The Wretched of Mother Earth: The Handbook for Living, Dying, and Nonviolent Revolution in the Midst of Climate Change Catastrophe
“Let’s just assume our grandchildren are fucked.”
My new book is out.
Inspired by Sogyal Rinchope’s The Tibetan Book of Living and Dying and Leela Fernandes’ Transforming Feminist Practice, The Wretched of Mother Earth is a mixed-genre Buddhist, feminist, post-colonial, anarchist manifesto about climate change that is also a meditation on dying and death. It is a work in which I argue that if we hope to save ourselves from climate change catastrophe, we must face not only the prospect of human extinction; but also we must radically confront what produced the climate crisis in the first place: the “colonial power matrix” and our deadly attachments to it.
“This [book] is an invitation to experience the transformative power of heartbreak that weaves a healed earth community out of the raw material of grief and fear.” ~Stephanie Van Hook, Metta Center for Nonviolence
Good, bad, or ugly: I invite your reviews of my recent work.
“This is the price of freedom,” said former Fox News host Bill O’Reilly in reference to Stephen Craig Paddock’s mass shooting in Las Vegas last month. “Violent nuts are allowed to roam free until they do damage, no matter how threatening they are. The Second Amendment is clear that Americans have a right to arm themselves for protection. Even the loons.”
Every time a gun massacre occurs in this country, opponents of gun control (like Bill O’Reilly) ask us to look beyond the carnage and see instead the very meaning and measure of American freedom. In particular, they insist that we decipher from the bodies not our failure to secure – for all of us – “life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness”; but instead our triumph over the tyranny of government and despots, as well as security from the threats we face from one another (or, more precisely, threats from the “Other,” usually coded as black and brown).
Thus, after the recent mass shooting by Devin Patrick Kelley in Sutherland, Texas, we were asked again to look beyond the dead and see our liberty. “Lawmakers and pundits on the left,” wrote Justin Haskins of the conservative Heartland Institute, for instance, “have already started to call for increased gun control laws that would strip law-abiding citizens of their Second Amendment rights in the name of protecting innocent Americans. But, as Benjamin Franklin once rightfully observed, ‘Those who would give up essential Liberty, to purchase a little temporary Safety, deserve neither Liberty nor Safety.’”
If the carnage of “innocent Americans” signifies freedom and the “price” we pay for it – or, to put this differently, if we’re supposed to understand Devin Patrick Kelley’s and Stephen Craig Paddock’s purchase, control, and use of firearms as epitomizing American freedom, then it is abundantly clear that what some opponents of gun control want to secure – even at the expense of elementary school children and babies attending church – is neither freedom from tyranny nor protection from others. No, what they want to safeguard, more than anything else, is the freedom to tyrannize or exercise power over, the freedom to be the threat and terror, rather than the ones threatened and terrorized. For what Kelley and Paddock did, after all, was the essence of tyranny.
Perched high above his victims and armed with over forty weapons, Paddock shot at and terrorized vulnerable and defenseless children, women and men who were, of all things, enjoying a country music concert. Paddock killed fifty-eight people and injured hundreds more.
Armed with two handguns and an AR-15 (an assault-style rifle) – as well as outfitted in tactical gear and a ballistic vest – Kelley first shot into Sutherland’s First Baptist Church, where his victims were perhaps singing hymns or praying or reciting Bible verses. And then he went inside the church to continue his assault, killing twenty-six people and injuring twenty.
I think it is safe to say that none of the victims posed a threat to Paddock or Kelley.
All of them, in fact, were defenseless, sitting ducks. To the victims, it must have seemed that Paddock and Kelley were damn near invincible. And by taking their own lives (though the jury is still out about whether Kelley killed himself), both gunmen guaranteed – as tyrants often do – that none of the victims and victims’ families would ever be able to hold them accountable for their crimes.
So when we hear some opponents of gun control condemn gun massacres, ask us to pray, and then talk about freedom, we should be clear that their sentiments are, in reality, celebrations of tyranny and terror, couched in terms of our “essential Liberty.” We should understand that the Paddocks and Kelleys are necessarily, in these gun control opponents’ world view, freedom fighters because they own and use (no matter how horrifically) firearms; and that the dead, maimed and traumatized children, women and men are, for all intents and purposes, fallen soldiers for a just cause (rather than the victims of gun-toting despots) because the person who shot them was exercising his Second Amendment rights. Opponents of gun control would have us believe, in fact, that the dead and injured took a bullet so that we might enjoy living as a free people.
