didn't look at it.) A few things of interest: 100,000 military grunts are about to get their pink slips. Good luck finding a job. But they do get discharged with their weapons, so I guess if THEY need to vent, they can do so in spectacular fashion. Any decrease in the Pentagon budget will come from military paychecks and veteran's benefits. Our new threat is now Asia. The latest buzz, which you will be hearing anon, is that al Qaeda is active in the pan-Asian countries. Who knew? Of course, they just make this shit up, but it works on the public. We must Invade China.

    There is also the stunningly repulsive, but obligatory, rhetoric about how America reserves the right to use military action against countries which impede our interests - the only new thing here is that we specify "economic" interests.

    But more to the point of your articles, this Strategy Guide openly talks of using the military "in the Homeland" to keep the peace and "work with" local law enforcement agencies. It is an open and transparent complete violation of posse comitatus (sp?) and overturning of the traditional ban on the use of the military against the citizens, but in this case, Obama chose transparency. And no-one cared.

    This is going to change the environment for protesters. Hard rain coming, mijo.


  4. Yes, I'll try to get into this in a bit. It's not that there hasn't been any coverage at all, but just try to find it, eh?

    Some observers and activist understand well what this all could be leading to, but as far as I can tell, no one quite knows what to do about it.

    It's the principal challenge we'll be facing for some time to come.

    But I repeat myself...