Nonviolent resistance: a revolutionary discipline

From Oak Ridge to Fort Benning to Seattle, from the ancient redwood forests to the desert lands of the Western Shoshone nation at the Nevada Test Site, citizen dissent is rising, and the revolutionary discipline of nonviolence is passing to a new generation.

In the 1960s, Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. brought the strategy and spirit of Gandhi’s Satyagraha (or “truth force”) to bear on the institutional bigotry that sustained segregation in the South. King, and those who walked with him, demonstrated uncommon courage in a life-and-death struggle that inspired movements throughout the world. Though entrenched racism persists, the civil-rights movement succeeded in overturning many legal barriers to equal justice in the United States, while demonstrating the enormous potential of applied nonviolence as a revolutionary discipline — one that can be effectively wielded by anyone with the courage to stand firm.

Now, at the turn of the new century, nonviolent strategies are being practiced by a new generation of activists, who must carry on in the face of an increasingly dangerous alliance between multinational corporations insensitive to the fate of the Earth and a growing military and police force that acts to defend corporate interests over environmental safeguards, workers’ rights and constitutionally guaranteed freedoms.

Asheville residents will have a rare opportunity to hear from a veteran of the civil-rights movement when Dr. Bernard Lafayette — co-founder of the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee and an authority on the strategy of nonviolent social change — delivers the keynote speech at this year’s Martin Luther King Jr. Prayer Breakfast, scheduled for Jan. 15 at the Grove Park Inn.

I first heard Dr. Lafayette speak more than a decade ago, at a nonviolence training sponsored by the Florida Coalition for Peace and Justice. As a leader of the Nashville movement and the Selma movement and a freedom rider, Dr. Lafayette has been on the front lines and in the jails in a struggle for freedom that claimed many lives.

“Fear of inaction overpowered fear of death,” the Tampa native told the Florida gathering, as he related tales of the brutalities faced by early civil-rights activists.

“Enough nonviolence, sufficiently applied, in time, can work to bring change,” he proclaimed, adding, “We must go for the long haul.”

Now we have Seattle and the World Trade Organization — the first time since the Vietnam War and the civil-rights demonstrations of the 1960s and ’70s that the core of a major U.S. city was shut down by political protesters using the strategies of nonviolent confrontation. WTO policies, determined by an unelected body, threaten to undermine many democratically established labor, environmental and human-rights laws, in the interests of facilitating global free trade.

“Many thousands came to Seattle with the idea of mass arrests and nonviolence that would fill the jails, very much in the vein of Martin Luther King,” explains Asheville resident Lola LaFey. “People were surprised that police were not arresting them, but were trying to get them to disperse with tear gas, concussion grenades and rubber bullets.”

LaFey, a nonviolence trainer, spent much of her time in Seattle working with the Direct Action Network legal team, taking depositions from injured citizens to document the police violence. “I talked with person after person [who was] deeply committed to nonviolence.” she recalled, charging, “Those police should have had some training in nonviolence.”

But the violence the police inflicted on many demonstrators “made people stronger,” LaFey observes. “People who risk themselves for the country in a violent way risk their physical persons. It is important for people who want to bring about change nonviolently to also be willing to risk their own physical person.”

“I have seen what the power of the people can do,” proclaims Asheville resident Cathie Berrey, who worked with tactical and communication teams on the streets of Seattle. Berrey says she was tear-gassed 15 times, pepper-sprayed and chased by armored personnel carriers. Despite the assaults, however, Berry concluded, “It was totally the most empowering thing I’ve ever done.”

“Make no mistake — it was a nonviolent insurrection and rebellion,” declars Eamon Martin of Asheville. Martin says he knelt on the pavement in front of the advancing line of Seattle police who attempted to clear the demonstrators blocking delegate access to WTO meetings.

“They looked pretty sinister — women and men in a startling array of body armor,” he recalls. “For the most part, the people responded with chants of ‘nonviolence, nonviolence’ and treated the cops with remarkable compassion,” said Martin, who believed that, by “passively responding to attack, it would deter the police.”