This is all bullshit, of course. And it should come as no surprise that, for gun control opponents like O’Reilly, tyranny is freedom because, for them, tyranny is policy, both foreign and domestic. Tyranny over women, over LGBT communities, over the poor, over black and brown people, over other nations, over the environment, over other species, over people of other faiths – such tyranny constitutes the substance of their health care proposals, tax plans, trade regimes, local bathroom ordinances, court nominations, budget priorities. Tyranny is the point of their greater America.
Consequently, the tyranny exercised by the Paddocks and Kelleys is “not [a] spontaneous” outburst “of raw brutal energy that breaks the chains of civilized customs,” as Slajob Žižek observed (Refugees, Terror and Other Troubles with the Neighbors) with regard to the “brutal reaction in males” that “social dislocation” often “provokes.” It is instead “something learned, externally imposed, ritualized: part of the collective symbolic substance of a community.”
Indeed, the tyranny exercised by the Paddocks and Kelleys is precisely what celebrations of freedom as tyranny inevitably produce.
Originally published in Counterpunch.
I stopped being afraid once I came out of the closet.
I didn’t stop being afraid the first time that I said, out loud, repeating the words of Audre Lorde: “I am a black woman warrior poet doing my work – come to ask you, are you doing yours?” No, the end of fear was a long process, not an instant.
And I didn’t stop having moments of fear or panic. Those come, sometimes with great force, and often early in the morning, in the darkness, in the silence.
What I mean, though, is that once I was willing to step out of the closet and be completely vulnerable – to expose myself knowing that I could very well become (even more) an object of hate and of violence from people who looked like me and from those who didn’t– once I allowed myself to be that raw, I became absolutely and devastatingly powerful.
For make no mistake about it, that kind of vulnerability announces, in no uncertain terms: no matter what you say or do to me, I will not back down. I will not cower. I will not be silent. I will not hate you –but hear me clearly: I mean to be free.
This is yet another terrible, frightening moment in our nation – in the world, really, where children are bombed and washed up on distant shores and shot in neighborhood parks and told that they will be chased out of their homes and across borders into countries that do not know them.
We live in dangerous times, where men and women in power feel no allegiance to their neighbors — men and women who peddle fear and hopelessness in nihilistic pursuit of profit. Men and women who are not in their right mind, really, because they would rather destroy everything — all of us — than share anything.
To their insanity we are – no question about it – completely vulnerable.
But it would be a terrible mistake to construe that vulnerability as helplessness and weakness instead of as our power and strength.
That rawness you feel? That’s your spirit calling you to stand tall and be free, because something in you knows already that to those who would oppress us, nothing is more frightening and dangerous than a woman (or a man) who has much to lose and yet steps out anyway in the midst of madness to insist on her rights, to claim her freedom, to protect her brothers and sisters, to love as a radical answer to hate, and thus to convey that, come what may, she shall not be moved. Not one inch.
Be dangerously vulnerable.
“It is critically important to recognize and start working through how the moment of violence and the moment of neoliberalism coalesce.” – Simon Springer
If we examine through the prism of neoliberalism the killing of Philando Castile – that is, if we think of the killing as a moment when violence and neoliberalism coalesced – then we are immediately confronted with the fact that, to a great extent, the current problem of policing is a problem of neoliberal policing. It is a problem of the production of police as officers whose enforcement of the law is guided by neoliberal policies and procedures, the violence of which no amount of body cameras or use of force training or diversity training can adequately address. Indeed, the fact of neoliberal policing requires from all of us a radically different response to policing and police killings, a response by which we directly confront policing, and our governments’ constitution of law enforcement, as neoliberal practice.
So let’s talk about this moment when neoliberalism and violence converged:
Over the course of fourteen years, Minnesota police initiated at least 52 encounters (a staggering number) with Philando Castile, citing him for minor offenses like driving without wearing a seat belt, speeding, and driving without a muffler. These encounters resulted in Philando being assessed a total of $6,588 in fines and fees.
