Nonviolence can be just as powerful and militant as violence, and it works.
I admit, I laughed a little too. When I first saw videos of white nationalist Richard Spencer getting punched by a protester, I thought it was funny. And even now, I’m not exactly shedding a tear for him. I certainly pray that the attempts to find and target the person who threw the punch prove unsuccessful.
As many of us expected, the election and subsequent inauguration of Donald Trump has given rise to a new movement of white supremacy and hatred. It has empowered an ideology that never really went away, but has been lying largely dormant for decades. But resistance to those ideologies has also been on the rise.
Martin Luther King, Jr. wrote, “Like a boil that can never be cured so long as it is covered up but must be opened with all its ugliness to the natural medicines of air and light, injustice must be exposed, with all the tension its exposure creates, to the light of human conscience and the air of national opinion before it can be cured.”
So that is where we are. The racism that this country knows so well is being exposed. So much so that terms like “alt-right” have now entered our common lexicon. But so have terms like “antifa,” short for anti-fascism.
Many of these movements, however, have utilized black bloc tactics and believe in the principle of “diversity of tactics.” This includes property destruction and acts of violence. Much of this came to light recently during protests at UC Berkeley around an event featuring alt-right leader and ex-Breitbart editor Milo Yiannopoulos.
People have credited the violence that erupted at these demonstrations for its success. After all, student activists tried multiple nonviolent strategies to have the event cancelled, and it was ultimately the violence that “worked.” And let’s be clear, there was violence. Videos of Yiannopoulos fans getting pepper sprayed and attacked have surfaced.
Debates have been raging on social media since these actions. Debates have been had about whether or not we should have debates about them. Some have criticized the violence, while others have criticized those critics for demonizing other activists and playing respectability politics.
While I don’t believe it is helpful to cast out activists that we disagree with, I also think that our movements are not always skilled at evaluating the effectiveness of certain tactics. Not only are we not skilled at it, the conversation is oftentimes shut down by those who believe we should never criticize another’s tactics. And that is dangerous. There is a fine line between denouncing activists and evaluating the efficacy of certain tactics. And it feels that we are often so dogmatic in our beliefs that we are not able to have objective conversations about their effectiveness. And that hurts our movements.
I don’t believe that advocates of “diversity of tactics” really mean that they honor all tactics. I don’t think anyone would argue that we should kidnap and torture the children of white supremacists. So even those that use catch phrases like “by any means necessary” or “at all costs” agree that there’s some line that we should not cross. Saying that we support “a diversity of tactics” does not allow us to have the conversation about where that line is and what is effective vs. harmful.
Questions like “do lighting fires justify more police repression,” “does violence turn people away from movements,” or “what does violence do for accessibility” are valid and need to be explored. People may ultimately believe that they are effective tactics, but violence and property destruction brings a lot of new variables into the equation, and we need to be open enough to continue to evaluate them so that our movements can learn and grow.
Is property destruction violent?
This is one issue where people tend to be very dogmatic, so let’s start here. I think anyone who believes that property destruction is never violent or that it is violent period needs to think more critically about the issue. The recent burning of two mosques in Texas were acts of violence. The Ploughshares movement, in which activists sneak into military bases to dismantle weapons, is an act of nonviolence. Property destruction can be incredibly violent, or it can be an act of nonviolence. Context matters.
Writer Rebecca Solnit wrote that, “the firefighter breaks the door to get the people out of the building. But the husband breaks the dishes to demonstrate to his wife that he can and may also break her. It’s violence displaced onto the inanimate as a threat to the animate.” During Occupy Oakland, I witnessed a mob of people using black bloc tactics rush a corporate business in the middle of the day and start spray-painting and banging on their windows. I remember seeing a young child inside the business with her mom. I don’t care about the window, but I do care about the impact on that girl. I don’t think breaking a window itself is an act of violence. But I wouldn’t be surprised if that act also traumatized that little girl—and that is violent.
However, regardless of your stance on property destruction, the basic fact remains that the majority of Americans seems to view it as violent. We spend too much time arguing about what we feel, and ignore what the public feels. And if we are not including that into our calculations, we are making a huge mistake. Generally speaking, I believe we spend too much time debating about whether or not something is violent. There is a more important question that we need to be grappling with: Are violence and property destruction effective?
In order to answer that question, we need clarity on what the goals are. If the goal was simply to cancel one appearance by Yiannopoulos, then by definition it was successful.
But that to me is an incredibly shortsighted goal at the expense of long-term consequences. The goal should not be to cancel one event. It should be to ensure that people like Yiannopoulos don’t have a platform, and to transform the culture that brought us people like him, Trump and other members or supporters of the alt-right. And if those are our goals, were the actions at UC Berkeley ultimately successful?
Giving him a platform.
The problem with violence is that it has a tendency to backfire. Yes, the event was cancelled. But the attention that the protests received gave Yiannopoulos a bigger platform than he has ever had. Pre-sales of his (now-cancelled) book increased by over 1,200 percent overnight and made it the No. 1 bestseller on Amazon. His name showed up all over media. He was trending on Twitter, despite him personally being banned on the social network. The number of followers on his Facebook page skyrocketed.
The protest made him the victim. It swung popular support towards a man whose message of hatred should disqualify him from any sympathy. This dynamic can swing both ways. When the Senate censored Sen. Elizabeth Warren for reading Coretta Scott King’s letter during a debate about Jeff Sessions, it gave Warren a huge platform and Mrs. King’s letter ended up being read by more people than ever.
