Category Archives: Violence

Gun violence ain’t about the crazies. And crazy is a horrible word.

Last week the vice president of the NRA, Wayne Lapierre, gave a speech designed to elicit a state of perpetual militaristic panic against violent people with mental illness.  He stated; “our society is populated by an unknown number of genuine monsters–people so deranged, so evil, so possessed by voices and driven by demons that no sane person can possibly ever comprehend them.”  Lapierre finds the source of gun violence in these “monsters,” and proposes we protect our children through a national database that keeps track of the mentally ill.  I believe this is a terrible idea.

“Mental illness” is not a well defined concept.  Looking in retrospect at someone who goes on a shooting spree, it is easy to say they are ill in the mind.  But can we really predict the potential violence of a person, and is “mental illness”–a very broad and nebulous term, really the predictor we want to use?  Does it make me appreciably more likely to kill people if I talk to myself, lay in bed for months with depression, struggle to empathize, experience unexplainable amounts of anxiety, or other fairly common behaviors we like to link to “mental illness?”  Could mental illness actually at times be a source of strength, like having communication challenges that come from focusing on things others do not or having depression that comes from increased sensitivity to the struggles of the world?

“Mentally ill” is a label we use to marginalize people, and I know this because I have spent a lot of time worrying about my own sanity.  As a wee boy I learned, as all children do, the language and logic of my parents.  This language and logic outlined a spectrum of thought and behavior that was considered “crazy” which was contrasted with a spectrum of thought and behavior that was considered “normal.”

crazy normal spectrum

The man who went to work everyday to provide for his children was “normal.”  The man who waded into water carrying a baby over his head and declaring himself to be Jesus was “crazy” (this was a news story I vaguely remember from childhood).  All good boys and girls were supposed to be “normal.”  Those who were within the spectrum of “crazy” were dangerous, unpredictable, liable to make bad romances, wallow in endless sorrow, and go on violent rampages.  To me, the actual behavioral confines of “normal” seemed to involve wearing middle class clothing, enjoying sports (for boys) and makeup (for girls), rooting for the home team, not feeling a great need to question authority or critique society, and tending to be uncomfortable with displays of emotion (which were often associated with “imbalance”).  But I had a problem because, although I did not know if I was “crazy,” I also was not “normal.”

I was a bizarrely spiritual boy.  I meditated.  I had mystical experiences (a sense of oneness with the universe).  I did this before I knew what meditation and mystical experiences were.  I came to think of myself as “talking to god,” and I heard quotes like this from Thomas Szasz; “if you talk to god, you are praying; if god talks to you, you have schizophrenia.”  But the thing was…  in my mind, this talking to god was a two way street.  While I was engaged in mystical experience, I had many moments of clarity where I felt the wisdom of an all-connected higher mind come to me.  I also had a vision when I was three where I saw an illusionary inferno that was premonitionary of a house fire that happened moments later.  Now, in truth I don’t know the significance of these experiences and, increasingly over time, I don’t care.  I have met many people who I know find my story very bizarre, even inconceivable.  Others relate to my story.  Others try to use my story, against my permission, to validate their own religious perspective.  But the point here is that I grew up feeling like a damn weird kid.

I was terrified of being crazy.  It haunted my dreams.  I saw the word “crazy” wielded like a club that bludgeoned all the people the bludgeoner thought deserved to be dismissed.  Here are some examples of what this looks like:

  • “Don’t listen to John, he’s just crazy,”
  • “if you say you take that position, people will think you are crazy,”
  • “[insert political or religious group you don’t like] are just a bunch of crazies”

This deep-seated fear of insanity gained deeper perspective for me when I went to a very small college with a very politically radical population, Antioch.  Prior to Antioch I learned that Anarchists, Communists, and other radicals belonged in that “crazy” range of thinking.  Although in retrospect I think I had a lot of leftist inclinations, I was politically what I now call a “militant moderate”–to me the middle ground was always best.  I think I felt that way, in large part, because few people accuse moderates of being crazy, and I was so scared of being diminished for who I was in my head.  Because of this fear I tried to embrace “normality” and, at Antioch, I thought of people as crazy because I was internalizing my own oppression.

It took me a long time to learn this but I have figured out that actually, like the Anarchists and Communists I once marginalized, I was a radical too.  Now, when I embrace my radical identity, I feel the spiritual liberation of simply being present with who I have always been.  It is healing.  And yet I also know that, by calling myself a radical, I open myself up to the same marginalization I have always feared–the marginalization bound within the words “crazy” and “normal.”

