Monthly Archives: November 2011

My Journey Towards Nonviolence

In the wake of discussions about violence related to the occupy movement, I want to share my own story of how I came to endorse nonviolence.

As a boy I believed in the necessity of violence. Raised on GI Joe and Star Wars, I was presented with the view that good people had to kill bad people for peace and justice to reign. With action figures and video game controllers clentched in my hands, I acted this story out time and again.  It was a simple tale of right and wrong, yet I came to sense a flaw. If killing people was an evil action (as I was also raised to believe), how can people be good if they also kill?

This criticism became heightened once I realized that war was different from how it was portrayed in boyish fantasy. When the first Gulf War happened, the media talked about Saddam Hussein inflating the number of civilians killed by American troops. Around me I heard “well, civilians are always killed in war, but its not that many.” I thought, “not that many? What if it was my father or mother or neighbor or me?”  It seemed intensely cruel to offhandedly dismiss any human life, be it ten people or a thousand, Americans or Iraqis, soldiers or civilians.

Then I understood, we tended not to see war victims as human.  Instead of “person murdered” we say “casualty of war.”  “Casual” is right in the phrase, as though it is easy and everyday.  We learn to dehumanize and become dehumanized.  And I realized this was a necessary condition for violence. Violence is a degradation of our sense of human worth, and war represents an extreme example of this. As a person believing in my own worth and the worth of others, I could see that violence was perhaps the definition of evil.

Sill, I was so used to the idea that social change came through violence. This is what the history books taught. I had heard of Mohandas Gandhi and the nonviolent Indian Independence movement, but I had difficulty conceptualizing it. Violence was simple. You kill the people in your way and then they are no longer there. Once they are gone you can do what you want. How could people “stop being in your way” without the use of violence? Then I had a realization. There will always be people in the way. Even when power is violently seized, opposition, insurgents, etc. still exist. Social change, violent or otherwise, is never about removing opposition, but about advancing the influence of one regime compared to another. It is about shifting the balance of power. Killing people can shift the balance of power; so can spreading a message, building organizations, raising money, riling people up to act boldly for what they believe in, committing direct action to undermine the institutions that oppress, etc.

In fact, even if a movement is violent, most of the work in building that movement must be done nonviolently. Once we realize this, it isn’t hard to entertain the idea that a movement which has nonviolently built its power could also nonviolently exert that power to make changes in society. Historically this is backed by the cases of Indian Independence, South African resistance to apartheid, US civil rights, the Arab Spring, and many more examples.

But to me the biggest argument for nonviolence is this, if we wish to create a world that does not violate human worth and dignity, how can we do this by using a tool (violence) which inherently violates the worth and dignity of people? In the end I think revolution for a humanizing future must be based on acting against violence in both our society and ourselves.  Whether it is a military elite finding power through war, a financial elite making money off of economic collapse, a business elite looking to maximize profit through lowering the resources of workers, an employer in a middle class office who won’t hire a working class black man, a husband abusing his wife because he desires unnatural compliance, an everyday person not recognizing how her privilege is connected to suffering, or an everyday person simply lashing out in frustration- peace and social justice requires resisting violence in order to restore our holistic humanity.

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Narrative of Violence from Friday’s Occupy DC Protest Distracts from the Message

There has been a lot of media coverage about Friday night’s march to the Americans for Progress conference at the DC Convention Center.  I was at the protest.  I saw the movie about the Koch brothers which preceded our arrival at the Convention Center.  I was watching the gate into the parking lot where the gathering began.  Most of the media coverage centered on events that happened shortly after I left however, focusing on two main stories of violence.

One story has been told by conservative media.  A woman fell down the stairs of the Convention Center.  The narrative is she was pushed.  For less conservative media, the main story has been three demonstrators hit by a car, and then given tickets for things like jay walking.