Given these circumstances, let’s assume (indeed, it is probably safe to assume) that St. Anthony Police Department – the police department that employs Jeronimo Yanez, the officer who killed Philando – operates under a scheme similar to the one that was in place in Ferguson, Missouri when Officer Darren Wilson killed Michael Brown.
Under that scheme (as the U.S. Department of Justice found), City of Ferguson officials “routinely” urged its Chief of Police “to generate more revenue” for the City “through enforcement” and to meet specific revenue goals. In response, the Chief pressured his officers and created a culture in which officers competed with one another in generating revenue; created opportunities to issue citations in order to meet revenue goals; engaged primarily African American citizens as objects from which they could profit as well as subjected them to the department’s and City’s market discipline; and, measured their own value and success as police officers in market terms (the department looked favorably upon and rewarded officers who met their revenue demands).
Through this scheme, the City in essence transformed the police into neoliberal police officers, into men and women who would enforce the law in ways that folded penal discipline into the “market-driven disciplinary logic” of neoliberalism, and whose policing became the expression of what Simon Springer calls neoliberalism’s “fundamental virtues”: “individualism, competitiveness and economic self-sufficiency.”
As they sought out opportunities to generate revenue, officers also engaged in the kind of ‘Othering’ upon which neoliberalism depends. As Springer writes, neoliberalism not only “treats as enemies” those “who don’t fit the mold of a proper neoliberal subject” (e.g., possessive individualism, economic self-sufficiency); it also “actively facilitates the abandonment of ‘Others’ who fall outside of ‘neoliberal normativity’, a conceptual category that cuts across multiple categories of discrimination including class, race, ethnicity, gender, sex, sexuality, age and ability.”
Ferguson’s neoliberal police officers (and city officials) regarded African Americans and poor people as those who don’t fit the mold. The latter were not the victims of neoliberal policies that had been embraced on a local, national and global scale. Instead, they were failures, people who were unwilling to pull themselves up by their bootstraps and remake themselves in the ways that the market demanded. Consequently, it was right to treat both as objects by which to profit and “as enemies” who needed to be disciplined and controlled.
That the City’s scheme and the neoliberal logic behind it would create the circumstances that led to Michael Brown’s death is clear. Indeed, through that scheme Ferguson officials and the police department produced a “‘state of exception,’ wherein…exceptional violence” – i.e.., violence that shocks, that “elicits a deep emotional response” – was “transformed into exemplary violence,” into violence that “forms the rule,” and particularly for those excluded and abandoned. Without social media, Brown’s death would have merely been a part of the everyday violence that police directed at Ferguson’s African American community and poor people generally, violence made increasingly likely by the market driven imperative of the Ferguson police force. And of course Brown’s death took place against the backdrop of the invisible violence of the City’s neoliberal policies (creation of unequal and increasingly privatized schools, attraction of business that paid little taxes and employed workers at low wages, privatization of public services, etc.).
If Officer Yanez worked under a governmental scheme similar to the one in Ferguson, then in that moment when he pulled the trigger (four or five times) he embodied, expressed and enacted the neoliberal principles and logic by which his department and his city operate.
But let’s suppose that the St. Anthony Police Department is not a business enterprise disguised as a police department, made so at the behest of city officials. Does that change the conclusion?
We live in the context of a global neoliberal order. And to a frightening degree, “we have become entrepreneurs of our lives,” as Johanna Oksala writes, “competing in the free market called society.” Indeed, we “compete in an ever-expanding range of fields, and invest in ourselves by enhancing our abilities and appearance, by improving our strategies of life coaching and time management. Our life has become an enterprise that we must lead to success.”
In other words, we are all neoliberals now, and as Springer argues, all of us are “implicated in the perpetuation of neoliberalised violence.”
A few months ago, I complained to my partner that the preschool our three-year old attends had not yet taught her the alphabet and numbers – at least not in any way that in my mind reflected academic rigor. “How is she going to succeed?” I asked. “When she gets to kindergarten, all the other kids will be way ahead.” I was ready to pull her out and send her to a school with a more disciplined, focused program, one that would lead to her academic success and, eventually, her career success. Lurking in the back of my mind was the fate of black girls, who have very little the market recognizes as valuable.
