There is an image from the late sixties, so famous now as to be cliché, of a young woman slipping a flower in the barrel of a soldier’s gun.
There’s another photograph, from Paris in 1968, of a young man in a black turtleneck surrounded by running and ducking protesters. The man has a rock in his hand and his arm is pulled back, ready to throw. To these I add one from the protests in Seattle last November against the World Trade Organization (WTO): a police officer standing at attention in full riot gear, his face hidden behind a gas mask and his body buried in black padding. On the sidewalk in front of him, someone has written HUG ME in large letters with an arrow pointing to the officer. I turn these images over in my mind. The peaceful determination of a young woman confronting potential violence with a flower. The unleashed power of the rock in the young man’s hand. The humor, the hope, the impossibility of putting one’s arms around the police officer’s heavily armored body.The underlying question these images present is how to negotiate between violence and nonviolence as means of protest. It’s a conflict that started long before the sixties, long before the struggle for Indian independence began in 1915. In the last twenty years in the United States, this question has felt less urgent. With so little visible resistance and so few enduring victories for true democracy, there’s a temptation on the left to take what we can get, whatever its form. And yet the question flares up again now in response to the possibility of building a real movement out of the actions in Seattle: How do we present ourselves? How do we press our advantage? Nonviolent protest, at its best, is the enactment of the prefiguration Marcuse describes.
It works on the principles of solidarity and pacifism in the face of aggression. Nonviolence defines itself, even in name, in contrast—a protester going limp in the arms of a rigid police officer, a group sitting down and singing in the path of an oncoming tank.
The state response is officers in uniforms, tear gas, tanks, arrests. This show of force becomes, paradoxically, evidence of vulnerability; the need for the state to protect what it has at any cost demonstrates that the current system is constructed and enforced, not natural, not self-perpetuating. Nonviolent protest is a considered way of being; in solidarity, people learn to relate to each other as part of a mutually supportive and mutually dependent community. This contradicts the social conditioning that says other people are a threat to our own success and we must each look out only for ourselves. Nonviolence is also effective theater—the media present images of pacifism in the face of force, innocence as the victim of violence.And at the same time, there are those who refuse to play by the rules, who smash windows, draw graffiti on the walls, and shout back at the cops. Are these people outside the “morality” of progressive movements? These outbreaks aren’t just adolescent rage.
Aimé Césaire described the violent process of colonization: it enforces control by refusing people their own emotions and natural reactions.
Our current global system is a process of colonization. It not only creates organizations like the WTO that replace national sovereignty with corporate interests, it also displaces human ways of relating to each other and substitutes monetary relationships in which human worth is measured in dollars.This system would prefer that people respond to exploitation with complacency and politeness.
But what becomes of people who work full time for less than a living wage, without health care, without day care? What emotion builds up after years of work in dead-end jobs?
What happens after finding out you live near a toxic-waste dump? That your son is arrested for driving while black? Rage is a natural and required response—so repressed by the powers that be that it often becomes a lashing-out, a misdirected form of resistance.A politics that expresses any of this messy emotion is often considered—in nonviolent circles—to be “not following process” and “acting like the enemy.” But to condemn the rage by judging those who express it, without acknowledging the larger context of systematic state violence is to strengthen the oppression. Because rage is a natural and required response, the question is not whether it is good or bad or morally right, but what we do with it. How can we direct it into energy that creates a more just society? Traditional nonviolence is, of course, not a passive response. It is an organized attempt to confront injustice without succumbing to the violence of the state. And yet, traditionally it has often been the precursor to vanguard movements impatient with both the level of violence directed at the movement and the slowness of change.