But not everyone who opposed the WTO in Seattle embraced disciplined nonviolence. Some dissidents decried the nonviolent discipline of the majority, engaging in targeted vandalism in an attempt to “strategically destroy corporate property,” according to a statement released by the so-called “black bloc,” which attacked corporate targets. The group spoke of “the racism of privileged activists who can afford to ignore the violence perpetrated against the bulk of society and the natural world in the name of private property rights.” Although these young dissenters reflect a justified outrage with a system that idolizes the symbols of wealth and consumerism, they fail to realize that the real power lies not in the thrill of hit-and-run destruction, but in the disciplined bravery and long-haul commitment of those who use nonviolent action to restore justice and transform relationships.

Those who broke windows and looted — some smashing Nike signs with Nike-clad feet — evaded and avoided confrontation with the police (who, by some accounts, stood by watching). It was these demonstrators who drew the most media attention. But they did not bear the brunt of the police violence.

“The media spoke of violence, but not the violence I had witnessed and felt from the bullets that hit my leg, the grenade that hit my back, or the tear-gas that hit my face,” remembered Martin. “Despite a large and painful attack by police, the majority of people being victimized stood their ground.”

Witnesses reported that even before the first window was smashed — and without warning — the police began to indiscriminately fire tear gas, pepper spray, rubber and wooden bullets and concussion grenades. The “police riot,” as Madison County resident Robert Eidus characterized the violence he witnessed, endangered “families with young children, and old women that looked like your grandmother.”

The nonviolent activists in Seattle behaved with an astonishing and encouraging amount of disciplined bravery in the face of police attacks — much like the civil-rights activists who faced vicious dogs, water hoses, chemical weapons, bombs and bullets in the 1960s.

“What worked in Seattle,” Berrey explained, “were those young people who held the line despite police assault. They sat in the streets, locked arm in arm, blocking access to the WTO meeting.”

During the civil-rights movement, angry youth — impatient with the pace and tone of a nonviolent discipline — sometimes disrupted peaceful demonstrations with vandalism, striking out at the symbols of their discontent. Yet Dr. King continued to hold to the belief that nonviolence could “transmute the deep rage of the ghetto into a constructive and creative force … to compel unwilling authorities to yield to the mandates of justice.”

King came to Memphis in 1968, in solidarity with striking sanitation workers (paid less than $2 an hour) who were seeking union recognition from an obdurate city government. King’s presence turned my hometown upside down, unsettling entrenched assumptions about how things were and how they would remain. Comfortable people became frightened people. I remember how quickly the white establishment condemned King as an “outside agitator” and a “troublemaker” when the nonviolent march he led was marred by the vandalism of a relative few, who expressed their anger and frustration by breaking windows, throwing rocks, looting and lighting fires. But in Memphis, as in Seattle, it was the armed and dangerous police who rioted, firing chemical weapons into the crowd of nonviolent citizens, attacking indiscriminately. And in Memphis, as in Seattle, the mainstream press seemed to focus on the vandalism of a few, rather than on the extensive, excessive force used by the police.

In his 1963 “Letter from the Birmingham Jail,” King wrote: “We who engage in nonviolent direct action are not the creators of tension. We merely bring to the surface the hidden tension that is already alive. We bring it out in the open where it can be seen and dealt with. … Injustice must be exposed, with all the tension its exposing creates, to the light of human conscience and the air of national opinion before it can be cured.”

Activists in Seattle who called for a mobilization against global corporate rule succeeded in bringing their concerns to “the light of human conscience and the air of national opinion.” But perhaps the most important outcome of Seattle is that the transforming power of disciplined nonviolence has touched the lives of a new generation of activists, who can apply this powerful strategy for social change to the problems of the 21st century.

“In nonviolence the masses have a weapon which enables a child, a woman, or even a decrepit old man to resist the mightiest government successfully,” Gandhi taught.

Speaking on Dec. 8 at a forum of Asheville participants in the Seattle shutdown, Dane Kuppinger of Katuah Earth First summed up the feeling of most who were there: “In Seattle, the people found in themselves and in each other a power. There is nothing we can’t do. Nothing we can’t stop.”

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