Let me repeat: my daughter is three. She attends a school in which learning happens outdoors – in a forest – where the kids discover things like rabbits and tadpoles and swarms of ladybugs and dead birds and, from those things, learn about habitats and camouflage and metamorphosis and death.
Against a neoliberal, market-driven idea of education – one that permeates the public sphere and that has redefined the purpose of school and education – I measured this wide-open, wonderful way of learning and found it wanting. Without even thinking about it, I was ready to subject my three-year old to the disciplinary logic of a neoliberal education and thus to perform an act, the violence of which (to creativity, to learning) I could not see.
Even if Officer Yanez had not performed his duty in accordance with the kind of policies that guided Ferguson’s police department, he nevertheless killed Philando within the context of a broader neoliberal framework that marked men like Philando as always already outside of neoliberal normativity (black male + broke ass car = enemy) and denied them any claim to the neoliberal virtues of economic self-sufficiency and possessive individualism. As to the latter, black people throughout United States history have been cast as anything but a collection of individuals. Instead, we are a monolith that can be used and disposed of at will (hence, Dallas police killer Micah Xavier Johnson is not Micah Xavier Johnson as such; instead, he is Black Lives Matter).
Moreover, that broader neoliberal framework, which defines (in the words of Lester Spence) “freedom in market terms rather than political terms,” is a racial capitalist framework that defines African Americans as unfree Others in order to naturalize class hierarchies. Thus, when Officer Yanez encountered Philando, he encountered an unfree Other who – in spite of that mark – had the audacity to claim the status of a free person by openly carrying a gun. Officer Yanez encountered the enemy.
My point in all of this is that Officer Yanez – like all of us, like me – was (is) immersed in neoliberalism and inevitably internalized as well as reproduced it in his employment life (and probably in his personal life as well). He was armed with it, so to speak, when he encountered and then killed Philando Castile, and I suspect this was true as well for Officer Darren Wilson of Ferguson, Missouri.
Finally, even if St. Anthony’s had not been blatantly transformed into a business enterprise, it nevertheless operates within a national and global paradigm of policing that aligns police with the interests of capital. As Oksala notes, governments throughout the world have adopted policies and practices designed to “intervene in the very being of society in order to make competition the dominant principle for guiding human behavior,” and to “give competition between enterprises and entrepreneurial conduct maximum range.” These policies and practices proceed from the understanding that maintaining these conditions for capital requires “objective, extensive and efficient state-violence,” i.e., “effective practices of policing.” They proceed from the understanding, in other words, that such violence is and must be “inherent to neoliberal governmentality.” When Officer Yanez approached and killed Philando, then, the police department for which he worked was hardly operating outside of this paradigm.
If what we are witnessing in these violent encounters with police is neoliberalism in action, then we have to come up with an entirely different set of solutions to change policing. This is not to dismiss body cameras and training, which will no doubt save some lives. But they are technical fixes that do not address at all the neoliberal character of our police departments, the transformation of peace officers into neoliberal police, the policies that align policing with corporate power, and the violence that neoliberalism produces.
In fact, these fixes amount to our use of the master’s tools to dismantle the master’s house. After all, through neoliberal policies governments regularly take “outside of the realm of the political” the myriad problems that communities face and then render these problems “technical and actionable,” as Lester Spence has observed. So when we offer solutions like body cameras, we make fixing the police a technical matter rather than a political matter, and in so doing we legitimize and further entrench neoliberal policies and practices that enact invisible, spectacular, and ultimately normalized violence on those who don’t fit the mold. The consequence is that we’ll continue to receive tweets and Facebook feeds of police killings.
But we’ll also see more retaliatory killings of police officers – like the killings that occurred recently in Dallas and Baton Rouge – as more people realize that neoliberal policing, and the violence it enacts, is exactly the kind of policing our governments intend. Such counter-violence, however, is extraordinarily ironic, for individuals who engage in retaliatory killings – individuals who are, and will likely continue to be, primarily men – ultimately express just how deeply they have internalized the ideals and attributes that constitute the Virtuous Neoliberal Citizen: self-reliance or rugged individualism, personal responsibility, distrust of government, efficiency, cruelty. With an Izhmash-Saiga 5.45 mm rifle or some other AK-style weapon in tow, they alone will fix the problem of police violence, and in so doing, they will precisely, and finally, fit the neoliberal mold.
