Non-violence as Non-Compliance

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Martin Luther King, Jr. once observed that “when the white power structure calls upon the Negro to reject violence but does not impose upon itself the task of creating necessary social change, it is in fact asking for submission to injustice. Nothing in the theory of nonviolence counsels this suicidal course.” The “simple fact is,” King continued, “that there cannot be nonviolence and tranquility, without significant reforms of the evils that endangered the peace in the first place. It is the effort of the power structure to benefit from nonviolence without yielding meaningful change that is responsible for the rise of elements who would discredit it.”

King’s spot-on observation about the “power structure’s” calls for nonviolence clearly remains relevant, for it captured what public officials and other elites were up to when they called for nonviolence during the Ferguson and New York protests, just as it describes – as Ta-Nehisi Coates so powerfully argues in “Nonviolence as Compliance” – what Maryland and other officials were up to when they demanded nonviolence or “peace” from folks righteously outraged by the death of Freddie Gray at the hands of police.

Indeed, given officials’ general indifference to the violence that Baltimore police have, for decades, meted out to the city’s black citizens, it is hard not to conclude – even after Baltimore’s chief prosecutor announced criminal charges against six officers for Gray’s death – that officials have no intention whatsoever of adopting “significant reforms of the evils that endangered the peace in the first place,” and that their calls for nonviolence are nothing less than demands for political/moral/ethical quietism in the face of state-sponsored violence. Thus, Ta-Nehisi Coates’ conclusion that “when nonviolence begins halfway through the war with the aggressor calling time out, it exposes itself as a ruse,” seems absolutely on target.

But it only seems on target, for Coates’ conclusion actually veers away from the deeper problem with officials’ calls for nonviolence and that King identified in his concluding statement: the “power structure’s” appropriation or capture of the discourse on nonviolence in order to forward its own interests – a capture that ultimately discredits nonviolence both as a philosophy and as a method with which to confront power and to obtain justice.

Nonviolence is not the problem, but officials’ nonviolence certainly is.

What’s even more problematic, however, is that proponents of nonviolence have utterly failed to appreciate and confront this appropriation. Consequently, because they don’t face any significant push-back, government officials have had a free hand not only to redefine nonviolence in terms compatible with government interests; but also to reframe the very meaning of nonviolent protest – which, in their terms, is nothing less than “peaceful protest,” i.e., protest that leaves undisturbed government and business property, as well as the political choices and the consciences of those in power. In the process, officials offer the government as the primary champion of peace and justice, one that stands against the angry, “irrational” protesting “thugs” on the street.

No wonder activists and critics like Coates conclude that nonviolence, and not officials’ appropriation of the creed, “reveals itself to be a con.”

Clearly, this appropriation requires from those who are committed to nonviolence a swift and powerful response. But where to begin? Proponents could start by addressing what makes the government’s capture of nonviolence (and critics’ rejection of nonviolence) so easy and seamless in the first place: the reduction of nonviolence to strategy and tactics, as well as the longstanding tentativeness on the part of nonviolence advocates to speak nonviolence in transformative terms – transformative for the individual practitioner, transformative for perpetrators of hate, violence, and injustice, and transformative of the established order. In other words, proponents have become reluctant – in the context of protests and movement organizing – to assert that nonviolence is more than a protest strategy, that it is indeed, as King constantly declared (and that is conveniently left out of critiques of nonviolence), a call to practice radical love both politically and personally as the basis for effecting a “radical restructuring” of American society and beyond.

Let’s be clear: nonviolence has never been merely a way to conduct protests. To so conclude is to avoid the hard work that nonviolence as a way of life requires. And it is not, as officials would have it, synonymous with order (as President Obama suggested when he stated in his plea for nonviolence during the Ferguson protests that “using any event as an excuse for violence is contrary to the rule of law and contrary to who we are” – as if the “rule of law” wasn’t itself violence that needed to be confronted). Instead, nonviolence is a practice of love that dis-orders the status quo, disrupts it in order to expose as well as to transform the hate, injustice and violence with which it is maintained.

In fact, it is inherently noncompliant because it perceives order or status quo peace where injustice prevails as violence in and of itself. And it proceeds from the understanding that any pretense to nonviolence on the part of the government is, without the government’s true commitment to the creed, a ruse by which it protects its continued investment in force, unchecked power and injustice.

Hesitance about articulating the radical dimensions and deeper commitment of nonviolence has plagued nonviolent direct action in this country for some time now – indeed, it has plagued much of social justice organizing, even as this organizing has been driven by tremendous faith and hope in a world free from violence (as the hashtag BlackLivesMatter, for example, absolutely expresses). The consequence is that nonviolence has become an empty concept, or is at least empty of anything that troubles our hearts and minds (as government officials’ appropriation makes clear). In so being, it is ripe for capture by those in power and easy to reject by social justice advocates.

By reclaiming the transformative and taking control of the discourse on nonviolence, proponents of nonviolence can begin to dis-identify the creed from the “power structure” since, after all, it is the transformative – our calls for radical change – that officials and other elites hope to suppress. And why not? As Palestinian activist Jean Zaru poignantly clarifies, “nonviolence is threatening to the powers that be because nonviolence undermines their pretense to moral authority… Nonviolence exposes and then challenges the structures of domination and not just the overt symptoms. It then, in turn, requires the oppressor to examine how they, too, are victims of the very violence that they impart.”

But just as critically: advocates of nonviolence must begin to engage, from a political, ethical and moral critique of violence, allies who embrace and advocate for violence as a strategy of resistance. In fact, proponents should abandon all attempts to control or explain such allies (as well as resist efforts on the part of officials and other elites to make nonviolent activists responsible for the violence of others), and instead strategically engage them not as “the unheard” angry (depoliticized) masses, but as political actors who make specific choices that are aligned with their own ideologies.

Finally: proponents of nonviolence will need to address more forcefully, and provide a counternarrative to, the hate and the violence that absolutely drives so much of our domestic and foreign policies – from police brutality to drone strikes.

None of this eclipses direct action. If anything, reclaiming the discourse on nonviolence will inject nonviolent direct action with greater purpose since nonviolence – if it is truly embraced – not only requires, but actually compels one to act, to confront violence and injustice wherever they manifest, because it is ultimately a way of life that constitutes, in King’s words, “eternal hostility to poverty, racism, and militarism” – to all systems of subordination and the myriad forms of violence with which these systems are reified and maintained. Nonviolence is a loving refusal to cooperate with violence and injustice everywhere, including (if not especially) in our own minds, in our own homes, and in our own communities.

It is also, I might add, a commitment that one makes to transforming our society from the bottom-up, for it is at the bottom – the barrios, ghettos, favelas, war torn places, refugee camps, and borders – where the full brunt of injustice is felt (which is another way of saying, by the way, that nonviolence is not, by any stretch of the imagination, synonymous with “safety”).

Ta-Nehisi Coates’ brilliant analysis is a wake-up call, then, one that reveals just how much we’ve allowed nonviolence to become the language of empire. Now that we’re awake, let’s bring our compliance to an end.

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