The Asymmetry of Nonviolence

“This guy, he just wouldn’t leave my apartment.  I invited him in, but then he wanted to stay.  I told him to leave, and he said he wouldn’t.  I told him I would call the police, and he said ‘go ahead, I still won’t leave.’  Who does that?  Then he started to touch me.  So I beat the shit out of him.  I just beat the shit out of him.  Then I called the police.  Then he left.  I called the police back and told them the situation had taken care of itself.  Seriously, who does that?  Who would risk getting beat up and arrested instead of just leaving when you ask them to?”

“Lots of people experience something like this when they move from the shelter into an apartment.  Other people in the shelter or on the street see an opportunity to get housing for themselves, and they try to move in with you.  The laws in Connecticut are a little weird: it is very easy to establish residency and force a legal eviction, which can take months.  But it sounds like you were able to take care of yourself, and that’s very encouraging.”

“What do you mean?  That I beat the shit out of him?  I’m not proud of that.  He should have just left when I asked him to.”

“That’s true, he should have.  But he didn’t, and I’m glad you were able to do what you had to in order to stay safe.”

“I didn’t feel safe.  I don’t like when I’m out of control like that.  I don’t like who I am when I do that sort of thing.”

“I get that.  You know, it’s normal when someone feels very threatened for them to respond in the way you did.  I work with lots of people who get violent over much less!  I get why you feel the way you do about getting violent, but you were in a dangerous situation and I – for one – am glad you are safe now.”

“I just don’t like who I am in that moment.  I don’t like knowing I am capable of that.”

“Well let’s think about how you can avoid putting yourself in that position in future so you don’t have to draw on your formidable shit-kicking skills.”

*Laughter* “Like, maybe I shouldn’t invite people over to my apartment?”

*Laughing* “Yea, maybe certain people.  How did you meet this guy anyway?”

This is how my commitment to nonviolence takes form in my current work.  I have no interest in lecturing this person about turning the other cheek, or imagining some kind of nonviolent resolution to the immediate situation described above.  But I am most definitely interested in talking through someone’s feelings about getting violent, acknowledging the real cost and pain borne by the person who was forced to defend self, and identifying strategies and measures to avoid having to get violent in the future.  The conversation I recount above went on into matters of policy and structural violence: the tenant’s fear that this threatening man would wind up staying out on the streets in the cold, and my reassurance that my agency mounts a massive effort to bring everyone inside somewhere, even the people deemed too dangerous to stay in the shelter during warmer months.

This is the epistemological work of nonviolence (that is, its impact on how we know what we know): to point beyond moments of violent crisis to the broader conditions that occasioned the crisis.  The seductive logic of violence always insists on restricting inquiry to the moment.  Its hypotheticals are crazed gunmen, ticking time bombs, genocidal villains with guns trained on orphans.  Nonviolence directs our attention beyond these moments to bigger questions about inadequate mental health services, to the global inequities and alienations to which bombs refer, to the political systems that raise genocidal villains and produce orphans.

I say this now because Baltimore has brought violence and nonviolence powerfully into public discourse.  Lots of voices normally unconcerned with the actual, lived traditions of nonviolent direct action are suddenly reminded how much they appreciate it when aggrieved populations restrict their methods to “peaceful protest.”  It’s just so much easier for us onlookers.  And as a devotee of nonviolence (who, like most in that category, is forever frustrated by the terminological inadequacy of a life-philosophy defined in opposition), I want to go on record that the nonviolence mobilized to scold militants in Baltimore is not a nonviolence I recognize.  It is unfamiliar to the bodies of writing and action that make up nonviolence as a lived philosophy and strategic practice.  The nonviolence of Gandhi, Dorothy Day, the Plowshares Movement, the American Sanctuary Movement and so many others is disruptive, boundary-crossing, disobedient, front-lines nonviolence.  It cares more about human bodies than property, and it prefers virtuous courage to complacency (for some, even courage with a gun to cowardice without).  Edouard Theis, a pacifist minister from Le Chambon – the French village that smuggled thousands to safety during World War II – was asked whether Russia could have used nonviolence to resist the Germans.  He said,

“No, they had to use violence then.  It was too late for nonviolence…(which) involves preparation and organization, methods patiently and unswervingly employed – the Russians knew nothing of all this.  Nonviolence must have deep roots and strong branches before it can bear the fruit it bore in Le Chambon.  Nonviolence for them would have been suicide; it was too late.” – quoted in Lest Innocent Blood be Shed, by Philip Hallie

Thinking again of the conversation I had with the shit-kicker, I would add that nonviolence is necessarily addressed to the powerful.  It may be embraced by marginalized, dispossessed people and their allies (by some as a tactic, others as a broader philosophy) but when the powerful and the privileged prescribe nonviolence for the marginal and the dispossessed, a performative contradiction obtains.  To demand nonviolence from a victim of violence is to defend violence.  If you find yourself doing this, you need to turn around and address the right audience.  That Dr. King mobilized non-violence to powerful effect – and, let’s remember, at enormous cost to every civil rights advocate who received blows without striking back – gives none of us the right to extract that consideration from populations who are daily targeted by brutality, neglect, and casual lack of consideration.  Whether violence “is justified” is beside the point.  Justice does not characterize anything about the situation the actors in question are facing.  I am glad for whatever skills they have to advocate for themselves and make absolutely clear the intolerable nature of policing in their city, their intolerable abandonment by a nation that recognizes few if any public responsibilities.

The toolbox in Baltimore does include many nonviolent strategies, of course, and we must not lose sight of that in the rush to characterize uprising as thuggery.  And yes, nonviolence undertaken by the dispossessed has incredible power to shame the wider public (though this assumes the wider public has a sense of shame, which is debatable at the very least in the U.S.).  But nonviolence preached by an onlooker – or worse, by a victimizer – to the victim is just perverse, and ill-deserves the name.

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