For anyone concerned about the future of history, I had a great conversation a few months ago with an older activist about the importance of constructing and articulating vision for social movements.
She said to me, â€œWell, whatâ€™s the greatest problem facing your generation, and what are you going to do about it?â€ A reasonable enough question to ask a young activist concerned with improving the world.
I went through the list of problems; the destruction of the environment, AIDS, economic inequality, media reform, education, nuclear proliferation, racism, sexism, homophobia, etc. How am I supposed to pick the one that is the most pressing?
And who am I to know the solution?
She noticed my hesitation and simply said, â€œYouâ€™re not alone. Just start somewhere.â€ It took me a while to understand what she meant, but I think she was telling me that vision is a process.
You donâ€™t need to be a saint to offer a strategy for social change, nor do you need to create a perfect blueprint for the future.
Just start somewhere. So here goes: I believe that creating radical social change is the greatest problem facing my generation and I think nonviolence is a practical and revolutionary means for achieving it. The principle of nonviolence is applied in two primary ways: as an active spiritual life that begins with the premise â€œI will not hurt another beingâ€ and as a tactic used for social or political change. Some argue (myself included) that one aspect of nonviolence cannot be applied as effectively without the other. However, as it relates to creating vision for social change, I want to focus on nonviolence as a tactic.
The principal misconception about nonviolence as a tactic is that it is passive. The word â€œpacifismâ€ does not derive from the word â€œpassiveâ€. There is absolutely nothing inherently passive, weak, or cowardly about nonviolence.
In the late 1920â€™s and early 1930â€™s when Badshah Khan, the â€œGandhi of Pakistanâ€, organized 80,000 people into a nonviolent army that helped resist and ultimately kick out the British colonialists, their civil disobedience and non-cooperation campaigns for independence were specifically active and rebellious.
Likewise, the civil disobedience campaigns of the 1950â€™s and 1960â€™s civil rights movement in the US and the 1980â€™s â€œVelvet Revolutionâ€ in Czechoslovakia consisted of fierce opposition and resistance to oppressive institutions.
Historically, all over the world, experiments with nonviolent resistance have proved to be successful, practical, and revolutionary.
Though nonviolence has a rich tradition of experimentation and application, itâ€™s still in its infancy as a social force, like the automobile was for Henry Ford or the Internet is today.
We donâ€™t know the full capabilities of nonviolent resistance because it hasnâ€™t had much credence or commitment. War, however, has been used for centuries by nations because of its simple and predictable logic: We can and will overpower you with physical force and therefore you must submit to our strength.
People rarely win wars. Nations and, more recently corporations, usually win wars.
The US overthrew the democratically elected president of Guatemala, Jacobo Arbenz, in 1954 because he dared to enact land reform in his poor and mostly rural country against the wishes of the US government and corporate giant United Fruit Company.
War gave the Guatemalan people an oppressive government against their will and helped United Fruit Company (Chiquita) sell bananas in every major supermarket today. Claiming victory for humans in a war is like claiming human victory in the Indian Ocean tsunami of December 2004.
War is, literally and metaphorically, rape. Currently, the US is raping the infrastructure and resources of Iraq.
In addition, individuals in Iraq, as in Guatemala, El Salvador, Vietnam, Kosovo, and many other countries before them, are being raped as consequences of war. The long-term effects of such violence are hard to measure.
Steve Handen is a former priest, long time war tax resister, and mentor of mine. He lives in a house with a dozen or so mentally ill homeless men in Colorado Springs, Colorado. As we peel potatoes one day (Steve cooks every night for the men in the house), in the other room a homeless Vietnam veteran is screaming nonsense, out of his mind, making us wonder when war really ends.
Activists for social and political change are often some of the first to recognize and point out the brutality of war and its effect on people. This disgust for violence usually leads to analysis on the nature of power and resistance.