Repairing the police and our system of policing, then, clearly demands that we end not only neoliberal policing, but also the transformation of men and women into neoliberal police. To do this, we must relentlessly break down these moments of violence between officers and the community in order to unearth the neoliberal politics they express and enact, and that our government officials (local, state, national) continue to impose upon us at our expense (and for the benefit of the wealthy), but most especially at the expense of our abandoned, disposed children, women and men.
It is through this kind of work, in fact, that we can begin to upend an order that neoliberal proponents present as the only alternative and that appears all-powerful and all-encompassing. By doing this work, we’ll discover just how much neoliberalism and the violence it produces is, as Oksala makes clear, a “specific, rationally reflected and coordinated way of governing” – including the hiring, training, management and oversight of police – that we absolutely have the power to change.
This article also appears in CounterPunch.
A friend recently told me that while I could “afford” to vote for Bernie Sanders because I am, as she put it, “highly educated,” she absolutely could not vote for him – nor could many of her friends and others who were decidedly not like me (i.e., highly educated). “For me,” she argued, “the stakes are too high” – the stakes being the elevation of Donald Trump to the highest office in the nation, and thus potentially four years of GOP control over all branches of government. Because of the real and present danger that a Donald Trump win would pose, “I will vote this November,” she declared emphatically, “for Hilary Clinton.”
My friend is right, of course. I am highly (or perhaps, as my brother would put it, over) educated.
And just for the record, I am also middle-class, African American, lesbian, 52, gainfully employed, insured, and a U.S. citizen with a (meager) retirement savings. Et cetera. I will vote for Sanders when my time comes, and if she captures the nomination, I will vote for Clinton. (That’s a strategic black vote, by the way).
Like many, I live a life of both privilege and vulnerability. I don’t apologize for what I can afford – voting or otherwise. And while I don’t fool myself about my vulnerabilities by believing that they don’t exist, I also don’t use them to claim a sameness with all African American women or others in ways that belie class, citizenship status, education and other differences among us – differences that often make for vastly dissimilar experiences with (for example) racism, sexism, economic instability.
But of course there are moments when our experiences are remarkably similar.
Nevertheless, my friend is right as well about the fact that the stakes of this election are YUGE (to use Bernie-speak). A Donald Trump win! win! win! would be absolutely disastrous for the country (and for me. I would not, as she incorrectly assumes, escape unscathed the consequences of his victory). Continued inaction on climate change; the ability to install a Supreme Court thoroughly committed to inequality, the decimation of individual rights, economic and environmental deregulation, and the interests of the rich; expansion of war in the Middle East and a return to Cold War politics; reversal of marriage equality and freedom of choice; the plunder of the treasury; repeal of Obamacare; the shredding of what little safety net we have left….this is the kind of craziness we face.
Given these stakes, then, we must vote, and vote wisely.
My friend is not alone in thinking that a vote for Sanders is a dangerous vote – one that threatens the safety of many of us, most especially those targeted by Trump, Trump supporters, and the GOP generally – while a vote for Clinton is a safe vote or, to put it differently, a vote for safety. You encounter this argument all the time from HRC supporters – in editorial pages, on Twitter, in blogs, on Facebook, in coffee houses, over the airwaves, and in conversations overheard on BART. Bernie Sanders supporters, they say, are fools – elite fools – who might very well usher us all to the end of times.
Or something like that.
Yet, I have heard similar arguments as well from Bernie supporters. Because the polls say Clinton will lose against Trump (some argue), to vote for her is to cast a dangerous vote, one that will plunge us all deep into GOP chaos. On the other hand, the polls do predict that Bernie will beat Trump. Consequently, our safety lies with his nomination.
But we should wonder about this propensity to speak of Hilary’s or Bernie’s supporters, or of a Clinton/Sanders presidency, in terms of danger, protection and refuge – this willingness, in other words, to believe that voting for either candidate will make us safe.
Should Donald Trump lose to Sanders or Clinton (assuming that he will defeat a Republican coup and actually become the Party’s nominee), we will still go home to families, coworkers, friends, neighbors – and mingle daily with strangers – who are willing to sacrifice democracy to authoritarianism, xenophobia, tribalism, patriarchy, white supremacy, and the machinations of wealthy white men (e.g., Trump, the Koch brothers) whose hunger for power is, it seems, absolutely bottomless.