I realize I am somewhat conflating mental illness with abnormality but this is because they are conflated.  As I said earlier, mental illness is an ill-defined term.  Should you study psychiatric diagnoses you will find that “mental illness” actually is defined  and diagnosed by abnormal behavior.  In fact, the DSM (manual for diagnosing mental illness) keeps getting updated as society renegotiates what we consider normal and abnormal.  Homosexuality, for example, used to be called a mental illness (and just spend a moment contemplating what this fact would signify for a mental illness database).  And the thing is, there are many abnormal people in the world.  I suspect there are far more people who exhibit abnormal behavior than those who do not.  This points out that abnormality is not really about how often a behavior occurs but how shunned a behavior is in mainstream society.  Many shunned behaviors are problematic (going on a killing spree, at least within one’s country, is one of them).  Many shunned behaviors might actually be beneficial (like having an unusual ability to empathize or think critically).  But, of all the people we might decide to label as mentally ill or abnormal, only a very small minority actually commit physical violence.

We do not live in the nightmarish world outlined by Wayne Lapierre.  If we did, mass shootings and attempted mass shootings would be much more common.  But thinking that our safety is constantly besieged by mad individuals causes real problems.  When mental struggles and abnormal behavior are seen as excuses for marginalization people are actually disincentivized to seek and find help, which makes them more likely to act on destructive impulses.  Further disenfranchisement by stamping crazy on peoples’ permanent records is an ill-informed attempt to make the world better which will actually make it worse.

So you may wonder, what do I propose to prevent violent people from acquiring weapons.  Dismantle the military industrial complex!  While we’re at it we can also dismantle the small-arms industrial complex (which involves the NRA).  These groups benefit from guns, the use of guns, and from the mindset that guns represent legitimate ways to solve problems.  In general I think we need a more serious analysis of violence in society, but unfortunately massive amounts of propaganda make it hard for us to really look at ourselves.  Still, it is immoral to avoid difficult tasks just because they are difficult when peoples’ lives are on the line.  And, in the spirit of seriously examining violence in our society, I ask you to ponder the following:

We are upset by the mass shootings committed by a “crazy” person in Connecticut.  It is tragic, horrible, angering, and saddening.  Most disgustingly, it is only a ripple in the overall waves of violence that are produced by frightened people with destructive technology.  Consider how many children have been killed by “normal” people in Iraq, Afghanistan, Libya, and Pakistan?  Cruise missiles and drone strikes do not have an avoid children switch.  Could it be that there are people with power who have an interest in dismissing and destroying human life?  Could it be that this is what is done in any war, every mass shooting, and even in the label of “crazy” itself?  And, if you want to further explore the expendability of human life by people with power I suggest viewing the video on this page.  I will warn, it is extremely violent, disturbing, and potentially triggering.

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We Need to Acknowledge the Reality of Violence: My Account of the Eviction of Occupy DC

So I know the semi-eviction of Occupy DC happened many months ago, but I want to give my account of it and explore some of the lessons I learned.

On February 4th in McPherson Square, at Occupy DC, it was a day filled with brutality.  There had been a lot of talk that the eviction was coming after a congressional hearing decided that people could keep a constant vigil in the park but could not sleep over.  Police told occupiers that tents could stay, as could objects like chairs and tables, but the sleepers could be arrested, and sleeping bags could be confiscated.  Police asked us to leave our tents open and told us that, if we complied, our things would remain in the park.

Occupy DC protesters in front of the Tent of Dreams

On January 30th, the pre-eviction happened.  The cops said they would come.  Occupiers, in response, threw a giant tarp over the statue of General McPherson which stands in the center of the square.  We named the tarp “the tent of dreams.”  We carried signs talking about our dreams, and spoke about why we occupy -the beauty of the camp, the community we created, the troubles of the world, the necessity to resist.  We talked about struggles with debt, foreclosures, homelessness, health care, with being used and abused in the military.  We talked about the world we wished to see -a world which serves people above profits, a world which stands up against exploitation, a world of fairness and justice.  The police left.  Protesters basked in victory.

A few days later I got a text message describing the scene unfolding downtown as a “full eviction.”  I came to McPherson Square and saw the damage.  Hundreds of cops surrounded the square.  Horses watched on at the periphery.  The park was sliced up by barricades.  The tent of dreams had been taken down.  The southeastern section of the park was filled with officers in hazmat suits, systematically tossing almost every bit of occupy property into a dump truck.  The majority of these tents had been left open, which the police had promised would allow us to keep them.

The eviction

Around the camp people walked in shock, trying to clear out their belongings before the cops threw them away.  There was a sense of betrayal, of violation.  I know I felt the desire to fight back but, with more cops than protesters, this felt like a losing battle.

Soon the cops entered another section of the camp.  They went through more tents with their hazmat suits and threw more things away.  At this point protesters started gathering into the last section of the park, our main street, where the information tent, the kitchen, the university, and the medic station sat.  A call went out to protect the library, a center for conversation and a symbol of the camp.  Here we would stand our ground.

We waited on that front with slow boiling tension.  We spoke again about why we occupy.  We chanted in solidarity.  “Whose park?”  “Our park!”  “Whose first amendment rights?”  “Our first amendment rights!”  We read passages about how we appreciated the library.  At one point I led the group in a very awkward mic checked version of the song “Hold on” (otherwise known as “Keep your Eyes on the Prize).  All along, a line of very stoic officers stared at us.