For example, once confronted with the reality of the situation for people in Palestine, Chiapas, Mexico, the Narmada River Valley in India, the landless workers in Brazil, migrant tomato farm workers in Florida, many people of color in US cities, political prisoners, or any other marginalized people, activists can critique and oppose the oppressive powerâ€™s violence while supporting the right of people (including ourselves) to resist.
The question as it relates to nonviolence becomes: Though we abhor violence, how can we tell people being ravaged by it to resist nonviolently? I am not going to tell someone who is being raped that they shouldnâ€™t do whatever they need to in order to stop the violence being committed against them. Likewise for a community, culture, or country being violently oppressed.
In a contest between violent resistance vs. cowardice or passivity, violence should win. Humiliation must never play a part in nonviolence.
A person being raped or the Iraqi people today will naturally resist. An individual, community, or nation in the midst of violent oppression has one primary focus: stopping the pain.
However, they rarely specifically desire violent support or have any firm commitment to violent self-defense. Therefore, the work for those of us not faced with the question of immediate self-defense is to support peopleâ€™s resistance by bearing witness to their plight and doing whatever we can to change the situation.
Nonviolent support for threatened people can happen in as many ways as our minds can envision.
At its best, nonviolence is another way of saying creative resistance.
A few blocks from my house in Denver, a man named Kerry Appel runs the Human Bean Company, a coffee and honey distributor.
He made a series of films about the Zapatista uprising in 1994 and after making contacts with the Commandantes, and at their suggestion, began selling their coffee beans in the US as a means to support an alternative system of commerce, spread awareness of their struggle, and financially assist their movement. Kerry now sells Zapatista coffee and honey nationwide and will this year bring 35 tons of beans into the US. The Zapatistasâ€™ resistance to neoliberalism and corporate globalization has lasted (almost entirely nonviolently) for twelve years and the work of the Human Bean Company exemplifies practical, creative, and successful nonviolent support for another groupâ€™s resistance.
The Bijou community of Colorado Springs, Colorado is a living example of nonviolent community resistance in the â€œbelly of the beastâ€ of right-wing military and Christian extremism.
The members of this community live below a taxable income level so that they donâ€™t pay for war.
In addition to ongoing bannering and civil disobedience at some of the 5 major military institutions in the area, the Bijou community runs services for the mentally-ill, homeless, working poor, incarcerated, and the general community including: a soup kitchen, food banks, a land trust, several homes for transitional and homeless folks, a free bicycle clinic, and a musical theater group.
Their committed nonviolent lifestyles may not work everywhere for every situation, but their approach towards helping support marginalized communities is instructive nonetheless. We cannot be sure how weâ€™ll act in any situation. When circumstances arise that weâ€™re not prepared for, we must rely on our instincts and any prior training to guide our actions. I donâ€™t know what Iâ€™d do if someone attempted to rape me or my wife or my mother. I do know that I have been brought up in a culture of fear and violence that has in many ways trained me to react violently or passively to fear.
In the same way that I can attempt to fight internalized racism, sexism, and homophobia by re-education and application, I can also try to â€œretrainâ€ my body and mind to react nonviolently in situations of threatening fear.
Perhaps this retraining process will allow people to envision other ways of responding to a knife wielding mugger demanding money than the traditional â€œhere you goâ€ or â€œfuck offâ€.
The natural extension of personal transformation is for activists to fight for establishing nonviolent institutions in place of violent ones (The FY 2005 â€œcurrent militaryâ€ spending in the US is $586 billion. A â€œPeaceâ€ budget doesnâ€™t exist). Nonviolence as a tactic is smart and pragmatic in an age of imperialism because it has the greatest potential for success.
Violent resistance attacks an imperial powerâ€™s strength. The US military machine has a space warfare and spying network, as well as a conventional and nuclear weapons arsenal that is unmatched on the planet and could destroy the human race a few times over.