Both of these stories indicate to me how past events become confusing for those who cannot actually investigate what happened for themselves, and are dependent on media narrative .  One story being covered by conservative media and another being covered by less conservative media indicates how tales of violence are used for political agendas (why else would media with clearly different biases choose to focus on different stories?).  This practice makes me generally distrustful of narratives.  If I only have a non-investigative, machine-like, narrative producing media to guide me, I cannot know if the woman fell, was pushed, or was accidentally nudged.  I also cannot know if a driver decided to barrel into protesters, if the protesters actively got in the way, or if some combination occurred.

This is why investigation is important (although it is a sadly dieing art).  I have to admit that I have not given my own proper time to investigate what happened (nor do I have access to, for example, police witnesses), but there are some things I am clear about.  First, Some conservative writers have described Friday as a “riot.”  That is absolutely misleading.  Second, I am sure this media focus on interpersonal violence is a distraction from the real issues -the structural violence (i.e. lack of health care, lack of job security, lack of being treated with dignity) in a world which is geared to serve the 1%.  And this distraction is the main concern which makes me write this post.

I worry that Occupy DCs protest tactics are ultimately feeding into a distracting media narrative which focuses on a few sensational events at the expense of the issues.   Surrounding a building, standing watch at its exits, and confronting its occupants does not, in and of itself, make a coherent statement.  Signs, interviews, chants, and the Koch brothers movie, can help with messaging (as can a press release) -but unless the message is overtly clear it becomes lost as soon as something sensational happens (such as someone falling down the stairs or being hit by a car). There is no obvious cure for this challenge, although there are several things that may help.  If protesters stood in front of the building with a giant banner describing how the Koch brothers are purchasing our democracy, I think the message would be more obvious.  If protesters were still confrontational but less aggressive (this means, standing vigil and making statements but perhaps not getting in people’s faces), I think it would lessen the chance of violent escalation and losing police/public acceptance.  Finally, the more occupiers do our own outreach, the less we need to depend on the media to spread, and inevitably distort, our messages.

Now the movement finds itself on the defensive as it holds a press conference arguing the details over who hit whom at an isolated event, instead of arguing the details over how people are taken advantage of every day throughout the nation and the world.  This is not a criticism of Occupy DC’s choice to hold this press conference, but is an illustration of how the media can very subtly but profoundly shift the conversation.

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We are the Change we can Believe in

(Note: First posted on Oct. 29th at http://october2011.org/blog)

Last night was my first night sleeping at the DC Occupation. I have been a part of the movement, offering workshops and doing outreach, but I have been slow to truly embrace what is happening.

I have always begun my activism with reluctance. Born with a lot of privilege, I am accustomed to convincing myself that the world is ok because my life seems mostly ok, and it is frightening to think of the damages caused by society’s pathology (for example, our profit driven insurance system which has ever increasing premiums that end up resulting in untreated medical conditions). My saving grace is that I try, as well as I can, to keep my eyes open to the realities of the world. I know we are in need of change. Still, when the occupation comes knocking on my door, I ask: do I really want to camp outside on cold rainy October nights when I have a roof over my head, a warm bed to sleep in, a wonderful wife, a caring family, and a dog who sits on my lap?

Eventually I realize: absolutely. Sleeping in DC, on the concrete of Freedom Plaza, is an opportunity that rarely presents itself. Many like to pretend this isn’t the case, but humanity is in crisis. The financial system has been superficially patched up but will likely collapse again, global climate change continues, and our capacity for war has not been diminished by our advances in destructive technology. It is a simple principle of survival; we need to live differently. The challenge is that change does not happen by a snap of the fingers, nor by the election of a figure we place our hope in. Change has a process. The 99% must learn liberation.

For my own learning process, I must immerse myself in this movement. So I set up my tent and sleeping bag. I talk about beautiful possibilities with newfound friends. I learn the stories which bring us together. I start this blog; and, for my first post, I am asking readers push themselves beyond their own reluctance. Attend marches and teach-ins. Provide donations of food, warm clothing, or money. Sleep overnight. Engage as much as you can. This is a rare moment in history, and the more involved we are with it, the more profound it will be.

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