Regardless of your personal beliefs about a certain tactic, you have to consider the short, medium and long-term impact it will have on your target.
Criminalizing protests and public support.
Another potential negative impact is how it may play into the hands of the Trump administration’s attempts to criminalize dissent. Republican lawmakers in 10 states have already introduced legislation that could increase the penalties associated with protests.
It is true that many of these bills were introduced before these protests, and that Trump and others will try to criminalize dissent anyway. But it’s also hard to argue that actions like this don’t give them more ammunition to push that agenda forward. Not only will it make them feel more justified, it will also empower them by giving them more public support.
We have seen time and time again that the public is willing to sacrifice civil liberties if they are afraid. And again, regardless of your personal feelings about these tactics, the vast majority of Americans view them as senseless at best and criminal at worst. Most people will not be able to separate those who engage in these tactics with those committed to nonviolence, and the entire movement will lose popular support — with much of that support shifting toward efforts to criminalize the movement.
We cannot make change without the support of the majority. If the public views protesters as “trouble-makers” and sides with the state’s efforts to “maintain order,” our movements will be at a severe disadvantage. We live in an ecosystem of relationships. When you engage in acts of violence (real or imagined), you are not alone. The whole world is watching, and you are communicating a message with your actions.
Whether you agree with the way the media reports these actions is also irrelevant. We know how it is going to be spun, regardless of your beliefs. Again, what you feel about these tactics is not the question. The question is what impact these tactics are having on the public conscience. And when we engage in violence, we are losing the public.
The left engaging in violence continues to legitimize violence from all sides. It says to the world that using pain, fear and intimidation to force our will is a justified tactic if we view ourselves as being on the “right” side of an issue. Not only might this empower the state to use more repressive tactics, but it may also give the right justification to use violence against the left. What is the message we are sending to activists on the far right when those of us on the left celebrate, joke about and mock Richard Spencer getting punched during an interview? When memes of him getting assaulted go viral all over the Internet?
When the right sets up websites to try to identify those involved in the violence, are we in a place of moral authority to denounce this kind of violence? These websites and other attempts by the right to identify these people and target them for violence is scary and should be banned. But do we put ourselves in a place where we can make that argument when we were celebrating violence against activists on the right?
Do we only get outraged when people we agree with are victims of violence, yet celebrate violence against those we disagree with? Do elementary arguments like “they started it first” or subjective arguments like “they deserve it more” connect with people who don’t already agree with you? What dangers are we putting our people, our communities, our allies in by using violence against others and celebrating it?
We will not win unless we can build a movement that is diverse and inclusive of marginalized communities. When we introduce violence into the equation, it limits who can participate and take leadership. And when the police respond with more repression, it is marginalized communities who suffer the most.
When we use violence, what does it do to access for undocumented communities? People with criminal records or disabilities? Elders? Caretakers who need to get home? People who may be more vulnerable if they are arrested, such as people of color or transgendered people? When we introduce violence into the equation, is the leadership of women generally lifted up or undermined? Does it increase toxic masculine energy that can be harmful not only to movements but to all relationships?
I remember talking to a young formerly incarcerated Latino man, who used to spend time at an Occupy camp after one particular march that turned violent. “Man, these marches, that’s for white people,” he told me. And while that analysis may be too simplistic, the implicit message he had received was understood—that his safety, as a young man on probation with young kids at home, was not a priority or a consideration. He simply did not feel safe at these events if people were using tactics that would likely bring about an aggressive police response. As a life-long Oaklander, Occupy Oakland was no longer a place he felt welcomed.
In my work in the prison system, I have found that it is impossible to engage in violence in one area of your life and not have it impact your relationships in other areas. The more time you spend dehumanizing someone or hurting another human being, the more you internalize violence and the more it plays out in other areas of your life.
As I wrote before, it is violence that gave rise to Trump and Yiannopoulos, and it is violence that is our enemy. This is the case both for incarcerated people who grew up surrounded by violence as well as those who work in institutions that rely on violence. Prison guards, police officers and military personnel have some of the highest rates of alcoholism, depression, suicides, domestic violence and other forms of violence in any profession. It has also been the case for violent revolutions, which have a higher tendency to fall back into dictatorship or civil war than nonviolent revolutions.
What nonviolence is not saying.
There are so many misconceptions about nonviolence that I think it’s important to address some of them. Personally, I am not saying that Yiannopoulos should have been allowed to speak. His rhetoric is violent and hateful, and his words could bring violence to marginalized communities. I am also not saying that we can ask nicely of fascists and white supremacists to change their ways. Like many antifa activists, I believe we need a militant movement, and that we need to escalate our tactics to match the escalation of hate. I also agree with Martin Luther King, Jr. who called for a nonviolent army that is as “dislocative and disruptive as a riot.”
I believe we can build such a movement. One that is grounded in nonviolence, but is just as powerful and militant as violence. That, however, requires work, strategy and training. Violence is easier, faster and more natural to us. Its dynamics are simpler to understand. “I make you suffer until you give in.” But now is not the time to get seduced by the short-term. We need to continue to train and grow, to have the humility to be self-critical, and to objectively evaluate our tactics and strategies. We need to continue to build a movement to transform violence.