We will still be surrounded by neighbors and intimates who do not eschew violence as a means to redress economic dislocation and to contend with change that is not merely a reiteration of current power arrangements.
We will still live in a country riven by hate and divisiveness, and be governed by a Congress for which that hate and divisiveness is the stuff of religious creed and public policy.
We will still live in a nation in which the infrastructure is crumbling, coastal cities sinking, schools failing, inequality increasing, desperation mounting and hunger considered just deserts for those who are poor — especially those who are poor, black and female.
We will still be at war, everywhere.
In other words, we are already unsafe – already living dangerously, and we were doing so long before Donald Trump upended the Republican Party.
So whether you vote for Hilary Rodham Clinton or Bernie Sanders, your vote will not protect you.
Thinking of safety in the narrow terms that we do – i.e., merely voting for a president every four years in order to keep at bay the draconian policies of a mean-spirited party and electorate – will not protect us. This is especially true given that our narrow conception of safety is itself a buy-in to a top-down politics of change.
Now don’t get me wrong: vote we must. It is imperative. But we need to think more deeply and ask: what does it mean to be safe? What does real safety look like and how do we create it for all of us – haters included?
Safety, it seem to me, resides with us, in what we do every day – in whatever capacity we are able – to put in place policies and institutions that are grounded in safeguarding and nurturing the lives of the most vulnerable. For if the most vulnerable are cared for, if that which is creating the vulnerability in the first instance is eradicated (poverty, segregation, war funding, separate and unequal school systems, state-sponsored and private acts of violence, structural inequalities, the upward distribution of wealth), then safety will be the order of the day (I, for one, believe that this means envisioning economic, political, geopolitical and social security through the eyes of a poor, undocumented girl of color – but that’s just me).
That kind of safety is purchased in part by the vote, but most especially by political action and grassroots involvement at the local level – like, for example, sitting in on and participating in neighborhood meetings, helping to organize your workplace, conversing with and listening deeply to people who are different from you, running for office, creating viable third, fourth, fifth party alternatives.
Perhaps most of all, the kind of protection we seek – real safety – is purchased by our refusal to live in fear.
We need to stop proclaiming that we are afraid of Donald Trump and his supporters, and to stop telling everyone else that they should be afraid. When we do this, we make him, and them, larger than life, and in the process, we make us small, fearful and powerless.
Our fear will not protect us.
So let’s move beyond fear and way, way past thinking of either Sanders or Clinton as our saving grace; they are not (while we’re at it, let’s also abandon altogether the shitty, hateful, divisive discourse that passes as constructive political engagement. There’s nothing radical about speaking the same language as, and acting like, those who hate us).
Instead, let’s demonstrate the truism that we are in fact “the ones we have been waiting for” and that our calling is to be dangerous to the politics of what is. Let us make the nation absolutely unsafe for poverty, war mongering, patriarchy, racism, xenophobia, neoliberalism, free (as opposed to fair) trade, economic inequality. Let us be dangerous to all that stands against peace. And let us be so regardless of whether or not Hilary, Bernie or Donald ends up in the White House.
But of course, let’s make sure that neither Donald nor a GOP alternative makes it anywhere near the Oval Office.
While there are countless reasons why Bernie Sanders’ adoption of a Racial Justice platform that tackles violence against African Americans is both extraordinary and unprecedented, certainly one reason must be that the platform in effect charges our government with the responsibility to practice nonviolence toward African Americans in particular and people of color generally. In fact, Sanders’ platform – the adoption of which was instigated by #BlackLivesMatter activists – presupposes that folks of color deserve nonviolence, both from the government and from private citizens. We deserve it, the platform suggests, because we are a valuable part of the body politic – “we must pursue policies that transform this country into a nation that affirms the value of its people of color” – and because it is right and just.
The platform is not, as one might imagine, merely a recitation of platitudes about racism and justice (though it certainly includes many); instead, it offers specific policy changes that Sanders and #BlackLivesMatter activists hope will help to make African Americans’ and others’ lived experiences of violence a thing of the past: police retraining, expanding the franchise, ending the War on Drugs, banning “prisons for profit,” investing in youth employment programs. These are just a few of the proposals that the platform outlines.