As this was going on, the library committee was negotiating with the cops to keep the library from being thrown away.  The cops said they would inspect it.  The library said they needed to have librarians present while police inspected.  We all felt we couldn’t trust the cops.  Some were very vocal about this, saying the library should make no agreements.

In the end two librarians would stay in the tent while the police inspected it, and everyone else who was supporting the library would be asked to move away.  I noticed one officer say something else during these negotiations, almost as an afterthought.  The library was going to be inspected at the same time that the police would open and search the final section of the park -the section everyone was standing in.

Police attack

As police moved in, they started yelling “move back!”  Librarians also pleaded for protesters to comply.  Some were adamant “we should not move, the cops have been lying to us all day.”  I was moving back in support of the libraries request, while also being concerned about what was soon to happen.  Stepping back from the heart of confrontation I saw the police moving to surround us.  They were coming behind the tents, flanking us.  I told some people what I saw happening.  Then I heard screaming.

I moved around the camp, scouting out what was going on and trying to see how I could be most helpful.  At one place where a barricade was just being raised I saw a protester yelling into a cop’s face.  I thought either the protester or the cop might be ready to strike out and was worried of what might happen.  I stepped in between them.  The cop didn’t seem to see any difference between me and my compatriot however and, as soon as the barricade rose, he stabbed me with his billy club, knocking me to the ground.  I picked myself up.  He pushed forward again, knocking me down once more.  I saw him ready to charge yet again while I lay.  He yelled “get up and walk away!”

Despite the tension, I found this somewhat comical.  I raised my hand, indicating I meant no harm, then said “I will walk away, if you let me get up.”

He repeated “get up and walk away.”  In his eyes I saw fear.

The big push

Around me others were pushed.  Usually this was at a manageable pace but occasionally the cops charged into the crowd, rushing people, knocking them down, trampling them.  It was horrifying to see people I cared for, people I stood in solidarity with, being hurt.  At one point I saw a cop jump out of the line, swinging his riot shield like a weapon.  He hit the person next to me, then swung his shield into my face.  My nose and teeth stung.  I lost it.  Glaring deep into his eyes I yelled “police brutality!”  For a moment he looked like he was ready for more, and so was I.  But my allies calmed me down while his marched past him.

There were a few more instances of screams.  I told the police what I had witnessed from their colleagues.  I said “you know, if you just stop charging us, no one would get hurt.”

One cop responded “if you would just turn around and walk away…”

The person next to me said “turn around while you’re charging into us?”  Then I felt a horse nuzzle into my hair.

Soon we were pushed into the street.  The police closed off the park.  We stood at the perimeter and yelled our anger and our passion.  I continued walking around the park talking to stoic officers about what their fellows had done, asking the question “who do you protect and who do you serve, because it sure as hell isn’t us.”

My friend started rattling the barricade and yelling “We’re not afraid of you!”

Then we had a general assembly in the middle of k street.  At this point I had to leave.  That evening I had agreed to take tickets at my wife’s chorus concert.  The eviction had ended, I was not in jail, and I didn’t want to let her down -though it was such a bizarre clash of environments to go from overt police violence to choral music.  After coming down from the adrenaline I found myself distracted from the music.  A deep disturbance clung to my brain.  I realized, holy shit, I’m traumatized… and I know everyone else is too.

The next day I came back to the park and saw people walking on crutches.  The police had broken their bones.  One friend described his experience of being slammed on his head, knocked unconscious, and hospitalized.  His body would never be the same.  My nose hurt for a couple of weeks from the cop who swung his shield in my face.  I found myself thinking I wish I got his badge number, but in the middle of the chaos it was hard to keep track.  Fortunately my nose got better.

I told people about what happened, and my experience in retelling these events was probably the most disheartening aspect of the whole process.  I talked about watching my friends trampled, having bones broken, and cops who behaved brutally.  People stared somewhat blankly, not acknowledging the factual basis of what I said, and quickly wanting to change the conversation.  But I needed them to understand.  I needed them to understand how many people have faced this violence, from police brutality in working class communities, to nations invaded overseas, to the proxy dictatorships that promote the interests of elites.  And I needed people to recognize that this violence was also a part of them.

When I eat a hamburger, I am part of the process which kills the cow.  When I buy from companies who use sweatshops, I am part of the process which puts workers into oppressive conditions.  When I do not intervene in the silencing of people who are advocating for their democratic rights, I am part of the processwhich undermines my own rights as well.  And I suppose the lesson I want to come from this experience is that standing in solidarity with the 99% means acknowledging the violence, exploitation, and marginalization that has been practiced upon our diverse communities.  I ask readers, do not dismiss the suffering of one group of people just because it clashes with your experience or view of the world.  One way to create a more humane existence is by granting yourself the moral courage to see the realities which contradict our desires for how reality should be.  And thank you for reading my story.

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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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