The new issue of Street Spirit, a paper put together by a group of Quakers and sold by homeless people throughout the Bay Area, is mostly made up of articles on non-violence. In an astonishing (in a bad way) interview, George Lakey, “longtime nonviolent activist and trainer” manages to outdo Berkeley Chancellor Birgeneau’s infamous claim that protesters linking arms is “not non-violent”:
Lakey: Running does not heighten the contrast between the activists and the purveyors of violence. The running, to a T.V. or a news photographer or a bystander just looks like a riot and it gets reported in the news, that black people rioted on the streets of Birmingham or whatever. So sometimes you need to heighten the contrasts in order to make your point, and if that means getting people on their knees so they won’t run, great.
A good example of the movement not understanding that was Chicago in 1968 in the Democratic National Convention, where demonstrators coming from all over the country were set upon by the police. They started to run away and the police chased them and bloodied them even in the lobby of the Hilton Hotel, where the police finally caught up with some of the demonstrators and beat them to a pulp inside the lobby on the expensive carpet. But the way it was covered in the media was: Activists Riot in Chicago. It took a national investigation to determine it was actually the police who rioted; it wasn’t the students who rioted. There’s no reason for Occupy people to make all of these same mistakes again.
Street Spirit: Something very similar to that occurred in Oakland. The police attacked marchers on January 28 and were terribly violent to them. But when they ran, and escaped through the YMCA, it looked to the public like they were at fault when they were just trying to escape the violence.
So, a nonviolence expert assures us that running away from the police when they are beating you to a pulp is “not non-violent.” This passage is a great illustration of the problem with what “strategic non-violence,” the fairly unified theory of political change promoted by various trainers and NGOs, of which the most well known exponent is probably Gene Sharp. Of course, the tactics of non-violent civil disobedience, sit-ins, courting mass arrests, and so on, are perfectly legitimate tactics which may well be useful in many cases, and many non-violent activists are doubtless sincere people, but this personal goodness is in tension with the fact that, as a strategy, non-violence is fundamentally hostile to solidarity. The problem is that calling yourself a “non-violent” activist casts anyone who doesn’t adopt your strategies as violent; indeed, that’s the point, because you are supposed to “heighten the contrast between the activists and the purveyors of violence.” Worse, because the point is to be perceived as non-violent, non-violent activists cede the ability to define what counts as violence to the state and its ideological apparatuses. Hence the absurd situation where “non-violence” apparently requires forcing people to kneel down so that the police can beat them more effectively.
“Non-violence” takes a distinction created by the state (between violence and non-violence) and then applies this moralistically to the tactics of the movement, such that any stepping outside of these boundaries becomes, not a disagreement about tactics, but an occasion for condemnation (this reminds me of re-reading King’s “Letter From Birmingham Jail” recently, and being struck by the way in which King puts forward a clearly moral position without seeming to me to be moralistic; I’m interested in tring to figure out exactly where the distinction lies). The situation where “non-violent” activists cooperate with the state in condemning their supposed comrades is not accidental, but flows directly from their philosophy; it is to the credit of those non-violent activists who refuse to do this that they put solidarity ahead of their philosophy.
The alternative is not necessarily to advocate “violence” (although there are arguments worth paying attention to here, particularly Fanon’s) but to stop defining oneself dogmatically in terms of a spurious distinction between violence and non-violence; or perhaps to insist on a definition of non-violence which is responsive to the needs of the movement rather than the tastes of an imagined audience, as did this Egyptian activist quoted by David Graeber:
I remember my surprise and amusement, the first time I met activists from the April 6 Youth Movement from Egypt, when the issue of non-violence came up. “Of course we were non-violent,” said one of the original organizers, a young man of liberal politics who actually worked at a bank. “No one ever used firearms, or anything like that. We never did anything more militant than throwing rocks!”