When Nonviolence Becomes Neutrality

(Photo: Sait Serkan Gurbuz/Reuters)

by Derek Scarlino/Love and Rage

I had a great teacher when it came to studying nonviolence, sitting in a classroom at SUNY Brockport nearly a decade ago discussing its history, its nuances, its concerted approach to negating power by challenging it, almost tauntingly, to lash out violently among the witnessing eyes of society. For all intents and purposes, I actively promote nonviolence as part of a process of change. It has a meaning. It has a place. There’s truly something to it that doesn’t have to innately imply consent. But, there are limits.

Still, no epistemic understanding of nonviolence, no pedagogy, guides the criticisms of property destruction or rioting in Baltimore in the wake of Freddie Gray’s death at the hands of the Baltimore Police Department. There’s nothing in the countless denouncements of violence which make it obvious that the same people even understand violence; understanding violence is critical to understanding nonviolence.

Violence is a condition bred through exhausting alternative means to resolve negative stimuli. Negative as in something which causes anxiety, fear or anger. Not in the “New Agey”, karma, pseudo-scientific spiritual musings of privileged folk who offer encouraging phrases to jars of rice. Consistent with violent reactions is a limit reached by an individual or group who lack any further strategy or ability to find a solution to a problem.

Thomas Paine said, “The best remedy for anger is delay,” and there’s truth to this. Based on IQ ratings, and IQ being a measure of reasoning ability, people with lower IQs tend to be more limited in their ability to solve problems which leads to frustration and, in some cases, frustration nets a violent reaction.

We might assume that someone who is quick to anger, quick to lash out in violence, might be some meathead jerk trying to coerce the acceptance of a specific condition. Violence and anger can absolutely be seen as the fleeting attempt by limited minds to will something into happening.

In that view, it’s easy to look at nonviolence as a thinking person’s problem-solving process. But nonviolence cannot fix everything. Nonviolence has not fixed everything. It can run out of solutions and give way to violence. Even among great nonviolent pursuits in the 20th century like parts of Gandhi’s philosophy or passive civil disobedience during the US’s Civil Rights Movement, there was still Hungary in 1956. There was the fate of unarmed Jews versus those of their armed counterparts in the ghettos of Nazi occupied Europe. There was violent repression of Palestinian boycotts of Israeli goods by the IDF during the First Intifada. There’s the relative success of Chiapas and Rojava, securing autonomy with arms.

What needs to be understood is that power ebbs and flows. Power manifests itself in different ways. If that power is oppressive and violent, then the only way nonviolence makes any difference is if the purveyor of violence is seen as guilty by the population at large; as illegitimate. This is not the condition of the United States amid increasing coverage of alleged police brutality. As Noam Chomsky once said, “Nonviolent resistance activities cannot succeed against an enemy that is freely able to use violence.”

The denigration of protests in the face of limited outbreaks of violence is not a promotion of nonviolence. That misses the point. In the case of what we’re seeing in response to the riots in Baltimore, like what was seen in Ferguson, nonviolence is being used a means for white people to avoid uncomfortable questions about their society. It is used by our society to dictate the terms under which the oppressed resist that oppression. In my studies of nonviolence, said method was never the position of those looking to sit out of a fight or adopt the rules of the oppressor — it was active resistance. It was civil disobedience. It was not used to excuse passivity.

The calls for nonviolence now are simply appeals for an escape. An appeal to something more easy to digest, which in the US means easy to dismiss. So, the question stands to be asked, do we want nonviolence or compliance? Because it’s clear what society wants, and it’s clear what society does not realize about nonviolence. Society wants an escape. It seeks a middle ground that doesn’t promote police brutality while also condemning burning cop cars. Society wants the middle-ground of not getting too involved either way.

But when blocking traffic, an established nonviolent strategy, results in marchers becoming targets for motorists, like in Minneapolis during the fall of 2014, we’re not looking for nonviolence. We’re looking for shutting up, giving in and going home. We’re looking to protect the arbitrary sanctity of property. This is when violence is going to become the last refuge of the oppressed. When the most peaceful means have been tested and exhausted, and the media is virtually blacking out everything, the logical recourse is violent recourse. Because a dream deferred most certainly explodes.

Violence then ensures that what is happening will not be ignored, and we’re all seeing this now. It’s not that the marches merely whetted the appetite for destruction among the crowd. It’s that the decades of relative silence over police killings, brutality and militarization have produced a situation where physical resistance becomes legitimized even faster. When thousands of protesters engage in peaceful marching, but 35 people arrested for rioting grab all of the attention, fewer people have to make hard decisions. Media bias has decided for them, and fortune hath favored the meek.

Why this is happening is not hard to see. If our society reacts more strongly to broken windows than it does a police incidence rate in Maryland where Blacks are killed by police at a rate of five to one when compared to whites, then what part of nonviolence, a theory contingent on people power and delegitimizing institutional violence through direct means, are people asking for?

You can’t call for nonviolence and then remain neutral. You can’t demand that those seeking systemic change “act accordingly” and follow the law just so you can tune into American Idol without having to see uncomfortable images of black smoke billowing from storefronts on the television. Nonviolence does not necessarily mean law-abiding, and it certainly isn’t about getting back to normal when “normal” means a continuation of violence resulting from poverty. A continuation of violence wrought by the state. When “normal” means fear and anxiety. When normal is Baltimore teens feeling less positive about their environment, feeling less social cohesion and even less safe in their neighborhoods than teens in Nigeria.

You have to hear the voices out before they resort to violence. And therein lies the problem; nonviolence puts the onus on society to act as one even if those seeking agency are in the minority. This is commonly called solidarity. Nonviolence is contingent on it. If you’re not willing to give that a chance, then do not cry out that protesters have no right, no legitimacy. What they lack instead is support from where it is needed before violence becomes an option.

We need dialogue on police tactics. On police militarization. But there is a lot of resistance to having that discussion rooted in terms like “privilege” and “racism” which will invariably be brought up. Those words tune people out when they don’t understand them. Sadly, confronting cycles of state violence is contingent on understanding those terms. Talk of bad apples among protesters gets the same people foaming at the mouth who dismiss the bad apples in police departments.

Until this discussion gains more traction among the people most resistant to it, you will not see an end to violence. You will see nonviolence exhausted. If nobody is willing to stand with people when they’re nonviolent, then do not feign concern when the “bad apples” begin to break other people’s toys.

So ask yourself, did the thousands of protesters marching peacefully open your eyes to the issues facing the communities most affected by poverty? The populations most affected by police brutality and militarization?

Ask yourself, did the largely peaceful demonstrations in Baltimore instill within you an urge to support things like police accountability? What about wages?  What about access to health care? What about the devastating effects of the drug war? How about the transfer of jobs overseas, or that of wealth ever upward?

History proves that authority rarely cedes power out of benevolence. Change has come through bottom-up efforts. Change occurs when authority is challenged and forced to adapt by the refusal of underclasses to comply with the status quo any longer. Yes, history proves this. So do neat little graphs.

So if it’s nonviolence people want, recognize it when it happens. That’s the only way it succeeds. If people march, that’s nonviolence. Blocking traffic is also nonviolent. Culture jamming. Rallying. Graffiti. There are hundreds of methods. Continued silence in the face of nonviolence not only subverts it; neutrality means that you side with the powerful and encourage future violence from both sides.

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