Hoping or working for a violent overthrow of the worldâ€™s latest empire may more appropriately be called preparing for worldwide suicide. Children who get into trouble and are about to have their toys taken away usually like to play with them one last time. Iâ€™m not convinced the US would go down in a violent revolution without trying out a few of its â€œtoysâ€.
We, as what the New York Times called â€œthe second superpowerâ€ in reference to world public opinion (after the huge protests before the Iraq invasion), must find nonviolent methods of combating US imperialism. When Germany invaded Denmark on April 9th, 1940 they unexpectedly triggered the most effective campaign of rescuing Jews in all of Europe.
Denmark saved approximately 7,220 of their 8,000 Jews from the Nazis by staging a comprehensive resistance consisting of non-cooperation, strikes, rescue ships, â€œgo slowsâ€ in factories, political art, and 538 underground papers. Though the King of Denmark didnâ€™t mount a resistance with his army, he and the rest of the citizens openly and defiantly resisted everything the Nazis decreed and were the only country in Europe to save most of its Jewish population. The Danish people, along with the Norwegians, the town of Le Chambon, France, and the Christian wives of Jewish men in Rosenstrasse prison in Berlin, are four of the most well known examples that nonviolence, where it was tried against Hitler, was successful. Empires donâ€™t have allies, only clients. Spineless or corrupt leaders of client states that go along with imperial plans effectively give up most of their independent power and act against the wishes of the majority of their population.
The leaders of England, Italy, and Spain supported the US led war in Iraq in 2003 in stark contrast to the desires of their populations (polls in all three countries ranged at different times from 60-95% against the war). Spainâ€™s Prime Minister Aznar has already been replaced and Spainâ€™s troops left Iraq. As the war rages on, the leaders of England and Italy may also have to answer for their contempt for democracy and capitulation to US imperialism. The ultimate goal of an empireâ€™s military or police force is peopleâ€™s submission to their authority.
In defense of their power, these forces prepare for violent resistance. City and state municipalities in the US have set up police forces that are trained to deal with the now routine protests in city streets.
Many of these rallies have become stale, uninspired, and completely disconnected from ongoing work and organization building.
Violent protest is certainly not the remedy because police forces are prepared for violence and activists canâ€™t count on the media to report sympathetically. What we need is creative, nonviolent resistance that will grab peopleâ€™s attention and not allow the state to frame the debate. In downtown Denver in 1978, disabled people in wheelchairs surrounded two city busses for an entire day and night, laying down in the street blocking traffic and sleeping in shifts to bring attention to the fact that there were no lifts on municipal buses.
This action spawned other protests around the country and eventually led to the passing of the Americans with Disabilities Act in 1990. Though this piece of legislation by no means ended discrimination of the disabled, it was significant nonetheless.
The activistsâ€™ nonviolent direct action was creative enough to make able-bodied citizens feel shame and embarrassment for allowing such discrimination to occur and confused the authorities enough so that they didnâ€™t know how to respond.
One can envision a violent version of their campaign being written off as the work of â€œbitter cripplesâ€ and also being quickly and forcibly halted by the police. A useful vision, like a theory, must stem from experience and practice. It cannot be plucked from the air and then applied.
So, in order for us to construct a workable vision for the future, we need a variety of voices and experiences. Perhaps my vision of nonviolence as a practical and powerful strategy for change isnâ€™t completely sufficient or applicable for all contemporary movements, however Iâ€™ll be damned if Iâ€™m going to sit back and let a cynical culture slowly suffocate my creativity and smash my hopes that change is possible.
Evan Weissman is a member of Buntport Theater, a collaborative theater company in Denver, Colorado USA. He helps teach a nonviolence class at Colorado College and was a delegate to the World Social Forum in 2002 and has been active in the Global Justice movement. He is on the American Friends Service Committee's Speakers Bureau where he talks on nonviolence and Globalization and was a Jane Addams-Andrew Carnegie Graduate Fellow at Indiana University in 2001, focusing on radical philanthropy.