Of course, the word “nonviolence” does not actually appear in Sanders’ Racial Justice platform, even though the platform refers to and quotes Martin Luther King, Jr. in the section dedicated to economic violence.
Nevertheless, with its focus on “the four central types of violence waged against black and brown Americans – physical, political, legal and economic,” it is hard not to see that what Sanders and #BlackLivesMatter activists have done is something quite in keeping with what King did in “Beyond Vietnam,” his crucial 1967 speech against the Vietnam War: denounce the government’s violence and require from it something radically different. For King, that radically different something was for the government to conduct domestic and foreign policy in ways that reinforce “brotherhood,” and thus for it to choose “nonviolent coexistence” over “violent co-annihilation.” For Sanders and #BlackLivesMatter activists, that something is for the government to refrain from waging violence against black and brown people.
Because Sanders and #BlackLivesMatter activists produced a platform that expresses in great measure the spirit of King’s challenge, they accomplished something rather remarkable: they inadvertently produced a framework by which we can construct a platform that commits us to making nonviolence the crux of our nation’s domestic and foreign policies. Physical, political, legal and economic violence – these categories certainly capture what we justify nationally and internationally as in our national interest, and thus they provide us an opportunity to offer the kind of nonviolent alternatives we sorely need. Our undeclared war against ISIS, the unspeakable suffering of the Syrian people, the horrific attack in Paris, the everyday violence we suffer at the hands of one another – what else do we need to add in order to see, finally, that we really must choose between nonviolent coexistence and violent co-annihilation? What other kind of mass shooting, suicide bombing, war – what other kind of atrocity do you require?
So, forgive me for having the audacity to offer a nonviolent political platform – a work-in-progress that builds upon (and borrows from) what Sanders and #BlackLivesMatter activists started. I offer this because it is clear to me that unless and until ordinary citizens step up to put forward alternatives to our culture of violence, we will continue to be mired in bloodshed, hate, and conflict both here and abroad until we destroy ourselves. It is my hope that you will comment, critique, talk about and add to what I have written here. It is my hope that you will even imagine a platform more daring, one that shifts this superpower inexorably toward militant nonviolence and to which you will, through bold action, hold every single candidate accountable from now until November 2016.
Over the course of the recent Baltimore protests concerning Freddie Gray’s death at the hands of police, I received (as did many people I know) several Facebook posts and tweets of pictures that captured what the mass media failed or flat-out refused to cover: the nonviolent protests that took place throughout the city. Those who shared these posts and tweets lamented not only the media black-out of nonviolent protests, but also the media’s absolute focus on violence and violent protests – the looting, the torching of police vehicles, the hurling of bottles and bricks.
As those who shared their posts and tweets noted, the media used the images of violence to narrate the protests not as a story about the brutality that Freddy Gray suffered or about the decades of police repression under which Baltimore’s poor African American citizens have lived or about the grinding poverty that is the lived experience of the community where Freddy Gray grew up (“Baltimore City,” the New York Times recently reported, “is extremely bad for income mobility for children in poor families. It is among the worst counties in the U.S.”). Instead, the media used the images of violence to present Baltimore’s hurt and outraged African Americans as criminals or thugs, as a people so irrational that they would burn down “their own” community – as a people, in fact, who predictably produced a stressed and beleaguered Baltimore police force that has “understandably” resorted to excessive force.
Into this narrative of African American violence the media weaved government officials’ calls for nonviolence – which, as I have argued elsewhere, are nothing less than an appropriation of nonviolence to forward state interests, an appropriation through which officials render nonviolence the language of empire. When the media, then, marginalized the nonviolence on the streets and yet featured officials’ calls for nonviolence, it in essence blacked-out the expression of nonviolence as a radical call for justice and for systemic change. Moreover, it disconnected the violence that it spotlighted from the broader demand and movement for an end to state-sponsored violence (whether in the form of police brutality or economic policies) and, ultimately, from the government’s own unchecked acts of violence.
And yet, we do have those pictures posted on Facebook and Twitter. Clearly, our camera phones will be just as crucial to reframing nonviolence and disrupting both the government’s and media’s narrative of it as they are to capturing police agression and brutality.
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.