Sunday, December 14, 2014

The Dilemma of Nonviolence

I believe in nonviolence. Don't get me wrong. I believe in it as a strategic matter, and more importantly I believe in it because my Christian faith compels me to. Keep that in mind, because the rest of this post is a contemplation of the limitations of nonviolence.

I've written about this before, but it's been made more abundantly clear in recent months. The dilemma nonviolent protestors face is that it takes probably at least 1000 times as many people to produce the same political response and national sense of urgency that a few people acting violently can achieve. How many people actually engaged in violence in the small riots in Ferguson? Dozens? Maybe hundreds if we're being generous. Yet their actions provoked a widespread response and nationwide attention.

Yesterday, tens of thousands of protestors all over the country marched peacefully, demanding change. We barely made it on the news. We outnumber those engaging in violence by 10,000 to 1, but our impact may be less.

The civil rights movement got around this problem largely because of the stupidity of its opponents in places like Birmingham and Selma. Americans who had little sympathy for Black rights still didn't want to see people being beaten on TV. The nonviolent actions were extremely effective because authorities responded with violence, making them newsworthy. The prospect of disorder on the streets was, I believe, the decisive factor causing the political system to pass the Civil Rights Act of 1964. My apologies to your favorite morality tales. Certainly, the 1968 Fair Housing Act cannot plausibly be explained apart from the violence that ensued after Dr. King's murder.

When the civil rights movement came up against more canny opponents in places like Albany, Georgia, or Chicago, it was much less successful.Without the dramatization of injustice as expressed through the ritual of state-sanctioned violence, it turned out Americans didn't really care about injustice. In the present day, with the notable exception of Ferguson's absurd militarized police provocation even while Brown's body lay on the street, nearly every place in the country these protests occur is more akin to Albany and Chicago than Birmingham and Selma. We're dealing with savvy governments that have an institutional memory of how the civil rights movement was defeated. They are determined not to provide the dramatization we seek.

So what's the way forward? I don't claim to know. The easy theoretical answer is that we simply need to make these protests bigger. If we could mobilize as many Americans for a worthwhile cause as routinely gather at stadiums in cities and college towns all over the country to watch football every weekend, we could shut whole cities down. Once normal commerce and transportation is disrupted in a severe way, the political system will respond quite rapidly. 

I frankly think this is a pipe dream. I just don't believe we have that many people. We have to find other ways to make the political system responsive. We have to work from the grassroots level. Partisan political mobilization will accomplish little. Nearly all the authorities involved in recent events, from Governors Nixon and Cuomo in Missouri and New York, to President Obama, are Democrats. So what? All of them are doing the barest possible minimum to support justice. They know that demands for equal treatment for all Americans and honest discourse about how to get there enrages many of their White constituents.

This White rage over the prospect of losing unjust advantages brings us back to the most fundamental limitation of nonviolence: it plays along with the basic White supremacist double-standards of American history and thought. The average White American today will look at you with a straight face and say that the American Revolution was justified but an armed insurrection by African Americans in the 1960s would not have been. Try to make any moral or historical sense of that position without relying on the logic of White racism. Yet this point is no doubt a new thought to many people. It shows how deeply embedded are our assumptions about the racial boundaries of justifiable violence.

I believe in nonviolence. I think it is strategically wise. I think it is morally necessary. But I'm not blind to its limitations.

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