Is it Violent or Nonviolent?

 

Participating in a student walk-out in support of immigrant rights on May Day...
Jesus overturning the tables in the Temple...
Taking photos at an ICE raid...
Posting "Fuck the Police" on Facebook in response to police brutality and murder against Black and Brown people...
Blocking the highway during a Black Lives Matter protest...
Hammering on or otherwise damaging a missile casing to render it un-usable...
Boycotting a company that is illegally located on occupied land...

 

Is it violent or nonviolent? Is it effective or ineffective? Would you do it? 

 

On Saturday, Rick Ufford-Chase and I had the opportunity to lead a conversation and workshop about Nonviolent Direct Action with some folks in the Hudson River Valley at the Nauraushaun Presbyterian Church. We facilitated this activity that we learned from Christian Peacemaker Teams when they led the PPF Activist Council through the same activity in Chicago. These question ask people to place themselves on a grid whose axes measure violence/nonviolence and effectiveness/ineffectiveness of each action. And, further, even if we think an action is nonviolent and effective, that doesn't necessarily that we'd be willing to do it.

 

What this activity brings to the surface is that, while we're all committed to nonviolence and peacemaking, we don't always agree on what that means or how effective actions are, even if we do all agree that an action is nonviolent (and we don't always even agree on that!). 
 
With the good folks at Nauraushaun, we explored what we believe nonviolence is without coming to any grand conclusions. Our activities and conversations were grounded in the stories from our Sacred texts--we were a group primarily of Christians, but also with one Jew and one Muslim. Together, we recounted stories of Muhammad, Moses, Jesus, Shiprah and Puah, Ruth and Naomi, Abraham, and others. We talked about the ways that these icons of our faiths exemplified nonviolent direct action through their building of alternative communities, through disrupting places of power, through standing up to authorities, through demostrating in the streets, and much more. Their stories also reminded us of stories of people we know and love and who embody nonviolence in our own lives. 
 
These reflections on people and actions who help show us what nonviolence is and can be led us to practicing how we might react with nonviolence in a few situations, like when we witness someone experiencing street harassment, or are in a conversation when someone begins to make racist comments, or what we might do if we knew that an ICE officer was trying to take someone away. We reflected on, we remembered, and we practiced nonviolence together. We did it imperfectly and sometimes inconclusively, but we did it with the understanding that living nonviolence is not a place at which we arrive--it is a constant process of trying, reflecting about what works and what doesn't, and trying again the next day. A commitment to nonviolence is just that--a commitment and a lifestyle more than a static label we claim. 
 
Each time I participate in a nonviolent direct action training, I learn something new. One important issue that the violence/nonviolence activity has helped bring to light for me is that our social locations often affect how we understand violence and how appropriate we think particular nonviolent actions are. For example, one way that whiteness and white supremacy has been established and perpetuated is through law enforcement, and, therefore, people who have more to gain from a system of white supremacy--white people--have more invested in the belief that being law-abiding is equivalent to being moral or "good." Although we know cognitively that laws are not always moral, it is harder for many white people to accept that the phrase "fuck the police" may be a nonviolent response to the violence of police brutality.

 

The creation and perpetuation of white supremacy in the United States (and in other places) has also been closely tied to the idea of owning property--whether that be land (at the founding of the US only white land-owning males could vote) or people (the concept of whiteness was in large part created in order to justify the capture and enslavement of Africans and their descendants) or material things (homes, etc) and businesses. This activity invites us to consider the question of how violent or nonviolent we understand property destruction to be. Because of the historical and current connections between the concept of property and white supremacy, many white people (even those who are committed to dismantling white supremacy) find it much harder to understand property destruction as an act of nonviolence. 

 

These examples are not to say that there is a right answer to these questions or a right response in any of these situations. One of the helpful things about this activity is that it is a continuum--so participants are asked not only "is it violent or nonviolent" but "how violent or nonviolent" is a particular action or activity? There is room for gray area and room for movement over time. 

 

When I think about my own understanding of nonviolence, I think that I might find myself in a very different part of the grid had I participated in this activity five years ago. My experiences with movements and relationships with people fighting for liberation and justice have moved me to reform my own understanding of nonviolence, and I hope that kind of growth and change continues. Five years ago, I do not think I would have called property destruction "nonviolent," yet I find myself now having shifted after being challenged by some actions of the Black Lives Matter movement in particular and reflection on Dr. King's statement that "riots are the language of the unheard." 

 

I find my faith and my understanding of myself as a Christian nonviolent activist reforming each time I participate in one of these activities, participate or help lead a conversation on nonviolent direct action, or becoming involved in a new movement for peace with justice. Like our faith, our commitment to and definition of nonviolence is not and should not be static, but it adapts in response to challenges and experiences we have. Like our faith, our understanding of nonviolence and our commitment to it is always growing and reforming.